The Psychology of a House

life as a house 1


I spent a lot of time explaining to my wonderful high school students how a word’s connotation differs from its literal meaning. The most ready example is “What do you think of when you hear the word home? How is a ‘home’ different from a ‘house’?”

Well, they said, home is where you feel comfortable. And safe. And loved.

Some people spend their whole lives looking for home.

Plenty of research is out there to tell you how your home or office space impacts your physical and mental health. Obviously, it should not have mold in the walls. Tripping over vagrants on your way up the stairs tends to be dirty and depressing, as is finding any human waste or remains on the threshhold. (According to a friend who rented a cheap apartment in New Jersey).

Plants green up a space and make it come alive. Blue light should be avoided to save your eyes and neural pathways. Feng shui is a whole pseudoscience explaining how things should be arranged in each quarter using the five elements of Chinese medicine — metal, earth, fire, water, and wood — to maximize the chi of your space.

Even government office workers  who have nearly blended into the dreary walls after years of loyal service post pictures of their kids and lhasa apsos around their desks to make them feel more at home.

But what about the psychology of the built environment?

I first started thinking hard about this (as opposed to daydreaming casually) when I first saw the film Life As A House starring Kevin Kline and Hayden Christensen before he turned to the dark side and became Darth Vader. It became my favorite new movie almost no one has seen.

A couple of moments in this film let you know that the “house” is a metaphor for something bigger. Just consider the process of building a structure. First you have to tear down what’s already there. It’s hard work. It might even be sad, to take down something someone spent years investing their time and money in, especially if it was your time and your money. It is extremely difficult to reduce to ashes something that feels so familiar but isn’t doing its job anymore.

This condemned place is your soul. It’s a haunted house. It is filled with a lifetime of ideas and beliefs that may not suit the person you are today. It is a rigid structure. The walls are composed of past experiences, relationships, and all the things that make up your perception of life. It leaves a lot of floating dust and a pile of rubble when it comes crashing down. Then you realize, once the dust clears, that you can see the sky and feel the breeze in your hair.

Before you do anything else, you lay the new foundation. This step is very important. It must be a good, solid foundation on stable ground. You don’t want to build on an earthquake fault line, sinkhole, or wetland because the foundation will crack. It might not be today. It might not be tomorrow. But it will happen.

Once the foundation has been laid, the new framework can go up. The frame is composed of your main support beams, load bearing walls, and roof trusses. The job of these things is to make sure the building is sturdy so that it will not collapse or blow over in a strong wind. The frame is made up of your strengths, the valuable construction lessons you have learned, and your will to put the wisdom gained to practical use.

The outside of the house can be wood or concrete or shingles or brick. It can be big or small, linear or curvy, ornate or minimalist. It can even be pink. The outside is the face you show the world. It might be a reflection of you, or it might not. The facade of your building is there to insulate you from weather, noise, and whatever else lurks outside.

Now comes the fun part. You have a lot of clean, empty space to work with. It is up to you if the inside of your house is dressed to impress, or if it makes you feel like yourself. You can fill it with appliances and sculptures. Vintage furniture and photographs may grace your building. You can fill it with friends, with anger, with passion, or with solitude. You can begin to haunt your own building all over again.

The thing is, it can be the most stunning estate with a view of the sea and million-dollar paintings lining the walls, but it might never be home. I’m sure Mary Engelbreit meant the very best with her infamous “Bloom where you are planted” quote, what with her chair of bowlies and optimistic skipping flower children.

But sometimes people just tell you to “Bloom where you’re planted” like its one of the Ten Commandments. And then you feel guilty, like a sinner. Because you don’t know how. What they don’t tell you is you have to experience all the grief and loss and sweat and tears before you have room to bloom. Lightning strikes the tower; the house burns to the ground. Or you tear it down yourself, brick by brick. Only then can you build yourself a life.



Why is everything square? — I blame Frank Lloyd Wright

Since the time creatures began walking on two legs instead of four, these fearless leaders have been trying to find order in the world around them. And if they cannot find the natural order, they impose order. In the history of humans building things, it was decided at some point that architecture, as one of the higher artistic and progressive ideals of Man, should rival and dominate nature.

Consider the story of the Tower of Babel from Christian and Jewish tradition, where the peoples of the Earth decide to make a name for themselves by building a city and erecting a structure whose apex would touch the heavens.

They began to build the tower from brick and mortar (I’m guessing it was the idea of the ruling class; slaves did the actual construction). This act of hubris annoyed God so much that he made everyone speak different languages, and the project was abandoned. If you have ever been on a modern-day construction site, you can still feel the shockwaves.

The Industrial Revolution changed the face of the world. Before modern manufacturing, designers created great soaring structures with custom details that travelers venture thousands of miles to visit to this day. A home was a reflection of its occupants’ refined tastes. Unfortunately, the enjoyment of fine architecture was the province of the Elite; the peasants just built it.


