I've always thought that if I could live anywhere in Canada, it would be in Vancouver. In fact, I just got through telling one of my kids this very thing yesterday. After I visited the city for the first time I remember telling someone that I was really surprised that any other city in Canada had been able to attract any residents at all. So a newspaper article purporting to take some of the shine off of West coast life is eye-catching.
But the article, from the Toronto Star, vaguely makes it sound as though urban loneliness is a Vancouver-centric problem. It isn't and that's not at all what the study showed. What it does point out though is that conventional measures of "livability" may not place enough weight on the importance of social cohesion. It also reinforces an old finding in environmental psychology that social isolation can be a problem in high-rises. And that, apparently, if you move to Winnipeg, you will never have to cook your own dinner.
I'm back from England and the first leg of my home pilgrimage. In fact I've been back for some time now. To say that I'm still digesting would be a bit of an understatement. I have photographs, notes, and diagrams that I'm still putting together into....something.....but mostly a lot of churning recollections that come into focus fleetingly and then they're gone again. The good news is that I was able to visit both of my first two homes, meet the wonderful people who live in them now, and through their incredible generosity wander freely through the rooms where I first opened my eyes, took my first steps and, according to one unverified report from a family member, where I peed on the floor a few times as well.
One of the biggest happy surprises of the adventure was the discovery that one of these two homes is still owned by the people who purchased the house from my parents almost 50 years ago. They told me that when they came to look at the house, they saw me playing footie in the back garden. It was a bizarre sensation to see myself, as I'd been such a long time ago, innocent short-pants barely-in-school Colin, kicking a ball around on the grass. I expected my habitation of those old spaces to trigger thoughts and memories -- and it did -- but I hadn't anticipated a distant, tiny image of me as a little boy, in someone else's memory, to unleash such a cascade of feelings.
I'll have more to say soon but I can't rush this. I want to savour it.
In a week's time, I'll be in Britain at the beginning of my pilgrimage into my past, visiting the first two places that meant home to me. I haven't heard back from the current owners of either of the homes, so I don't yet know whether I'll be seeing things from the inside or simply standing on the sidewalk and peering through the front garden like a deranged prowler. For an adventure that I've had years to plan, things seem to have come together unexpectedly quickly and now I'm scrambling with train schedules and hotel bookings, trying to make sure I've got everything right. I'm a little nervous about this.
It's an odd thing, but I've been thinking a great deal about a man I "met" on a call-in radio show a couple of years ago. He told me that he'd made an impulsive decision to purchase a house that he'd been inexplicably drawn to after a brief viewing. After moving in, he found himself haunted by negative feelings about the house and he was struggling to find some way to redesign it. What he'd realized was that the house was very much like the one that he'd grown up inside, and that his childhood had not been a happy one. It seemed as though he had placed himself back into the space of an unhappy period of his own past without even being aware of it, as if to give himself a second chance to make things right.
I wonder how things went for him. I wonder if his attempts to open walls and build new doorways in his home built new cartographies for his soul.
I wonder if anything like that will happen to me.
Yesterday i sent letters (and freebies!) to two addresses in England. One was the house in which I was born and the other was the house that I left at the tender age of 7 to vault across the ocean to Canada. Well, ok, the vault was in one of those venerable old Boeing 707s so I suppose it was more of an amble but a bit faster than a sailing ship. I tried to imagine how it might feel to get a letter from a complete stranger asking to come take a peek at your house and ask you a few questions. If it was me I think I'd be intrigued and quite keen, but I can imagine that things might not go as well as I'm hoping. Time will tell.
It's a little daunting to realize that this entire quest to visit every place I've called home will consist of 24 different houses and apartments on 3 continents. It's going to take a little time. Some of these homes were chosen out of pure expediency - there were times when I was such an unattractive tenant --massive untrained dog and ragtag kids in hand -- that I had no choice but to leap at the first landlord foolish enough to let me unload my stuff inside their real estate investments. Others,like my current home, seem to have been tailor-made for me and have felt like home from the moment that I first walked into them. I suspect my friends are more tired of hearing the story than I am of telling it that I made the decision to buy this place within five minutes of walking in the front door and I had signed a terrifying firm offer within an hour. But that's the end of this story. I'm still not even at the beginning.
In about three weeks, I'm going to fly back to the beginning of everything. Or at least the beginning of my everything. I'm going home.
One of the things that I'm most interested in is the interaction between home and psyche. I've tried to understand this link in a number of different ways: I've conducted impromptu interviews with friends, family and strangers on the meaning of home. I've designed elaborate virtual reality simulations of homes that people can walk through while wearing a suite of instruments that measure their physiological state. I've talked to architects, designers, stagers, planners about what home means, and I've sat on committees where we've turned questions about home upside-down and sideways.
