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A journey around my flat: shut-in strategies

We’re not the first people to be stuck inside, but can we learn anything from the spatial strategies of previous shut-ins?

In 1794, a French aristocrat named Xavier de Maistre, who was then living in Turin to escape the revolution (he was the younger brother of arch-conservative Joseph de Maistre), got into a duel and was put under house arrest by the local authorities. During this confinement he wrote his book A Journey Around My Room. He intended it for ‘the countless unhappy people to whom I am here offering a sure and certain resource against boredom’, as well as for the ‘thousands of people who, before I came along, had never dared to travel, and others who hadn’t been able to’. Since we all now fall into these categories, this sounds promising – but does an 18th-century reactionary have much to offer in the way of a coronavirus guidebook? 

When sticking to his ostensible subject, de Maistre enumerates the sights along his path, which mostly comprise his furniture. His pink and white bed (a combination of colours he recommends for lifting the spirits) and his armchair feature prominently, as do the prints on his walls. His mirror, he concludes, is the most perfect picture of them all – adding a fervent wish that these objects could be made to reflect the moral character of their viewers. 

‘It is telling that de Maistre never looks out of the window, approaching the outside world only through his possessions’

When he drifts from such pleasantries on to social questions, the view from de Maistre’s chamber is more bracing. He is, for a start, not entirely alone: he has his servant, whom he confesses he mistreats, then sentimentally regrets doing so. There is little to sympathise with as few of us now have staff to fetch our slippers, although the relationship between today’s quarantined and their delivery drivers may not bear too much examination here. 

Elsewhere, de Maistre – since it is carnival season – pines for the parties he is missing, something that will strike a chord with many contemporary readers. Yet he admits that he does not much enjoy such gatherings these days, since he has lately had dreams about a ball at which ‘suddenly appeared a white bear, a philosopher, a tiger or some other animal of that sort’, exhorting the guests to revolution. De Maistre’s seclusion can be read as much as a post-traumatic reaction of the ancien régime as the result of a proscribed duel. It is telling that he never looks out of the window, approaching the outside world only through his possessions, relics of an era that had been destroyed. De Maistre inhabits a time-capsule of his own prior existence, whereas today we look for signs that life will, in some way, continue.

Shut in quarantine cornelius meyer architectural review

Shut in quarantine cornelius meyer architectural review

Shut-in-quarantine-cornelius-meyer-architectural-review

Shut-in-quarantine-cornelius-meyer-architectural-review

Dutch engineer Cornelius Meyer rationalised his needs into a one-room apartment in 1689. Equipped with abundant storage it concealed spy glasses, and speaking and listening tubes to find out what was happening outside his room

Although de Maistre’s attempt to bring the freshness of the traveller’s eyes to his familiar impedimenta may offer some direction to the housebound, his eyrie is altogether too lofty and too airless for comfort. A hundred years earlier, a Dutch engineer working in Rome named Cornelius Meyer designed a more porous bolt-hole: an Existenzminimum dwelling equipped with technological means of maintaining contact with the outside world. Essentially a fantasia of storage, the capacity of which would surely turn those who live in recently constructed flats green with envy, Meyer’s single-room apartment is also kitted out with hearing tubes and a camera obscura with which to observe the street while lying in bed. This early example of Colomina’s modern-architecture-as-technological-medium was never built, but the surviving drawings suggests a personality torn between the desire for distance and proximity. The locked-down bedworker with his or her laptop is not so far from Meyer’s horizontal rubbernecker.

There have been more frugal and low-tech recluses, of course, some of whom have even constructed their own retreats. Like the hermit crab, whatever comes within reach is adequate for lost souls such as Daniel Pike, who built a hut in a wood near Watford using only mud and sticks; the structure was surprisingly aesthetically coherent, however, with a high thatched roof and two substantial columns at the door. Inside, there was a nook for sleeping, shelves and a fireplace – all of mud. In 2016, after four years of undetected occupancy, the house was demolished by the authorities. 