With mass manufacturing, the finer things in life were available to more people at a discounted rate. Never mind that these things were more standardized and lower quality. Aesthetic thinkers who worried about stuff began to bite their nails as they gazed into their crystal balls, predicting a bleak future for artistic design.

Movements began to pop up that rejected uniform standardization. Art nouveau spread like a virus, infecting art and architecture with leafy swirls and whimsical curlicues. The Art Deco movement brought lavish design and exotic materials back en vogue. Animal skins and rare wood decorated homes and theaters throughout Western Europe and the U.S.,  contributing to the conservation issues we know today (depletion of old growth forests, lion-killing, and all). The Arts and Crafts movement brought craftsmanship back to pottery, metalwork, textiles, and furniture.

But it was the Bauhaus school of art and design that had the biggest impact on the public and private architectural forms we know today. That minimalist chair you are wiggling in at the company meeting, the intimidating conference table the chair is parked under, and the modified cubist structure that contains you, the chair, and the table … all have roots in the German school’s design concept.

Bauhaus building - Wassily Chairs by Marcel Breuer (1925/26)

                                                         Wassily Chairs by Marcel Breuer

The school was founded by architect Walter Gropius in Weimar in 1919. The Bauhaus was an attempt to reconcile art and functionality. Students took a crash course in design theory, after which they were relegated to one of the craft workshops, which included metalworking, cabinetmaking, weaving, pottery, typography, and wall painting.

In 1923, Gropius repositioned the ideals of the school with a focus on industrial design and mass production. When the school relocated to Dessau in 1925, Gropius designed the new building using steel-frame construction, an asymmetrical pinwheel plan, and other key elements that maximized space and efficiency, resulting in an iconic modernist structure that created a template for contemporary design.

Gropius’s successors Hannes Meyer and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe increased the school’s focus on architecture until the school closed in 1933 due to political tension. Many of the school’s most influential people fled to the U.S. during World War II. Gropius taught at Harvard; Marcel Breur and Joseph Albers taught at Yale. Moholy-Nagy, a former director of the metalworking studio, founded the New Bauhaus in Chicago.

Elsewhere in Europe, French architect Le Corbusier was forming his own contribution to modern architecture. His dedication to purism and functionalism are evident in his 1923 work Toward A New Architecture, which stated ” a house is a machine for living in” .

Le Corbusier had visions of mass-produced prefabricated houses, roof terraces, an open floor plan, and strips of functional horizontal windows lining the unembellished faces of buildings. With an almost fascist feverishness, Le Corbusier dreamed of “purging and cleaning” Stockholm with steel, plate glass, and reinforced concrete. Le Corbusier proposed plans to completely remake Algiers and Buenos Aires. The governments weren’t having it. Still, Le Corbusier’s vision lives on in urban structures and private homes.


Even luxury homes and hotels display qualities of openness, economy, and functionalism. It is nearly impossible, at least in the U.S., to find a piece of luxury real estate that doesn’t abide by the standards of functional modernism.

So what does Frank Lloyd Wright have to do with all this?

Maybe it is because his signature style is labeled “organic”. The residences and public buildings Wright designed early in his career used only local materials and raw wood in his designs, thus the organic.  His single-story “Prairie Style” ranch homes were adopted so completely as the first true American style that one cannot go to a city in the U.S. and escape neighborhoods filled with hundreds of identical mid-century ranch style houses.

After dropping out of engineering school, Wright apprenticed with “The Father of Skyscrapers”, Chicago architect Louis Sullivan. Sullivan held to a motto of “form follows function”, rejecting the decorative ornamentation of European architectural styles. Sound familiar?

There is no doubt that “Fallingwater”, Wright’s 1930s terraced masterpiece built on top of a waterfall, is an American legend.


Image result for fallingwater

I just wish his technique was not meant to mimic the geometric forms found in nature. Or anyone’s technique, if they make this claim. I look outside and see twisted, gnarly branches, jungle dripping with vine, and curving waterways. Where I grew up, nature looked like serrated cliffs with teeth and rough, wild valleys. In the desert, I saw uneven hills of rolling dust, clumps of sagebrush like untamed hair. Everything asymmetrical, with no horizontal straight edges to be found.

Why must those who design our urban areas and contemporary mansions claim to embrace nature, especially with the recent declarations of fusing the in- and outside?

Why was copy after copy of the ranch house made until it was done to death? Now, copy after copy of suburban brick and wood frame sprouts up in new developments almost overnight. Ah, yes. Mass production.  Unless you have a pile of money stacked up or venture far into the wilderness, it is almost impossible to find a home with true character, and forget our landscape of shopping plazas and office buildings! In a way, modernist functional design killed the art in architecture, paving the way for square houses where mechanized people get dressed and drive to square buildings and schools with square cubicles.


I don’t hate cities, or even skyscrapers. Only the rows of brown faceless buildings and dreary suburban tracts of houses all the same. Contemporary designers are finally bringing back some of the uniqueness to the urban landscape, little by little.


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