Now it's time to get a little more personal. I suppose, in a way, you'd call this a pilgrimage. In fact, I'm certain that that's what it is. But in my case, I'm not going to walk the Camino. I'm going to retrace my own path across the planet from the day that I was born up to the present. I'm going to re-visit every place that I've ever called home.
The journey begins in early April when I'll find myself on the doorstep of an ordinary looking house in Stevenage where, about a half-century ago, I was born. I don't know yet whether I'll be able to go inside the house, but that's my fondest hope and the truest beginning I can think of for a project such as this one.
Right now, for me, the idea of standing in the room where I came into being seems too staggeringly huge to even contemplate. I think there are many reasons for this, and my own special professional interest in home is only a part of the story. I'm also an immigrant and, like all who migrate from their homeland to some other domain, the very idea of "home" becomes something great and unknowable -- a mythical land to which there is no easy return. Until I began to think about this project, the very idea that I was "from" somewhere seemed academic and sterile. Intellectually, I knew it was true, but emotionally, I felt nothing. Will all of that change when I see the room where the me-egg hatched?
I've had all kinds of extra reasons to think about comfort over the past few months. In a way, this is nothing new. A part of my work involves understanding what comfort is, how it is measured, and especially how it is either promoted or defeated by the design of spaces and places. In some of the experiments I've been doing in my virtual reality lab, I've been doing my best to try to figure out how the design of a domestic space -- a home, in other words -- interacts with the personality of the occupant or owner of that space to generate different kinds of feelings. It's a fascinating question that I can only approach part of the way using my usual arsenal of scientific instruments. Poking and probing at peoples' bodies and minds will only yield so much information I think. In fact, it's starting to seem so complicated that there are times when I feel a little embarrassed by my approach, as if the very idea that I can get close to the deep answers I'm looking for using psychological questionnaires and little body sensors is obviously laughable. But what I've learned so far encourages me to think that I'm on a good path -- that what we can measure will make a difference to how we design, even if we're only really getting a meager slice of the whole pie.
But now I want to get a little more personal about all of this. I've spent this evening, like many others over the past while, wandering around in a house that I only live in part of the time now, looking for somewhere that's comfortable. For instance, if I want to go cocoon with a book or just sit quietly with my thoughts, or write some things down, where do I go? And the answer to that question, I've concluded tonight, is nowhere. There is nowhere in this house that I can sit happily and feel at home. But here's the interesting part of this discovery: maybe that's not such a bad thing.
I had a conversation with my pilgrimage friend Nicole sometime ago. We were on a little pilgrimage at the time (can a pilgrimage even be little? Not so sure about that.) so the fine details of that conversation are lost to me now among the big crashing waves of self-discovery our little group experienced during our adventure. But I do remember her mentioning a friend of hers who deliberately eschewed comfort, and that idea, of veering from shelter, became a kind of mantra for me during the pilgrimage and afterwards as well. So the new angle here is that maybe there are times in one's life when those feelings of comfort are not really the goal. And maybe what my body is telling me in some subtle way is that it's got nothing to do with where I sit or what vista is in front of me or how the chair I'm in is designed or who I'm with. It's got to do with what's going on inside. It's not time to settle. It's time to sort myself out. It's tough. It's....well...uncomfortable. But it's also completely necessary. What's happening to me now, during an epic phase of self-discovery perhaps bigger than any I've experienced before, doesn't feel as though it's being driven at all by the spaces I inhabit. But do the spaces I live in push and prod my thinking in certain directions? It must be so. My other home is a small apartment where I spend about half my time. I don't always feel comfortable there either, but it feels more like a cockpit from which I can steer my psyche with some small semblance of predictability. When I moved there, it was important to me that nothing come through the door, not the smallest household item or piece of furniture, unless it was chosen explicitly by me. I felt a strong desire to control all the variables, to keep things stripped down to the minimum. It wasn't comfort I was going after there, either so much as simplicity, silence and focus.
The relationship between place and person is an evolving and complicated dance that can either promote or impede the process of self-discovery. I've written about this stuff and I've obtained funding to study it and I've conducted the experiments and drawn all the graphs to try to account for some of the simpler aspects of this relationship. But now I'm living the crash course. I don't always like it. It isn't natural to sit with discomfort. But it is transformative.
One of my very favourite things to do is call-in radio. You never know what fantastic nuggets of wisdom or interesting problems people will come up with. I had a wonderful session on Ontario Today yesterday, on the theme of interior design and emotion -- "what bugs you about your house?" It's a stretch for me to pose as an interior designer, but it's very definitely true that there are some interesting connections between the work I do in my lab and the problems people face in selecting, designing, and organizing their homes.
The most interesting call came from a man who had bought his first house, only to discover sometime afterward how much it resembled the house where he grew up, which was not a happy time for him. He was discovering that the form of the house was raising some ghosts for him. This utterly fascinates me. First, that he made this purchase perhaps without understanding all of the reasons that it attracted him, and secondly because of the suggestion that the appearances of domestic spaces and how we use them might provoke emotions based on our personal histories. I always tend to think of the effect of space on the mind in terms of deep biological universals. But there's a lot more to it than that.