Shut-in-quarantine-daniel-pike-mud-hut-sticks-watford-architectural-review

Shut-in-quarantine-daniel-pike-mud-hut-sticks-watford-architectural-review

Shut-in-quarantine-daniel-pike-mud-hut-sticks-watford-architectural-review

Shut-in-quarantine-daniel-pike-mud-hut-sticks-watford-architectural-review

Daniel Pike (above and top) built a hut of mud and sticks, with solar panels, in a wood near Watford. He spent the best part of four years constructing it before the Woodland Trust flattened it in 2016

More tolerated was Manfred Gnädinger, a German who made a hut on a beach in Spain in the early 1960s. Supposedly driven to solitude by unrequited love, Gnädinger – or ‘Man’, as he was known to the locals – lived a simple life, eating the vegetables he grew in his own small patch and hawking the sculptures that decorated his garden. But Gnädinger could not escape the cruelty of the world: when the Prestige oil tanker sank off the Galician coast in 2002, the resulting slick destroyed the beach on which he lived and ruined his garden and sculptures. He died shortly afterwards.

These melancholy tales of ill-fated drop-outs are not perhaps so much help. Instead, we might seek inspiration in the hermits of various religious traditions, such as Julian of Norwich, who spent much of the latter half of the 14th century bricked up in a cell. Anchoresses like Julian became celebrities in their communities, attracting donors and seekers of advice. Julian was also the first woman to write at length in English, composing a book known as Revelations of Divine Love. With its famous promise that ‘All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well’, Julian’s consoling text responds to her own suffering and that of the plague-stricken country around her. But, although visitors (and her two servants) often came to her window, if she followed the guidance of the time, she would always have been shielded from them by a curtain: ‘Don’t peep out of your window. Keep your eyes at home’. Like de Maistre (and like Loos’s ‘civilised man’), the well-served anchoress turns her back on the view.

Shut-in-quarantine-manfred-gnädinger-german-sculptor-galicia-architectural-review

Shut-in-quarantine-manfred-gnädinger-german-sculptor-galicia-architectural-review

Shut-in-quarantine-manfred-gnädinger-german-sculptor-galicia-architectural-review

Shut-in-quarantine-manfred-gnädinger-german-sculptor-galicia-architectural-review

Life leads some to self-isolate to follow a simpler existence: Manfred Gnädinger, a German sculptor who lived in Galicia, constructed sculptures and his house out of natural materials found on the beach (above and top). The Prestige oil tanker spill in 2002 destroyed his sculptures and his ecosystem

But where would we be without our windows, whence we can, cursing, note the frequency of our neighbours’ excursions? Another home-working recluse of potential relevance to us now is St Jerome, whom the painters often place in a solitary study. Antonello’s architecture-scaled furniture for him is particularly striking: raised, presumably to keep the saint’s feet off the cold floor, and with enfolding bookshelves conveniently close at hand, it shields him from the drafty ecclesiastical building in which it stands.

As cubicles go, this looks conducive to application, and indeed Jerome managed to translate the Bible from Hebrew while holed up in various monasteries, rather putting my own quarantine efforts to shame. But I notice that no smartphone or laptop threatens to distract Jerome with news of the misrule of the Romans, or with the promise of shopping delivered to his study door within the day.

Shut-in-quarantine-marlene-dietrich-sketch-architectural-review

Shut-in-quarantine-marlene-dietrich-sketch-architectural-review

Marlene Dietrich sketched a plan of her bedroom in her Paris flat where she was largely bedridden for the last 11 years of her life

The piety and industry of these saints make them not entirely soothing models for today’s constrained life. Instead, my thoughts turn to Marlene Dietrich’s last decade, when she retreated to a 60m2 flat on Avenue Montaigne in Paris. Here, virtually bed-bound, surrounded by 2,000 books (in which she scrawled annotations such as ‘this is without a doubt the worst writing I ever laid eyes on’ or, more pithily, ‘a bore’), along with buckets, a hotplate, and the telephone on which she racked up $3,000-worth of calls a month, she drank herself into senility. Visitors were by and large rejected – when Billy Wilder rang, which he frequently did, she would pretend to be her maid and tell him Madame was out. This arrangement strikes me as the perfect answer for those of us untitillated by our furniture, or for whom the peasant-funded studiousness of anchorites is out of reach. I’m going to bed. Madame is out.

Lead image: In Praise of Dialectics by René Magritte, 1937. Courtesy of Artepics / Alamy

This piece is featured in the AR June 2020 issue on Inside – click here to buy your copy today