into Our Homes
Our spiritual values are reflected in how we make and furnish our homes.
Yoga Journal, Sept. 1986
"Home is where the heart is" - or so
the well-worn proverb would have us believe. Yet few of the houses I've
seen in my 25 years as an architect have moved my heart and made me feel
truly "at home." The lack I've felt in the rest, in
spite of often great expenditures of energy and money, has continued
to trouble me. It has sent me exploring other layers of meaning in our surroundings
- layers that affect us often far more than visual or aesthetic ones - and
has led me to consider some interesting opportunities for putting a heart
back into our homes.
Our surroundings, like mirrors, reflect every value in our hearts. As we change, so do they. And they change us in return. Our love and generosity, meanness and self-centeredness, egotism and compassion, are reflected back to us and others as we shape our homes, regardless of how small or how grand our actions.
The values we unavoidably impart to our surroundings affect our lives more powerfully than any other aspect of the places we inhabit. Though few architects would admit it, how we make and use our homes and other buildings is a spiritual act that reverberates throughout our lives.
We do not make a house into a home by filling every corner with furniture, art, pillows, or bric-a-brac. "Another end table here," "a chest for that wall," "a picture to fill that empty space," are the architectural equivalents of junk food taken in an attempt to satisfy a deeper hunger - for meaning, for love, for a sense of self-worth, a sense of our place in the universe. Any home that satisfies that hunger - and also meets our moderate needs for shelter and comfort - is a home with a soul. Such a home has fullness, and a sense of peace and rightness, that fills our hearts whenever we enter it.
AT HOME IN THE UNIVERSE
Part of a building's power to move our hearts derives from its rightness to its place and time and the clarity with which it draws us into the web of natural rhythms and qualities in which it is embedded.
Every region has a different climate, geography, and community of living things. Out of these patterns emerge the unique spirit of each place, and, as well, a particular kind of human being and human community. Our homes connect us to or isolate us from this spirit of place. If they take on (or ignore) the special qualities of snow country, desert, prairie, piedmont, or bayou, they can nurture us with the unique possibilities of growth inherent there.
Mountain chalets, urban row houses, Paolo Soleri's earth-sheltered desert home, cedar homes nestled in the forests of the Northwest - all draw clearly from the needs and possibilities of their place. The heart of a Persian garden home is its fountain, source of the life-giving water so precious in the desert. Those desert homes, like Luis Barragan's walled, rooftop "cloud garden" in Mexico or the moon-viewing platform on a traditional Japanese house, all poignantly touch the pulse and soul of their surroundings in special ways and bring them powerfully into our lives.
As an example of a building's ability to draw us deeply into the forces of nature, consider the following story. A famous Japanese tea master was given a piece of land with an outstanding view of the Inland Sea. When his teahouse was finished and his first guests arrived eagerly awaiting the view, they were shocked to find that he had planted a hedge that totally blocked out the sea. Then, as they bent to drink a dipperful of water before entering, a hidden opening in the hedge exposed a view of the waves breaking on the rocks below, just as the water in the dipper touched their lips.
Inside, when the master had finished the tea ceremony, he quietly slid aside the shoji screens and brought the sensation of moisture that still lingered on their lips (and in their hearts) together with a vista of the sea below.
We don't need a perfect site or the discipline of a Zen master to create a home that is "at home" in its universe. What we do need is an attentiveness to our surroundings and a willingness to take full advantage of the opportunities that present themselves. A new window can let in the moonrise or the daily rhythms of the sun. A skylight over our beds can bring us close again to the cartwheels of the stars. New south windows can bring in needed warmth and sunlight; trees and vines can give shade and coolness. Fixed windows made openable can allow in the breeze and its messages from afar. Materials, colors, and furnishings can draw on sources native to our region. A tiny garden outside our window can keep us close to the dripping moss, ancient rocks, or sunlit leaves of our more distant surroundings. And photographs or sketches can remind us of those rare and wonderful places where a special spirit shines through with power and clarity.
THE SOUNDS OF SILENCE
Lao Tzu long ago reminded us that emptiness is the essence of a teacup, and that the shaping and forming of empty space is the essence of making both a room and a window. So also silence can be the essence of the "music" of our homes, as I learned one night at the Taj Mahal.
It was a full moon at the Taj, and almost midnight. The restless tourists had left. With no one new to impress with the echoes of his shouting and clapping, the guard in the dome finally stepped outside. As the reverberations of his leaving quieted, the silence in the dome swelled to fill the majestic space. Even the sound of our own breathing echoed. As it settled into silence, it focused us ever deeper into our own stillness. All the richness and beauty of the Taj was nothing compared to the power of this silence, which penetrated to the core of our being, as eloquent as the finest music.