After the show, the most interesting email I received came from someone who had just purchased a loft. She wanted to know what I thought of the boxy, cavernous spaces in lofts and how they might work on our minds. I hadn't thought about this much before, but I am now. These structures are incredibly popular, and not all of it has to do with their appearance, but I think some does. Many people (myself included) are attracted to high ceilings. Why? And is living under one as appealing as that first look at one when shopping for a home?
Architect James Polk wrote a wonderful column recently, encouraging his readers to tune in to the emotional impact of their lived spaces. When you're walking through a neighbourhood or a building, how does it make you feel? What do you like and what don't you like? What makes you anxious? There's much fascinating material to mine here, and the best way to do it is to lace up sneakers and take to the streets. Over the coming months, I'm hoping to do quite a lot of this myself, both in my local haunts and farther afield as I take advantage of some nice travel opportunities.
But back to James....
He saysYou don’t need a Ph.D. for this little experiment. We all, as humans, have the innate ability to intuitively feel the world around us.This applies to the world we build as well as our natural surroundings.
Well, uh, yeah James I tend to agree, but the problem is that I have a PhD and I can't turn the damned thing off. I want to do experiments. In followup conversation (On FACEBOOK! YES! It was actually useful!) we talked a little bit about how one might go about designing some studies to try to understand in more detail how these kinds of emotional effects of the built world come about. I can see the skeptical point of view that it's just too complicated to approach with simple one-factor experiments (more cowbell=more happiness) but the scientist in me won't sit still. I think there are all kinds of great tools that could be used to probe these kinds of effects, and they could be very useful for designers.
The most surprising thing for me was to learn that the training of architects includes little instruction on how buildings make us feel. Is that because we know what works but we don't know how to explain it?
We greet the news of June’s uptick in new housing starts in the US like thirsty desert wanderers seeing the first shimmer of water on the horizon. Could this be the long-awaited turning point in a year’s worth of economic bad news? Have we finally found a midsummer’s moment of relief after the unremitting fiscal nightmares of the past months? If only it could be so easy. Hard as we might try to turn a blind eye to the continued avalanche of foreclosures and empty malls, and to point to the historical record showing that it’s always burgeoning housing construction that leads us out of recessions, to do so now is to forfeit what might turn out to be our last and best chance to cut into the diseased marrow of the ailing beast and apply the soothing salve of common sense. We cannot be healed by turning back to the unsustainable lifestyles and practices that have brought us to this precipice. We need to think differently about everything, and the fresh thoughts need to start close to home. In fact, let’s think about our homes themselves. When we cling to those encouraging signs of tiny green shoots in the housing numbers, let’s be quite explicit that what we’re really talking about here is not just a big pile of lumber, drywall, and human labor that converts to cash. We’re talking about our homes. We are talking about our most intimate personal possessions—the walls that we use to enclose our families, the canvas on which we paint the stories of our lives, our places of comfort, succor, refuge and happiness. How sad that at some point along the line we’ve lost sight of the real importance of all of this and have been taught to treat our domestic spaces as nothing more than a form of hard currency. In so many American cities we retreat to bloated suburban houses where we cut ourselves off from our neighbors, our workplaces, our public spaces and our services all in the crazed desire to encase ourselves in the protective armor of financial security. We treat our homes less as domiciles and more as debentures. We leave our children with no choices other than to sit and stare at screens while waiting for someone to drive them to the mall, and then we wonder to ourselves why they just don’t seem at all interested in the greater world. In these, the most important spaces of our lives, we need to get beyond square foot equations in which we make brute declarations of our success in life by demonstrating how much of a one-acre lot we can fill with unnecessary and expensive interior spaces. We need to make a mental migration to a place where we can think very carefully about where we are, what kinds of beings we are, and what we need to move forward into a happy and sustainable way of life. Is that gigantic mine shaft foyer going to do it? The two-storey great room? The manicured lawn? As a psychologist interested in how people use spaces, I find it remarkable how little of the conversation I hear about home spaces has to do with anything other than size – how to get more space, how to make things look even bigger than they are, how to add on, how to move up the scale. Much rarer are the conversations we really need to have about how our home spaces ought to work—how the organization of a home, a neighborhood, or a city might be re-thought to be something other than a conspicuous display of wealth and instead to be something that nurtures our spirits, helps us to forge community, and encourages our children to be the curious and autonomous explorers of spaces and places that some of us can remember being when we were children. At this point in our history, we have a better understanding of how the design of spaces influences human behavior than at any previous point. We can try to fix a sick animal by applying an ever larger number of loosely-fitting band-aids, or we can take the time to understand the disease and engage in the research, the soul-searching and the dialogue that might eventually effect a radical cure. As with so many things, the important work begins at home.