catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 7, Num 15 :: 2008.07.25 — 2008.09.12


Let us build a house

Right up there with water and trees, a building is a rich metaphor—the body as a temple, for example.  Dutch theologian Abraham Kuyper explained his vision of re-forming culture using the symbol of renovating, rather than demolishing, a building.  A couple of years ago, I had an extended conversation with a friend about her efforts to explore and define a forgotten room of a particular Christian denomination’s commitment to a comprehensive peace ethic.  Buildings, with their many purposes and rooms and various inhabitants just seem to suit the human need for rich, versatile images.

Likewise, many metaphors can be applied to a building.  A home might be characterized as a womb when it is soothing and safe, a prison when it represents compulsory bondage, a beehive when it is filled with busy people.  Songwriter Johnatha Brooke describes a church as a “gilded cage,” but it might also be characterized as a train station if members don’t tend to stick around or a mosaic if members are diverse in color or beliefs.  What images would you apply to your home and your church?  Would others in your household or congregation describe these buildings in the same way?  Answering these questions is an interesting exercise, revealing our fears and longings about the spaces most important to us.

This summer, I’ve begun to understand the richness of a building as an image, as well as images for buildings, in new ways as my husband Rob and I attempt to renovate the second floor of an 1865 midwestern storefront in Three Rivers, Michigan.  We’ve spent many hot, dusty hours tearing out plaster and lathe, de-nailing wood flooring and original rough-hewn 2×4s for re-use and cutting out nearly a ton of cast iron for the scrap yard.  We’ve also spent just as many, if not more, hours researching, reading and simply sitting in the space daydreaming.

In so many ways, our building is a teacher.  We’ve (mostly) learned to co-exist peacefully with the wasps that busily make their way from one end of the space to the other on some important but incomprehensible errand.  We’ve learned to improvise when beams aren’t straight or ceilings fall down and to compromise creatively in order to be able to afford things that really matter, like a highly efficient furnace.  We’ve learned how much we don’t know when it comes to plumbing and framing.

Our building is also a yoke, in the sense that it has connected us to people and ideas we hope to carry with us for many years of life’s journey, but also in the sense that it has at times represented a burden.  It’s an anchor, tethering us to a place both in calm seas and in storms.  It’s a canvas on which we’ll paint the things that are most important to us, inevitably revealing our tastes and flaws in the process.

Because the space we’re creating will also be a home for us, I’ve done a lot of reading and reflecting on that aspect of our project as well.  One resource that came along at just the right time was Winifred Gallagher’s House Thinking: A Room-by-Room Look at How We Live, which ties together various rooms of the house with human behavior and psychology in order to explore the circular relationship between the interiors of our houses and the interiors of our selves.  Gallagher’s book has caused me to reflect on two concepts in particular.  One is the distinction between spaces of prospect and spaces of refuge, which Gallagher gleans from architect Grant Hildebrand, who embarked on a quest to discover what design elements might make a built space likable:

He began with a very basic question: Why might Homo sapiens be drawn to some places and repelled by others?  To survive, the first human beings needed food, water, and protection, and their descendants eventually inherited a taste for supportive environments.  Our enduring fondness for the combination of field, stream, and grove of trees—hunting range, water, and shelter—is abundantly illustrated in the paintings of old masters, the terrain of many parks, and our scenic kitchen calendars.

In seeking to replicate this desirable environment, Hildebrand concluded that “the most important evolutionary elements of an appealing home are the paired features of prospect, or a big, bright space that has a broad, interesting view, and refuge, or a snug, protected haven.”  Frank Lloyd Wright, one of the masters of balancing prospect and refuge in his designs, referred to these paired needs as nesting and perching.  Gallagher’s exploration of these ideas has reminded me to ponder the created nature of human beings with regard to entries and bedrooms, views and layouts.  How can I honor the Creator’s multi-faceted intentions for humans with choices about space and design?

