The Living Room: A Place for Formality

The Suitor

“Unless the spaces in a building are arranged in a sequence which corresponds to their degrees of privateness, the visits made by strangers, friends, guests, clients, family, will always be a little awkward…
[speaking of the custom in Peru…] Formal friends, such as the priest, the daughter’s boyfriend, and friends from work may be invited in, but tend to be limited to a well-furnished and maintained part of the house, the sala. This room is sheltered from the clutter and more obvious informality of the rest of the house.” Christopher Alexander, A Pattern Language

If formality has a place in our lives, it should likewise have a room in our home.

Yet we are told that formality distances us from actual life, that informality is always more authentic. Since people do not naturally interact with formality, why should we impose an unnatural ‘form’ on ourselves? And why should we have a place in our home designated for formal gatherings?

It is clear that some intimate interactions should be informal–in other words spontaneous, not according to pre-determined forms.

But I think we have misjudged formality. This is understandable. Forms of interacting can indeed become empty, and can exist apart from the right inner dispositions. Pharisee-ism is always a danger. We have taken a turn toward free-expression, and the importance of ‘being ourselves.’

Yet we can need help in ‘being ourselves,’ especially in situations of irreducible awkwardness or tension.

Formalities of interaction have an irreplaceable role, especially on certain occasions. They set a context that encourages good dispositions, and they set boundaries within which we can exercise creativity. When a suitor comes to introduce himself for the first time to the parents of a young lady, the meeting is usually, and rightfully, fraught with a certain pressure. Here formality, rooted in tradition, is freeing; it aids all involved to navigate a complicated reality.

Hospitality, a practice trans-culturally recognized as having profound human significance, often rightly demands a certain formality. As Alexander notes, to shelter a visitor from the informality of other places in our home is a way of showing respect. This is not a matter simply of hiding our clutter; our guests are worthy of an honor we show them precisely through how we maintain a special room, and receive them into it.

Hilaire Belloc, relating how in his region all men address one another as Mr. —-, notes: “for twin brothers rocked in one cradle give each other ceremonious observance here.”

Ceremonious observance. The very words ring with a beauty of something lost; but it is something that we can try to recover, at least in our own homes.

This is the seventh of a series taking a thoughtful tour through a house, room by room, based on the writings of Christopher Alexander.

Christopher Alexander (1936–) was born in Austria and is currently an emeritus professor of architecture at the University of California, where he taught for almost forty years. He has been widely influential through his theories of architecture, and is especially known for his 1977 book A Pattern Language.

Image: When a Suitor Meets Her Family, Carl Herpfer (1836-1897)

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A Place to Watch the World Go By

Sharecroppers on porch, Missouri 1938

“For instance, in order for the pattern of events ‘watching the world go by’ to happen, it is essential that the porch should be a little raised above the level of the street; it is essential that the porch be deep enough, to let a group of people sit there comfortably; and it is essential, of course, that the front of the porch be open, pierced with openings, and that the roof is therefore supported on columns.”
Christopher Alexander, The Timeless Way of Building

They say that ‘time is money.’ This line encapsulates a view that has become common; it is in the air we breath. It seems to make perfect sense.

And it is pernicious.

Time is the context given to us in which to live life. It is, in a sense, all that we have. To see money as the fundamental lens through which to evaluate time is a serious mistake.

It would have us think, for instance, that ‘watching the world go by’ is a bad use of time, or in any case a lesser use to be tolerated. Alexander, on the other hand, suggests that such watching is a basic pattern of human life, and that we should have a space designed to accommodate it.

This ‘watching’ is normally done together with others, and as such is a way of being-together. To be a spectator of the hurly burly, or of the simple activities of living, can foster an understanding that we humans cannot be reduced to our work, or to our particular roles in this temporal drama. Somehow by this watching we stand outside, and are not engulfed by the day to day.

In his essay ‘The Hind Tit’ in I’ll Take My Stand: The South and the Agrarian Tradition, Andrew Lytle cites the account of a man named Olmstead who visited the rural south in the 1850’s. The northerner was amazed how some farm hands from whom he asked directions seemed perfectly willing to stand and shoot the breeze for some time. The visitor concluded that these country folk were lazy, and that they didn’t know how to value time.

