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In search of a lost house

From a child’s archetypal drawing to Alberti’s notion of it as a link in a chain, the house is an idea as much as a building, writes Joseph Rykwert

If you ask a child to draw you a house, the odds are you will get a face: the door for a nose, two windows for eyes on either side of it and a roof - with or without a smoky chimney - for a headpiece. I remember some years ago visiting the nursery school on the roof of Le Corbusier’s Marseille block where there was a pin-up of what the children produced when asked to draw ‘ma maison’. Many of them did draw a child’s version of that famous maison du fada, in which they lived, but a surprising number of them reverted to the archetype.

And is it an archetype in fact? Do we all, whether we live in a high-rise flat or a suburban semi-detached, carry with us that burden of the face-house? I think we do. And that also means that it implies an expectation of address - that the house expects to be thought of as a person and spoken to - in a way that a church, a school, a workshop or factory do not, because a house is presumed to have an inhabitant (more likely several) in a constant bustle, to shelter a way of life that is its soul.

Of course every building aspires to such a condition. But what singles the house out is that all the activities that go on inside it are indispensables of the everyday - they are the very basic business on which all other human activities depend.


Drawing of Face House by Kazumasa Yamashita (1974), which humanised a dreary street in downtown Kyoto, Japan
Published in the AR in 1975

That may well be why a child’s mind also registers the house as a ready interlocutor. But of course, it is not just children who know that about a house - we are all aware of that basic role it plays in our existence. All the theorists who ever sought to reform building turn back insistently to the one kind of structure in which they think its essence is concentrated: the hut, the house. Not the temple or church, which of course can be considered a special, exalted kind of house, but the house reduced to its barest essentials, analogous to those which I ascribed to a child’s imaginings.

‘Children everywhere will want their house - if not their home - to talk back to them, to have some kind of a face which invites a dialogue’

Those theorists’ house had to be different from the child’s - they had after all to work back from the wrong-headed ways of their contemporaries to some imagined state of primal innocence when untrammelled instinct as well as nature herself would dictate the true rudiments of building. A child’s construction needs no such complicated props. Children need only look into themselves to find the ready-formed image I described.

How archetypes are formed in the child’s mind is one of psychology’s conundrums. For my purposes I need only the recognition of that familiar image to register and to associate it with the musings of the great architectural thinkers - from Vitruvius to Corbusier, through Laugier and Alberti. This last had a different take on the idea, of course: ‘If the city is - as some philosophers maintain - a large house, and the house, in turn, is like a small city (I, 9; V 14): if that is agreed - then it follows that every part of the house might in turn be worked out as a little house’ - so that from city to single room becomes a chain, like a set of Chinese boxes.


Aldo van Eyck’s Twin Phenomena theory

Of course, Alberti’s notion, which may not be very familiar, is no archetype. The philosopher’s conceit seems quite remote from the child’s primal vision. Yet both force us to think again through that commonplace ‘house’. The child pleads with us to engage with house as a live being, not to see it as a mere carapace; the philosopher invites an analogous involvement with the house as both a fragment of a larger whole - the settlement (city or town) - which is a projection of the house to a larger scale, but it is also its constraining fabric. To make it quite explicit, Alberti introduces another analogy: ‘just as in animals members relate to members, so too in buildings part should relate to part …’

So he harps insistently - as he does several times throughout his book on building - on that same analogy between the building and the living being. And that, surprisingly enough, is another notion that he has in common with a child.


One element of 2,000 model houses made of clay by 500 Chinese schoolchildren, for the Model City installation, Shenzhen and Hong Kong Bi-City Biennale of Urbanism/Architecture, DRDH Architects

There is another feature of the archetype that is often taken for granted: the smoke rising from the chimney presupposes a hearth or fireplace within. And that is connected to another kind of type, first suggested by Gottfried Semper a century and a half ago (and taken up later by Frank Lloyd Wright), that the essence of home - if not of the house - is made up of only two elements: the hearth and the roof over it. I suggested this once in discussion to a class, when a Chinese student pointed out to me that in old Chinese characters, if you write ‘fire’ under the character for ‘roof’, the word you will get is ‘disaster’. Which suggests that the Semperian reduction of ‘home’ to those two elements does not quite have the force of an archetype. But then I have never seen how Chinese - or Malay, or Indian or even Azeri - children would picture their house, nor as far as I know has any canny psychologist ever attempted such a comparative study.

So I am left with the seemingly archetypical Western picture of the house: two windows on either side of the door, and a pitched headpiece with a smoky chimney, and the suspicion: that children everywhere will want their house - if not their home - to talk back to them, to have some kind of a face which invites a dialogue, however that is translated into the elements of a building.


Takefumi Aida’s Nirvana House in Fujisawa, Japan (1972) turns ‘form follows function’ on its head


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