Here’s a theory: The more money and effort goes into a home, the less of a home it becomes. Think of the grandest house you know - I’ll bet good money that the people who live in it spend most of their time in the basement, or the kitchen or a pool house. This isn’t just another homespun elegy about how money won’t really make you happy. This is about how all of us, rich and not so rich, get sidelined when we engage in the project of mastering our own space.
Architectural history is full of houses which have failed. In fact, it seems to be comprised almost entirely of houses only fleetingly inhabited by the men who built them, houses which proved unliveable. Time and again, good men spent a large part of their lives and fortunes erecting architecture which immortalised them yet seemed unable to make them happy. Vast, overscaled spaces, acres of hard gloss surface cribbed from churches and public buildings, filled with impractical, uncomfortable furniture. The house 'Mandalay' in Hictchcock & Du Maurier's classic movie Rebecca is a perfect example of a grand, beautiful, unlivable house, a suffocating dream. It is such a catharsis to watch the structure burn that Hitchcock chose to start and end the film with this image.
It is not only newly-rich resource barons and captains of industry who fall into the trap of commissioning buildings which are more of a statement than a home. One of the most touching victims of this pitfall was Edith Farnsworth, a genteel and established Chicago doctor who commissioned one the most perfect but un-liveable houses in history. (See Farnsworth house, inset) At least houses like the Farnsworth house are remembered for their beauty, power and influence, even if they failed to make effective homes. Far worse are the houses which try too hard to impress, and are therefore too neurotic to provide comfort and shelter.
There is a fundamental incompatibility between the desire to communicate through a built work and the basic, sound requirements of a home. Of all the desires and abstractions of the human psyche, the strongest is the home. Home is refuge and shelter, a safe space in which to receive friends, associates and loved ones. Partly because of that, however, the sacred shelter is also used as a weapon in the status race, and we use our homes to project ourselves onto the world.
Do we feather our nests as a reflection of our best selves? Or are we building our homes for idealised guests, for imagined interiors photoshoots and ‘Celebrity Come Dine With Me’. Think about it - most aspirational kitchens are built to resemble the studio kitchens of celebrity TV chefs optimised for an imaginary camera and not the love of food. This is no way to dream.
This is a recent development in Germany and the West. Let’s look back 30 years and remember two rooms since left behind: the Partykeller and the Hobbyraum.
What is the point of a partykeller? It suggests a fundamental reluctance to have guests in your living room, and not wanting to have visitors in the best room in the house is an interesting position. It could mean you don’t like to have guests in your sanctum sanctorum, suggesting that you don’t like guests but do like your living room. Conversely, it means that you are afraid of what your guests might think of the artefacts and signs of family life in your living room, suggesting that while you may enjoy company, you do not like your living room.
American houses of the same period invert the paradox with a den, a cosy living room not intended for entertaining, to which the family retreats from the showy and probably rather uncomfortable interior set-piece reception areas.
The Fundamental Group Hobbyraum
However, of all of the lost spaces of postwar domestic architecture, the Hobbyraum is probably the purest. It calls to mind H. D. Thoreau’s famous retreat at Walden or Heidegger’s Hütte, in Heidegger’s words:
"... Ich werde einfach in die Eigenschwingung der Arbeit versetzt und bin ihres verborgenen Gesetzes … nicht mächtig"
The Hobbyraum is a glorious space, a space concieved entirely for the therapy of its master. Unfortunately the days when it was socially acceptable to have a simple hobby have faded like so many seventies family photos. Now we are presumed fulfilled by our work so we have passions, not hobbies, and those passions need validation in a perfect storm of socially-networked blogs. Gone is the private space where one could be with one’s artifacts, and assemble them in accordance with some sacred internally regulated period of grace.
This is how to avoid the glittering trap that society, and possibly your architect, will set for you. No home grown out of a hobby will turn against you like so many glittering marble halls, but it might grow with you, like a snail’s shell, an outward manifestation of a true aspiration, an honest fascination. An admirable, impressive and fundamentally habitable house will be a byproduct of some other, nobler and more personal motivation.