Gallagher also explores the concept of a carefully crafted microenvironment within the home that architect Donlyn Lyndon refers to as an aedicula.  The term comes from ancient Roman architecture in which a defined area that may have even taken the form of a small house functioned as the home’s spiritual center.  In today’s homes, such a place can take on many forms.  Lyndon explains,

It’s a little house within a house that helps you understand the larger one.  That marks a place in the home that you care about, or that your life moves around, or where you put the stuff you like best.  You just like knowing it’s there.  The aedicula sets up a counterpoint between the fluid, improvised, changeable aspect of domestic life and this thing that keeps saying, “There’s something central that’s always here.”

Reading this explanation, I was reminded of my pleasant surprise when I stumbled upon such a space in the home of friends when I was house sitting.  A hallway, bordered on one side by a wall and on the other by the railing of a second floor loft, ended abruptly at a windowed wall and seemed to lead nowhere.  But tucked into the end was a chair facing the window and a small bookshelf with a few texts and several icons of Christ.  I felt both peace and longing considering the refuge and ritual that space bespoke.  It wasn’t until a couple of years later that I rearranged our home to have a sort of aedicula—a comfortable chair by our large dining room window within easy reach of the bookshelves and a small table for a drink or a snack.  A shawl our friends brought back for us from India, a homemade pillow, a view of the neighbor’s house and the sky and family photos, a plant I’ve had since I left for college, a word game book handmade for me as a gift—all of these things adorn a space that is both a quiet refuge and angled toward the possibilities of the rest of the house represented by the dining room and living room.  Like Lyndon’s description of an aedicula, the space we call the reading nook speaks to me of our journey to balance retreat and engagement and to regularly study and imagine and rest.

If an aedicula can be said to be a microcosm of values within a home, a home could also be considered a microcosm of the homemakers’ values within the larger world, from the neighborhood to the globe.  The concept of a building as home opens the door to a whole new collection of images, so in the course of this renovation project we’ve had to explore our hopes and dreams for the future, beyond drywall and tile to consider the spirit of the space.  How do we want to feel in the space?  How do we want our guests to feel?  Our children?  How will the space reflect our deepest values?  This reflection has naturally turned back in on things like drywall and tile, as we’ve attempted to reflect our role as stewards of the earth’s resources.  Salvaging and recycling reflect our desire to use only what we need and preserve the health of creation for future generations.  Exploring web sites like Craig’s List and Freecycle has put us in face-to-face relationship with people who have complementary needs to ours and who will all be a part of the space through ceiling fans and plywood, wall tile and flooring.  The design of the space itself, from the shower to the balcony, takes into account sharing with our neighbors, spending time outdoors, engaging in intimacy, gazing on protected wetlands, eating seasonally and other acts that connect us to people, creatures and land in mutually beneficial ways.  I believe such practices will influence the future ethic of the household within, as well as enrich the spirit of the home for all who enter, even when all of the small bricks-and-mortar details are not explicitly stated.

A home is always more than a house, a building always more than a structure.  In some sense, every built environment can be said to be a church in that it honors an object of worship and reflects a set of values.  The prayer I sing for our current project takes on the tune of the hymn “All Are Welcome” by Lutheran liturgist Marty Haugen:

Let us build a house where hands will reach

beyond the wood and stone,

to heal and strengthen, serve and teach,

and live the Word they’ve known.

Here the outcast and the stranger

bear the image of God’s face;

let us bring and end to fear and danger:

all are welcome in this place.

Let us build a house where all are named,

their songs and visions heard

and loved and treasured, taught and claimed

as words within the Word.

Built of tears and cries and laughter,

prayers of faith and songs of grace.

Let this house proclaim from floor to rafter:

all are welcome in this place.

An embrace, a harbor, a playground, a classroom, a nest, a catalyst—may all of the spaces we cultivate be grace in the moment to all who enter.

Read and see…

  • Blog entries about the renovation project in Three Rivers
  • Photos of the renovation project in Three Rivers

House Thinking by Winifred Gallagher can be purchased through Hearts & Minds Books.  Mention *cino to donate 10% of your sale back to *culture is not optional to help support the continuation of catapult magazine.

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