Carlos Albisu Dwelling on Dwelling

Source: Lecture from a seminar about books and architecture, at the La Salle School of Architecture.Text: Carlos Albisu
Date: December 30, 2022 Category: Texts, Things

Although not very well-known in our country, Bill Bryson is a world-wide celebrity among scientists, journalists, philologists, travelers,… and, in general, among anybody who is interested in anything. Because Bryson writes about anything; which actually means, about everything. You could say he is the opposite case of Socrates: Socrates said he knew nothing, Bryson seems to know everything. Of course they are both misleading.

Born in 1951 in the United States, he has lived for many years in England, a country he loves and understands better than any Briton. He has published books about History, Geography, Linguistics, Travel, Science, and… Architecture. His style as a writer is light, fresh and witty; his information infinite; and any of his works guarantees a very amusing adventure, whether it deals with William Shakespeare or with Kurt Gödel. And, most important for many of us: a subtle but irrepressible humour pervades every page of his books. Really, a great guy.

He became very famous in 2003 with his surprising and encyclopedic résumé of all that contemporary science knows, or knew in 2003. I mean ALL. The book was a best-seller, with quite an immodest title: A Short History of Nearly Everything. This is the book that is probably best known in Spain (Una Breve Historia de Casi Todo), and, some years later, it was intelligently followed by a children-oriented résumé of the résumé, adequately called A Really Short History of Nearly Everything. For those of us especially interested in language, another of his delicious fabrications is a well documented and extremely funny history of the English language, called: Mother Tongue: English and How It Got That Way.

In 2010 he published the book that has brought us here: At Home: A Short History of Private Life. In Spanish, the book is called En Casa and it is published by RBA, and, in Catalan, it is called A Casa and it is published by La Magrana. He and his family had been living for some years in the eastern English countryside, in the county of Norfolk. They actually inhabited an old nineteenth-century rectory in a small, quiet hamlet.

At Home is a thorough and enticing analysis of the old rectory where he lived, of each and everyone of the rooms of a house that is a home, of its different pieces: the Garden, the Hall, the Kitchen, the Staircase, the Bathroom, the Bedroom, the… well, I guess everybody here knows which are the rooms of a conventional house; or almost everybody.

As we move with Bill across the various spaces, we read about how they were inhabited, where they were inhabited, when they were inhabited, why they were inhabited, and who inhabited them. There is an overflow of data, anecdotes, surprises, technicalities and whatnot about each of them, each in their own chapter.

Bryson’s intention, as stated by himself in the introduction, is to put under an all- seeing microscope the spaces where, far from battles, kings, and revolutions, our life gradually develops, from the first sob to the last sigh.

Of course, since it is really a book about Life, it includes commentaries about families, food, furniture, plants, animals, art, health, work, rest, tools, children, death, colours, weather, books, passions, light, noise, dirt, money, air, love, progress, tragedy, fashion, sex, art, vehicles, religion, wine, law, dreams, technology,…it is almost amazing that he doesn’t mention at all els gossos d’atura.
To put it in a nutshell, great reading, great company.

But for us, architects, another deeper reading of the book slowly unveils as we smile, and walk with Bryson up and down the house. In its truer sense, Architecture deals mainly with place, memory and meaning. It does of course provide shelter for human activities, since our human weakness (even for those of us born in Bilbao) needs protection from the weather or the beasts. But its principal concern is to attach a meaning to the places we inhabit. It is no coincidence that, in English, there are two meanings of the word “dwell” that I use in this lecture: To dwell is to inhabit and, also, to meditate on something. So: to dwell, to inhabit, is in the case of humans, to think.

Why is this? Why do we need to assign a meaning to the spaces we use and live? Probably because, since the beginning, since we were almost apes, we have been –and still are- baffled and unable to understand the very, very, very, very strange condition of our being in the world. Probably, because we have somehow been damned with a very, very, very, very strange thing in the whole universe: a conscience. Everyone of us exists for some decades -if we are lucky-, between trillions of years of non-existence, both before our birth and after our death.

So for us, inhabiting space is not simply a natural procedure, like in the case of butterflies or mushrooms. As our students hear every year, sorry for repeating this, the first Neanderthal who buried his father under a hill to protect his remains from the weather and the animals, and put on top a stone or a standing stick, was really producing a transfiguration of the hill. The place is no more an undulation of the landscape, or, at least, not only that. It is Architecture in its most original sense: it is a place that signifies.

In this sense, of course, Architecture, however eco-friendly, is radically alien to Nature; it is really unnatural. By the way, like most of the noblest creations of Humanity: Law, Compassion, Poetry, or Wine. Non-human Nature -that is, stars, mountains, oceans, animals, trees…-, is certainly fascinating, but we know that it is meaningless. It is actually violent, cruel, self-centred.

And this carries us back to Bryson’s book. Because the truth is that Architecture and architects are NOT the only givers of meaning to a place. No. The act of living itself, of inhabiting a singular space, like the author’s rectory, silently but steadily spreads significance and, we could say, a find of soul, to that place. As architects we deal with many kinds of meanings: symbolic, sacred, technical, magic, collective, military,…but, which of these can compete with the innermost meanings of domestic life?

In one of his many illuminating writings, Adolf Loos, almost suffocated by the aesthetic craze of his contemporaries and fellow citizens, tells us about some small decorative object standing somewhere in his grandmother’s living room. It was, he tells us, an ugly, pretentious, unfashionable, little piece, that no cultivated sezessionist would keep at home. But. It was Loos’ grandmother object, and it had been standing there for decades, presiding over little Adolf’s family life. And we can ask ourselves: What proposed meaning or exquisite design can compare to that, in depth or in spirit?

At Home is not really a book about Architecture. It is a book about how Life, private, intimate, domestic Life, moves and develops in the middle of a very special kind of Architecture: the Architecture of our homes. The unique theatre where the tragicomedy of our lives takes place: our loves and hatreds, our joys and sorrows, our expectations and disappointments, our birth and our parting.

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