We need to stop occasionally and truly listen to our homes. What do we hear? A continuing drone of half ignored music from a radio or stereo to mask other, unwanted sounds? The mechanical symphony of exhaust fans, clothes dryers, refrigerator motors, air conditioners, and furnaces? The neighbors' arguments, or the sounds of their TV? The noise of a busy street? The happy laughter of children playing? The songs of birds - or the silence of their absence?
Quieting unwanted "music" and making space for the welcome natural sounds of life can be one of the most important contributions one can make to the peaceful feeling of a home. Most exhaust fans are cheaply made, short-lived, and noisy. A check on noise ratings of alternative models and their costs could suggest the value of a change. Would reinsulation of your home allow the furnace or air conditioner to run less often? Do any of the bearings on your furnace motor need maintenance or replacement? Can you get by without a furnace - with a wood stove, superinsulation, or passive solar alternatives? Can washers and dryers be relocated to the garage, or their noise baffled or absorbed? How about replacing your toilet valve or faucet with a quieter one, or installing silencer pads on your doors?
Storm windows or double-glazing cut down outside noise and save energy as well. If you're doing extensive remodeling, adding furring and sound insulation and putting new sheetrock on resilient channels can substantially reduce the noise transmitted from neighbors. Or maybe it would be nice to give your next-door neighbor a Walkman (with earphones!) for Christmas, or the upstairs neighbor a rug or a carpet pad. Do you need a refrigerator? We've lived happily without one for eight years. Think about it if your climate and community permit.
What about the good sounds of life? What can you plant to give year-round food for birds? Does your community have an insect spraying program that has inadvertently eliminated bird life, but could be replaced with biological controls? And maybe it would be worthwhile to learn to relax and enjoy silence. Radio and TV demand our constant attention, as if they are afraid that we will turn to another channel - but we don't have to make their fears and patterns our own.
The tortured life of a spruce root that once grew squeezed among rocks on a beach opened my eyes to the many ways our homes deny the seamless web of love, awe, and respect that is part of the sacredness of our world. I found the contorted, beautiful root on the beach after a storm, dragged it home, and eventually fashioned it into the front door handle of our house. Its gnarled shape, silhouetted against the soft light from inside, had a particularly strong impact on me as I came in from the dark each night.
One day I realized that I felt the root to be special at least in part because it still held the history of its past life, and I enjoyed sharing that. Most building materials, once processed and in place, have lost most of their history - except perhaps the surface grain on a board or the crystal patterns in a rock. The contortions of an old storm-swept tree, like the wrinkles and stoops of an old person, tell of the adventures and struggles of its life. There is a beauty in that history and those shapes, and a value in honoring the lives that have given themselves over to the making of our homes. Incorporating the twists and bumps of unprocessed materials takes more time and effort, but need not be done for every piece of rock or wood - just often enough to keep us aware of the lives that were part of all pieces.
Honoring others goes beyond how we use materials. One of our most basic human needs is to feel of value to others - to have a sense of self-worth, human dignity, and meaning in our lives. Yet how do we honor and respect the dignity and self-worth of others when we build or furnish our homes? Do we give the carpenters, masons, or furniture makers latitude to do their best rather than their worst - encouragement to put their hearts instead of just their time into their work? Sure, it costs more. But everything does not have to be handdone or overwrought - again, just enough to allow others to take pride in their work and to make a special contribution to our homes. Costs are important - but we often have the option of choosing a smaller but better-quality home, less but better-quality furniture. And if we're really concerned about costs, we should take action about the multi-thousand dollar overpricing of our homes (see "Hidden Costs of Housing," Rain, Mar./Apr. 1984) before we opt for the minor savings that dehumanize the people who craft our homes.
How we arrange and use the insides of our homes also conveys a sense of what we honor most. The English build a parlor to honor guests. The Japanese place an honored dinner guest in front of their tokonoma, where they will be associated with the specialness of the flowers and art. In ages past the fire was the heart (hearth) of the home. Now Americans arrange their living rooms around a TV like worshippers around an altar.
By using the traditional design wisdom of a region, we honor the work, insights, and hard lessons of the past. Planting trees, we honor the will to shape a future. Providing opportunity for birds to nest, wildflowers to grow, and squirrels to play, we honor the other lives that share our world. Whatever we honor - be it a TV, an automobile, a guest, an art collection, children, or a good meal - takes a central place in the way we design and use our homes. Yet how often do we consider this when we arrange a room or buy a piece of furniture?