Lytle begs to differ:
“This will be the most difficult task industrialism has undertaken, and on this rock its effort to urbanize the farm will probably split—to convince the farmer that it is time, not space, which has value. It will be difficult because the farmer knows that he cannot control time, whereas he can wrestle with space, or at least with that particular part which is his orbit. He can stop, set [i.e., sit], chaw, and talk, for, unable to subdue nature, it is no great matter whether he gets a little more or a little less that year from her limitless store. He has the choice of pleasant conversation, the excitement of hunting, fishing, hearing the hounds run, or of the possibility of accumulating greater spoils. Olmstead’s young ploughmen did well to stop and talk with the ‘quair strangy’; ask ‘whare he’s bin’; ‘whare he’s aimin’ to go’; and ‘air he bin to see his kin in Texas?’ for by so doing they exchanged an uncertain physical satisfaction for a certain mental pleasure.”

These ploughmen, in other words, implicitly recognize that while their lives are primarily taken up with labor, there is always time for simple human pleasures. While such pleasures have no monetary value, they are anything but a waste.

We might bemoan the fact that it took industrialism only a couple of generations to suppress this view of the old farmers. Now time is money, and by the way we act it seems there is never enough of either.

I’m inclined to think that the sharecroppers in the photo above knew the true value of time, and of money; and that they didn’t conflate the two. Ironically, they probably also lived as though they had enough, of both. In any case, on their porch they had a place to watch the world go by, and we can let our imagination run wild about the rich times they had there.

~ ~ ~

A final practical point from Alexander:
“Balconies and porches are often made small to save money; but when they are too small, they might just as well not be there. Whenever you build a balcony, a porch, a gallery, or a terrace always make it at least six feet deep.” A Pattern Language, pp. 782-84

This is the sixth of a series taking a thoughtful tour through a house, room by room, based on the writings of Christopher Alexander.

Christopher Alexander (1936–) was born in Austria and is currently an emeritus professor of architecture at the University of California, where he taught for almost forty years. He has been widely influential through his theories of architecture, and is especially known for his 1977 book A Pattern Language.

Image: photo by by Russell Lee, the great photo-journalist of the Farm Security Administration in the 1930’s. Featured here are sharecroppers in Missouri during the Depression.

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The Marriage Bed: Can It Really Work?

When the Kye Come Hame

“The bed is the center of the couple’s life together: the place where they lie together, talk, make love, sleep, sleep late, take care of each other during illness …
The importance of the bed as an anchor point in a couple’s life is brought home in this passage from Homer… [Alexander relates the powerful story of the bed of Odysseus and Penelope, of which I have written here.]
…Quite honestly, we are not certain whether or not this pattern makes sense. On the one hand, it does: it is a beautiful idea; idyllic almost. Yet, face to face with cold hard fact and with the dissolution and struggles in the marriages around us, it seems hard to hope that it could ever be quite real. We have decided to leave it in, just because it is a beautiful idea. But we ask you to treat it like Oblomov’s dream, a picture more than reality, an impossible dream of perfect and idyllic circumstances, which may help perhaps, to make a little more sense of our muddled everyday reality—but only if we take it with a pinch of salt.”
Christopher Alexander, A Pattern Language

This is the first time in my almost three years of posting Wednesday quotes that I have chosen a quote with which I disagree. I find these words of Alexander so provocative that I felt I had to share them in this series exploring his insights into the architecture of the home.

But while I reject Alexander’s conclusion, I find his suggestions regarding the marriage bed and bedroom to be very fitting (see below), in accord with his insight that the physical disposition of the spaces of our home should reflect and foster good patterns of living.

I do not know Alexander’s personal story in marriage, and I will not try to give an account of why he came to the conclusion he did (A Pattern Language is actually co-authored with several of his colleagues). I also will not share my personal story; such might be appropriate among the closest of friends.

But I will say this: any person married for many years, no matter how much he might disagree with Alexander’s conclusion, must have some appreciation for what he is saying here. Alexander sees the marriage bed as the primal artifact in which married life is instantiated, and thus in writing of the marriage bed he takes the opportunity to express his doubt about the practicality of permanent fidelity in the married relationship.

I do grant: in the marriage bed our hopes and dreams often collide with the reality of our human brokenness. And the injuries can be paralyzing, even fatal, for a marriage.

It can seem impossible at times to sort through the wreckage, the misunderstanding, the hurt. Spouses wonder: how have we come to this place, how can we fit these pieces back together?

But even, and perhaps especially, in this place, we might find some strong ledge to which to cling, some strong foundation, from which to build again. We come to believe that it can be done, that it must be done, that it has been done. And for and with my beloved, it will be done.

Forced to face our inadequacies, perhaps unlike in any other circumstance of life, we are drawn to turn to super-human assistance. Fortified by such assistance we find new strength.

And then slowly, perhaps in imperceptible increments, the bed itself can take on a new role, and a new character. It is not a sign of contradiction. It has grown into a monument–through the very travails it has known–of a reality that we have forged together. One that is permanent, and beyond even our dreams.

