Why do most of us love our homes? Because, of course, they are saturated with the memories of how we became who we are. Like the family photographs displayed within them, homes tend to archive good times, not bad ones.
When I began teaching my survey of modern architecture at Duke in the 1980s, the main writing assignment was a critical analysis of the student’s own dwelling. The family residence seemed a perfect subject—a structure that the writer knew intimately and that the principal reader (myself) would always find distinct and engaging. But there was a problem with “my house” as an object of study: It inevitably became “my home.” Most of us are so emotionally entangled in our family’s space, whether it is large or small, opulent or austere, that objectivity is difficult and criticism almost impossible. The flaws of a beloved place, like those of a beloved human, constitute its identity and disappear. So, now I have students write instead on a building in their hometowns that they know well. Papers are much more critical.
The structures in which we live model the habits of our lives, and habits are comforting. Many buildings both inform and then perpetuate patterns of behavior. For example, we build a classroom to accommodate a certain kind of learning; the classroom in turn molds the kind of learning that we do or even that we can imagine. Similarly, a house not only conditions our domestic practices, but, with the passage of time, makes those practices feel inevitable. It seems natural that parents’ bedrooms are large and children’s bedrooms are small. But what appears “natural” may only be a cultural construction. Adults, after all, have a whole house in their control, while a child is lucky to have a single room in which to express herself.
Moreover, what is “natural” at one time may not be “natural” at another. The kitchens of mid-century suburban houses, when they were the exclusive domain of women, were relatively small and definitely separate. Dinner appeared from behind a closed door. The sights, smells, and sounds of cooking were hidden. Since men have developed culinary interests, the kitchen is larger and more fully integrated into living space. Food preparation is a social activity. In HGTV’s House Hunters, the “open floor plan,” like granite countertops, is an essential on the wish list.
Awareness that a structure models and mirrors the lives lived within it perhaps allows us to be less manipulated by its program. It also allows us to read old houses archaeologically as documents of the behaviors of those who produced them. In my most recent book, Architectural Agents: The Delusional, Abusive, Addictive Lives of Buildings, for example, I consider an old Palestinian mansion in the Husseini suburb of Jerusalem. Built just after the middle of the nineteenth century, the house embodied the patriarchal culture of which it was a part. The main entrance to the building was in the west wing, facing the main road. This section was formally arranged and elaborately decorated; here business was conducted. It was male territory. Women found their places in the rest of the house—the kitchen and washing areas to the east, the wives’ rooms of the north wing, the social chambers to the south, and the central garden. Toilets were outside the building.
After the death of the owner, the house was sold to a millenarian community briefly led by an American lawyer, Horatio Spafford, and, after his death, by his wife, Anna, then later by their daughter, Bertha. The Spaffords and their followers had come to Jerusalem for the Second Coming. While they waited for the Messiah, they occupied themselves with entrepreneurial enterprises and good works. They established an orphanage, staffed hospitals, taught gratis in Muslim and Jewish schools. They were well-loved by non- Protestant Jerusalemites because their charities were offered without strings—they did not proselytize. The American colony modified the house in which they lived. They closed the main entrance and moved it to the south. The patriarchal wing was fully integrated into the mixed-gender matrix. A dining space was joined to the sphere of cooking and cleaning. Later bathrooms were introduced within the structure. The old Palestinian house was Americanized.
That house is now the five-star American Colony Hotel. Its history is still traceable in its fabric. The structure demonstrates how a good building can endure the traumas of a violent city: It is the only place I know in Jerusalem where Palestinians and Israelis can meet as equals. To me it is the healthiest space in the city. After all, a home to which you become attached might not only be your own.
Watch the video of the evolution of the American Colony Hotel.
Wharton is the William B. Hamilton Professor of Art History. Her book Architectural Agents: The Delusional, Abusive, Addictive Lives of Buildings will be published by the University of Minnesota Press next year. This fall, she will be the Vincent Scully Visiting Professor of Architectural History at the School of Architecture, Yale University.