The Meaning of Home 01.02.13

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Edwin Heathcote's elegant guide to domestic symbolism entertains and informs Daisy Froud, but is curiously lacking in illustrations

The Meaning of Home is a curious little book that both delights and frustrates. Over 34 tightly-knit passages each devoted to a particular room or feature, Edwin Heathcote argues for a renewed focus on the home as a site of memory and meaning. The book is based on the premise that our domestic environments are "perhaps the last repositories of a language of symbol and collective memory that ties us to our ancestors" – a language in which most are, Heathcote suggests, now illiterate. He then draws out the stories that lie hidden within the structural and decorative elements of the average British dwelling.

The book addresses meaning comprehensively: from the etymological to the figurative, the psychological to the philosophical, collective tradition to individual memory; there are references to paintings, books and films, and to the idea of the house as a cypher for the human body or mind. Each chapter offers a fascinating miscellany of facts, anecdotes and reflections.

Heathcote is a charming host, who not only entertains with his own knowledge, but introduces you to influential authorities on the subject. Freud, Muthesius, Jung, Perec and Benjamin all pop up with some regularity. I appreciated this density; I felt like a guest in the house of an inveterate intellectual hoarder, licensed to rummage through a lifetime's accumulation of engaging architectural oddities.

It does seem slightly perverse, however, for a book about symbol in architecture to have no illustrations. The book presents itself as an object: the cover a traditional front door, complete with embossed lion's head knocker, the lining a well-worn wallpaper. It's somewhat surprising then to find page after page of text.

Heathcote excels at using words to help you see your mind's image library afresh, as in his description of the "piping viscera" of British houses, "gathered like ivy on rear walls ... a distinct backyard landscape of black horizontals and verticals like a Mondrian frame". But this approach doesn't work for things one has never seen, especially when you want to consider their form. Google Image became an essential reading companion.

The linear text, especially read cover to cover, can feel rather list-like. The chapters originated as columns in the Financial Times: jolts of intellectual provocation tucked among more generic pieces about property. But what succeeds in one format does not necessarily translate to another; the columns might have benefited from reworking once packaged en masse.

As it is, The Meaning of Home is one of the less experimental contributions to the "domestic symbolic" genre. Not many actively play with the space of the page as Perec does in Species of Spaces, but both Bill Bryson and Penelope Lively, attempting a similar task to Heathcote, use their family houses as a framework, in a more subjective and narrative approach. I enjoyed the occasions when Heathcote cites his own personal experience, such as the drinking of cava out of plastic cups – part of the eccentricity of the topping-out ceremony; in contrast, his generic, inclusive use of "we" made me uncomfortable – when he speculates about "our" loss of connection with the home as dwelling (a leitmotif), as opposed to asset or Bourdieusian positional space.

Perhaps inevitably, given the origins of the text, the book's "we" primarily seems to address affluent home-owners rather than the significant proportion of the population stuck privately renting; and not those self-defining members of the "working class" who, as sociological research (such as that of Chris Allen into Liverpool's Pathfinder programme) shows, still see home as shelter and link to community, and are bewildered by its commodification within regeneration processes.

The Meaning of Home is strongest when it focuses on particular architectural evolutions, about which Heathcote writes with concise wit. The fireplace chapter, for example, eloquently links structural change with shifts in belief, culture, practice and technology. As Heathcote says: "One of the most elegant things about architecture is the way in which ritual and symbolic devices transmute over time into practical features and then, once those practical uses too have been forgotten, hang around to haunt buildings."

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The Meaning of Home by Edwin Heathcote, Francis Lincoln, £12.99

 

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Daisy Froud

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Each chapter offers a fascinating miscellany of facts, anecdotes and reflections.

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