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Book Review: The Pesky Persistence of Psychological Encounters with Home Design

Edwin Heathcote elegantly meditates on the symbols and myths infusing domestic design in "The Meaning of Home."

By Norman Weinstein
November 16, 2012


To design a home can present to even the most unflappable architect a passage into a mad maelstrom due to the emotional (as well as financial) investment clients make in the crystallization of their desired dwelling. Any professional embarking on a house design would do well to read U.K. architect-critic Edwin Heathcote’s The Meaning of Home (Frances Lincoln Ltd., 2012) – as should anyone fascinated by the questions of how and why our homes hold such rich personal meaning for us.

 

In 34 brief essays, Heathcote meditates on a quirky catalogue of elements of domestic design from a deeply psychological slant. His gaze encompasses

                       

“...homes as repositories of a language of symbol and collective memory that ties us to our ancestors, to profound and ancient threads of meaning...basic elements of our homes contain a rich history of meaning and allusion.”

 

So the author builds on Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space by offering reveries, dense webs of psychologically-charged symbolic meanings attached to expected design elements (doors, stairs, bedrooms, bathrooms) and surprising features (moldings, mirrors, and fireplaces). Here’s a sample of Heathcote’s approach:

 

“Take a door – a good, solid, paneled Georgian door. One of the most familiar will do just fine: the shiny black door of 10 Downing Street. The door is a crossing, a junction marking the divide between the public and the private, between the chaos of the world outside and the sacrosanct order within, and as such it represents a profoundly symbolic moment that needs to be marked.”

 

This writing is an invitation to experience architecture as a psychological allegory packed with multi-layered individual and collective myths and symbols. There’s something refreshingly old-fashioned in Heathcote’s frequent references to Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, long ago abandoned in architectural history and theory classes for the likes of Derrida and Delueze. But curricular choices aside, the point is to appreciate Heathcote’s bringing into high relief the notion of architectural connoisseurship at a symbolic level as a shared interpretive labor of love encompassing architects, clients, critics, and the general public. In some sense his book could be read as a sequel to Alain de Botton’s The Architecture of Happiness – but Heathcote knows worlds more as a trained architect than does the belletrist de Botton, is rigorous in his insistence of symbolic interpretation of houses, and doesn’t have to assume the posturing of a condescending bon vivant in order to offer compelling, albeit pesky and untrendy, huzzahs for his architectural obsessions.

 

The book’s sole weakness involves the author’s extraordinary dissing of Modernism in general. Heathcote shows nearly no comprehension or affection for the houses of Frank Lloyd Wright, Mies van der Rohe, or Philip Johnson, making his writing sound stuck occasionally in some Victorian time warp. Frank Gehry’s house is treated like a prankster’s joke, and symptomatic of a lack of the psychological depth he finds in, say, Edwin Lutyens.

 

Well, there is no accounting for taste, and don’t look to Heathcote for sharp psychological interpretations of domestic design after 1945. And he has little to say about the meaning of home designs cross-culturally, particularly beyond a Euro-American bandwidth. But these limitations can be largely forgiven because he builds a totally convincing case for interpreting house architecture through passionate engagement with myth and symbol, through the deep decoding tools of Freudian psychoanalysis and Jungian depth psychology. Although his eloquence can border on the fustian, his writing often is delicately cadenced and charmingly argued. The result is a nuanced and textured reading of meanings encoded in house designs interpreted freshly and from rarely considered slants.

 

Norman Weinstein writes about architecture and design for Architectural Record, and is the author of “Words That Build” – an exclusive 21-part series published by ArchNewsNow.com – that focuses on the overlooked foundations of architecture: oral and written communication. He consults with architects and engineers interested in communicating more profitably; his webinars are available from ExecSense. He can be reached at nweinstein@q.com.

 

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