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Reading review: House Thinking

by Winifred Gallagher

Perhaps this book could just as well have been titled House Feeling rather than House Thinking. No, the book’s subject is not what a house thinks or feels but, more specifically, what we feel about our houses. Gallagher’s room-by-room analysis focuses on the ways that our environment influences our behavior and ultimately the way we feel. She coaches the reader to be less concerned with how one’s house looks and more focused on how it feels. This is sound advice; what’s missing mostly is guidance on how to create spaces that evoke the desired feeling.

Gallagher notes in the first chapter that architect Grant Hildebrand determined with the help of colleagues from the University of Washington in Seattle that “five characteristics -- prospect and refuge, enticement, peril, and complex order -- ... enhance our experience of home.” It is the balance of these characteristics that enrich our spatial experience. As she travels through the rooms of the house, Gallagher revisits these five characteristics to varying degrees. She describes the “currently fashionable two-story entry whose height is often disproportionate to its smallish floor area” as a missed opportunity in which there is only prospect, no refuge, and little enticement. Here she successfully illuminates a spatial cause and effect. She notes, “Instead of welcoming and enticing you, a poor entrance creates uncertainty if not distaste and prepares you for further disappointment.”

She successfully delves again into some of Hildebrand’s five characteristics when discussing the contemporary Great Room. “The enforced togetherness that’s the great room’s greatest behavioral benefit is also its worst drawback,” she explains. “All prospect and no refuge, many great rooms lack the contrasts between big and small, high and low, and exposed and private that make a large space attractive and appealing.” She further notes, “To allow householders to enjoy togetherness while engaging in various pursuits, well-designed great rooms have what environmental psychologists call stimulus shelters, which provide different kinds of privacy.” An area with a lowered ceiling, a fireplace alcove, or a window-seat bay, for example, would provide such “stimulus shelters”. Here she points us in the direction of how to differentiate space to allow for different activities, moods, or feelings.

Elsewhere though, her observations are less illuminating. She says, for example, “Although the bathroom can be a disturbing place that helps some of us feel dissatisfied, for others it’s increasingly an environmental solution to stress – an almost spiritual refuge after a hard day.” So what are we to make of that dichotomy? How do we spatially differentiate between the two? How do we ameliorate the problem for those who are disturbed by the space and enhance the experience for those seeking spiritual refuge? Gallagher doesn’t go there.

At times the room-by-room structure of the book gets in its own way. Behavior that is common in more than one space is occasionally arbitrarily assigned to a specific room. For instance, Gallagher says that the Dining Room, in particular, is a frequent “showcase for our collections”. It could just as easily be argued that the Living Room is that “showcase” or the Great Room. She frames the Living Room as the space where we express our identity to the world and to ourselves. Of course, the other rooms of the house do this too.

Frequently though her insights are welcome in that they succinctly state what is often assumed or left unsaid. She writes, “Bold, shy, or somewhere in between, we all find that too much environmental input is agitating, and too little is boring.” Later she notes, “Fiddling with the relationship between homes and nature seems to be part of being human.” And, “We should feel ‘at home’ not only when we’re inside behind locked doors but also when we’re out and about.”

House Thinking is a solid introduction to the meaning of house, providing some historical reference and behavioral background for the uninitiated. For the more experienced house thinker, it’s a welcome refresher. But for the house maker, it’s only part of the story.

by Katie Hutchison for the House Enthusiast

Click here to buy this book from Amazon.

Posted on Tuesday, March 20, 2007 at 5:58PM by Registered CommenterKatie Hutchison in | Comments Off

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