~ ~ ~

Some specific suggestions from Alexander on the spouses’ bedroom and the marriage bed:
“…there is part of the house, which we call the couple’s realm; that is, a world in which the intimacy of the man and woman, their joys and sorrows, can be shared and lived through. It is a place not only insulated from the children’s world, but also complete in itself, a domain…
The couple’s realm needs to be the kind of place that one might sit in and talk privately, perhaps with its own entrance to the outdoors, a balcony. It is a sitting room, a place for privacy, a place for projects; the bed is part of it…” pp. 649-50

“At the right moment in a couple’s life, it is important that they make for themselves a special bed—an intimate anchor point for their lives; slightly enclosed, with a low ceiling or canopy, with the room shaped to it; perhaps a tiny room built around the bed with many windows. Give the bed some shape of its own, perhaps as a four-poster with head board that can be hand carved or painted over the years.” p. 867

This is the fifth of a series taking a thoughtful tour through a house, room by room, based on the writings of Christopher Alexander.

Christopher Alexander (1936–) was born in Austria and is currently an emeritus professor of architecture at the University of California, where he taught for almost forty years. He has been widely influential through his theories of architecture, and is especially known for his 1977 book A Pattern Language.

Image: When the Kye Come Hame, (When the Cows Come Home), etching by C.O. Murray

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A Space for Children in the Home

Ein Kinderfest

“If children do not have space to release a tremendous amount of energy when they need to, they will drive themselves and everybody else in the family up the wall.” Christopher Alexander, A Pattern Language

We need spaces that foster the various aspects of human life. This applies especially to children.

Some spaces–such as the family room or the kitchen–allow us to enact our unity as a family: our lives are so intertwined that we cannot be whole without one another. Here our children experience that they belong somewhere, because here they live one life with us.

But at the same time we each have our own lives. And the spaces of our home should reflect this too.

Our children need a space that empowers them, indeed invites them to use some of their prodigious energy and creativity in relative isolation from adults. Precisely because such activities do not have a place in the other spaces of our home, it is incumbent upon us to prepare a special space for them.

If at some times—and there are a few—children should be seen and not heard, then likewise there are times, and thus places, where their boisterous activity should proceed unencumbered, with no detriment to the activities or peace of others. This is a delicate balance. Given that we rightly expect at times our children to conform themselves to the standards and sensibilities of adult activities, we actually bolster this effort by also allowing the wholesome release of energy in a space fitted for their physical and psychic inclinations.

A world where fewer and fewer spaces are truly safe and friendly for children calls us to be more intentional in preparing the spaces of our home, guided by an understanding of children’s true needs.

Alexander’s further thoughts:

“Start by placing the small area which will belong entirely to children—the cluster of their beds. Place it in a separate position toward the back of the house, and in such a way that a continuous playspace can be made from this cluster to the street, almost like a wide swath inside the house, muddy, toys strewn along the way, touching those family room which children need—the bathroom and the kitchen most of all—passing the common area along one side (but leaving quiet sitting areas and the couple’s realm entirely separate and inviolate), reaching out to the street, either through its own door or through the entrance room, and ending in an outdoor room, connected to the street, and sheltered, and large enough so that the children can play in it when it rains, yet still be indoors.” Pp. 654-55

Cuddeback comment: This prescription from Alexander is perhaps impractical in a number of its details given the already existing structure of our house. What strikes me is the principle, which we might still apply in arranging or disposing already existing spaces. Children should be made comfortable in pursuing active play in congenial indoor space, always with an eye to being connected to the great outdoors. Among other things, such spaces can be conducive to active engagement with people and the world, as opposed to passive entertainment.

This is the fourth of a series taking a thoughtful tour through a house, room by room, based on the writings of Christopher Alexander.

Christopher Alexander (born 1936) was born in Austria and is currently an emeritus professor of architecture at the University of California, where he taught for almost forty years. He has been widely influential through his theories of architecture, and is especially known for his 1977 book A Pattern Language.

Image: Ludwig Knaus (1829-1910), Ein Kinderfest

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The Kitchen: The Last Stand of the Home

The Midday Meal

“…the heart of this common area is a kitchen or an eating area since shared food has more capacity than almost anything to be the basis for common feelings…
…all the members of the family [need] to accept, fully, the fact that taking care of themselves by cooking is as much a part of life as taking care of themselves by eating.” Christopher Alexander, A Pattern Language

Food is not the center of life, as though providing the reason for living. But it is the center of life, as providing the natural context of daily living together as human persons.

To get the realm of food and eating right should be a central concern in our home. This will actually foster getting most everything else right too.