The aesthetics and life-style of a materialistic culture deeply permeate the way conventional homes are built and furnished. Simpler patterns of living and alternative approaches to home furnishing can free considerable amounts of time, energy, and money for other uses. I've had my own living patterns dramatically simplified several times. Once, frustrated with belongings that constantly needed fixing, moving, and tending, I sold virtually all my things and traveled for a year in a van with nothing but a few changes of clothes. Another time, our newly built house burned down the morning after we had finished moving our favorite things into it. These experiences opened my eyes to both the good and the bad influences of our belongings and broadened my sense of how we can positively "furnish" our homes.
Two-dollar clamp lamps with 50 watt spotlights, swing arm "luxo" lamps, 99-cent porcelain lampholders with spotlights or globe bulbs, and inexpensive paper lanterns can provide considerably cheaper and more effective lighting than conventional table lamps or lighting fixtures. New fluorescent fixtures with warm-white or full-spectrum "mini-lamps" are useful for some applications. Rooms don't need to be uniformly bright from corner to corner to give effective lighting where needed. In fact, softly lit and shadowy spaces can be far more comfortable and restful, and more creatively stimulating.
Closeting away belongings rather than storing them in expensive bureaus, chests, and cabinets can put our possessions out of sight and out of mind until needed, and can free our rooms to fully be supportive surroundings for our current activities. If you can't paint, use light for color - a spotlight shining on an orange bedspread can add a warm glow to a stark white room.
One of the most extraordinary kitchens I've ever been in contained nothing but a couple of butcher block work surfaces, an open shelf underneath for pots, an old stove, and a cupboard for dishes and food staples. No fancy cabinets, appliances, or storage -not even a refrigerator. I looked everywhere without success for something to eat, then was amazed at the meals that were cooked there. It made me realize how much the usual kitchen is merely an expensive storeroom for meals processed elsewhere, and how little is actually needed for a real kitchen beyond a good cook and space to work. When I asked my friend how she survived without a refrigerator, she said, "Why would you want to eat old food?" A small kitchen garden gave fresh vegetables and herbs, and leftovers were eaten rather than being left in the back of a refrigerator.
Where we fill our rooms with expensive furniture, many cultures have developed the simpler custom of living on the floor. Persia, India, and japan are outstanding examples of how to live simply, inexpensively, yet elegantly with a minimum of furniture. (Floor living, however, may not be suitable for those with chronically stiff joints!)
A home may be spare, like a Shaker kitchen, or filled with a clutter of wel-loved and well-used memorabilia. Rather than an expenditure of money to obtain an expensive aesthetic, both approaches involve the simple use of existing materials to give special meaning to our surroundings. All kinds of folding foam couch/beds, hanging canvas chairs, mattresses and pillows for both sitting and sleeping, and tables that can be converted in height or put away when not needed have opened up new opportunities for living comfortably (and simply) in large or small spaces. One good test of a home is how well it can absorb the vibrant life of children. A house that can't take a little dirt, a little clutter, a little banging around may impose too many restrictions on all who live there.
Instead of automatically filling our rooms with furniture, we may choose to face the question of what really makes a room alive, heartwarming, and comfortable. Part of the answer must be found in our own hearts - what things have special meanings and associations for us. And part of the answer depends on how we organize a room. Setting aside some space - perhaps a table or a wall - for specially loved things or an ever-changing display of flowers in season, or artwork, or "found objects" like rocks or shells, can allow us to establish the spirit of a room more easily and quickly than with "furnishings."
Good design is beautifully honed to essentials, resulting in the growth-nurturing emptiness of Lao Tzu's teacup, not the bleakness of a jail cell. Objects, colors, patterns, volumes, materials, and meanings all need to be brought together in ways that create a harmonious and unified whole, while satisfying our particular needs simply and fully. When done well, nonessentials fade into the background and our attention naturally focuses on other people, or nature, and on the rhythms and events of the day. Surroundings that are functional but unobtrusive provide us with the tranquillity necessary to absorb, digest, and embrace our world, freeing our minds of constant stimulation and giving us the opportunity for deeper images and dreams.
In the end, all that really matters is that we approach wherever we live with full attention and an open heart, and let our hearts guide us in deciding how we will inhabit that place. A bouquet of flowers, a song, the smell of fresh baked bread, an affectionate embrace, can transform any place into a happy, heartwarming abode.
38755 Reed Rd.
Nehalem OR 97131 USA
© September 1986