The bodily nourishment of man has three main stages: production, preparation, and consumption, and each of these were pillars of the traditional household. The first was often the main outside work and the second the main inside work of the household.

Learning to work together is essential to close human relationship and community life; and the outside work of the household has effectively vanished. Food preparation in the home, then, should be a privileged area of our focus as a place to learn to work, and thus be, together.

Alexander sees cooking—herein we include all in-house food prep—as parallel to eating as a way of taking care of oneself. Surely we can extrapolate: to cook is to take care of others; it is to serve them, to give them life, and to love them. It can also be a way to be with them. We can habituate ourselves and our children to experience these aspects of cooking.

We are in this together—the work of preparation as well as the eating—each of which has its own pleasures, and power to unite us.

Perhaps the wife cooks most often. But then the husband too should see this business as still his own; he should neither feel nor be remote from it. From an early age children can have an integral part in this whole project, a part that grows organically through the years. They need to become competent, and with some effort and patience on our part they will, and feel comfortable in the kitchen knowing they make a real contribution.

This is not about efficiency. It is about communal life, a sense of responsibility and a sense of belonging. How many times have I made the mistake of putting efficiency first? So I have brushed my children aside, or worse, made them feel incompetent, when I might have invested myself in forming them to succeed, and to live their part of the whole. Then we wonder why this generation has little sense of responsibility.

The design and disposition of our kitchen space will reflect these convictions. Alexander emphasizes that the space should be arranged with an eye to encouraging work by a number of people, as well as the comfortable presence of non-workers, perhaps the elderly or guests. Likewise it will accommodate that informal eating together that so naturally follows food preparation, especially at certain times of the day.

Our homes are more and more devoid of life, becoming places where individuals do their own thing, resting up and refueling to ‘go back out’ to life. The kitchen may be the room of our last stand, or even a restoration, where two ways stand open before us. It can be the living organ of the household, throbbing at its center, where attending to human necessity daily occasions real human living. The choice is ours.

More from Alexander:
“Make the kitchen bigger than usual, big enough to include the ‘family room’ space, and place it near the center of the commons, not so far back in the house as an ordinary kitchen. Make it large enough to hold a good big table and chairs, some soft and some hard, with counters and stove and sink around the edge of the room; and make it a bright and comfortable room.” Pp. 662-63
“To strike the balance between the kitchen which is too small, and the kitchen which is too spread out, place the stove, sink, and good storage and counter in such a way that:
1. No two of the four are more than 10 ft apart.
2. The total length of counter—excluding sink, stove, and refrigerator—is at least 12 feet.
3. No one section of the counter is less than 4 feet long.
There is no need for the counter to be continuous or entirely ‘built-in’ as it is in many modern kitchens—it can even consist of free-standing tables or counter tops. Only the three functional relationships described above are critical.” P. 855.

This is the third of several posts taking a thoughtful tour through a house, room by room, based on the writings of Christopher Alexander.

Christopher Alexander (born 1936) was born in Austria and is currently an emeritus professor of architecture at the University of California, where he taught for almost forty years. He has been widely influential through his theories of architecture, and is especially known for his 1977 book A Pattern Language.

Image: Leon Lhermitte (1844-1925), The Midday Meal

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A Room for the Family

Ekvall Knut, The Reading Lesson

“No social group…can survive without constant informal contact among its members. Any building which houses a social group supports this kind of contact by providing common areas. The form and location of the common areas is critical…
Relatives and intimate friends may be made to feel at home in the family room, where the family is likely to spend much of its time.” Christopher Alexander et alia, A Pattern Language

Constant informal contact: this is, or should be, one of the central aspects of living together under the same roof. It provides a necessary counterpart to more formal or intentional gatherings, since informal and impromptu contact is a necessary ingredient in the growth of relationships and community life.

Alexander is suggesting that we should be intentional about non-intentional time; that we should seek to facilitate such ‘accidental’ contact. The ‘family room,’ then, is here conceived as a place for being together where there is nothing specific that has to be done. But precisely for this reason, a family room is best when positioned and arranged so as to be easily accessible and comfortably inhabited. It will be close to, yet normally distinct from, much-used spaces such as the kitchen. Alexander also suggests that it will be set back from the entrance to the home and more formal receiving areas, thereby lending itself to more intimate contact not open to all passersby.  He also has very practical suggestions for making the room more inviting; one simple principle is that there should be windows on at least two walls. See the quotation below for his description of a ‘sitting place.’

To utilize a family room well requires more than its strategic placement and arrangement. It will require that people have habits of being-together, in this case casually. One of the greatest enemies of such habits is our addiction to entertainment—especially canned entertainment from television, computer, etc. It might even seem strange to the younger generations that there would be a room that is not wired for entertainment. What might people actually do there?

What people used to do is talk. Talk about today, and about tomorrow; and perhaps especially about yesterday. People told stories, about simple life experiences and the happenings that have made us who we are. They also sang, or read out loud. Perhaps some whittled or colored or wrote a letter. And all these are ways of being together, as a ‘family’—in either the strict or the broad sense.

The family room incarnates a pattern of living as humans. It is a room defined by actions that are neither work nor play, though these too can happen in it. Here we live the conviction that it is good to be together, united in simple, rich activities as old as mankind itself. If we, and especially our children, lose the understanding and the practice of such activities–pushed out by pervasive and often banal substitutes–human life itself is threatened at its very core.

That we cultivate habits of spending time together in these ways is of the first importance. But there are other things we can do to facilitate such presence, and shared life. One of these is to be intentional about having a space that is conducive to it. While many of us are not able to change the physical position of our family room or the disposition of its windows, we can all be more thoughtful about its arrangement. Most of all we can be more intentional about how we spend our time in it.

That we have a space we call a ‘family room,’ arranged for family life, is itself a reminder and a catalyst to live an aspect of human life we must not leave behind.

A quotation on a ‘Sitting Space’…
“A group of chairs, a sofa and a chair, a pile of cushions—these are the most obvious things in everybody’s life—and yet to make them work, so people become animated and alive in them, is a very subtle business. Most seating arrangements are sterile, people avoid them, nothing ever happens there. Others seem somehow to gather life around them, to concentrate and liberate energy. What is the difference between the two? …
Place each sitting place in a position which is protected, not cut by paths or movement, roughly circular, made so that the room itself helps suggest the circle—not too strongly—with paths and activities around it, so that people naturally gravitate toward the chairs when they get into the mood to sit. Place the chairs and cushions loosely in the circle, and have a few too many.” A Pattern Language (Oxford University Press, 1977), pp. 858-59

Introduced by last week’s post, this is the first of several posts taking a thoughtful tour through a house, room by room, based on the writings of Christopher Alexander.

Christopher Alexander (born 1936) was born in Austria and is currently an emeritus professor of architecture at the University of California, where he taught for almost forty years. He has been widely influential through his theories of architecture, and is especially known for his 1977 book A Pattern Language.

Image: by Knut Ekvall (1843-1912)

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Restoring Home Life, Room by Room

The Flower Window

“Every place is given its character by certain patterns of events that keep on happening there… The more living patterns there are in a place—a room, a building, or a town—the more it comes to life as an entirety, the more it glows, the more it has that self-maintaining fire…
But there is a fundamental inner connection between each pattern of events, and the pattern of space in which it happens. For the pattern in the space is, precisely, the precondition, the requirement, which allows the pattern of events to happen. In this sense, it plays the fundamental role in making sure that just this pattern of events keeps on repeating over and over again, throughout the space…”
Christopher Alexander, The Timeless Way of Building

A home is not only where the next generation is initiated into human life. It is also where each of us must find a space congenial to every-day life.

A house is where humans live; a home is where they truly come alive.

Christoper Alexander, an architect, is keenly aware of the deep connection between patterns in space and patterns of living. The connection is reciprocal. How we live in a certain space, the patterns of our actions, will affect the physical structure of that space. Likewise, the physical structure of a space–and this includes everything from size of the room, furniture arrangement, window placement, color schemes, and much more–will affect the quality of actions in that space.

Alexander paints a picture of a ‘living pattern’: “And what of a party around a kitchen table, people drinking together, cooking together, drinking wine, eating grapes, together preparing a stew of beef and wine and garlic and tomatoes which takes four hours to cook–and while it cooks, we drink, and then, at last we eat it.”

Such a pattern of behavior, we might say, gives life to a room. And likewise, a room can be well-designed and arranged so as to encourage such a pattern of behavior. This does not require great financial resources; it does require attention to what patterns of living we want to foster, and how to foster them.

In view of Alexander’s insight into the connection between ‘architecture’ and action, we can look at the various rooms in our house, and consider two things: first, what actions do we most want to foster in this room, and second, does the very structure of this room in fact foster such action. We thereby can take concrete steps in shaping our house into a home.

Over the next several weeks I will use the writings of Christopher Alexander to take a thoughtful tour through a house, room by room.

Christopher Alexander (born 1936) was born in Austria and is currently an emeritus professor of architecture at the University of California, where he taught for almost forty years. He has been widely influential through his theories of architecture, and is especially known for his 1977 book A Pattern Language.

Image: Carl Larsson (1853-1919)

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