Unreal Nature

June 20, 2015

The Freedom to Move On

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:49 am

… it could be lightheartedly abandoned when the crops failed, when war threatened …

This is from the essay ‘The Movable Dwelling and How It Came to America’ found in Landscape in Sight: Looking at America by John Brinckerhoff Jackson; edited by Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz (1997):

… No matter how comfortable or convenient it may be, we know that the time may well come when we find it wise to change: this is perhaps the best moment to sell. Perhaps a new job demands that we move or the neighborhood threatens to deteriorate or the children have grown up and left home. So we look for another dwelling; and since other people feel the same, another suitable dwelling is not usually hard to find.

What I am suggesting is that the home and the dwelling are two separate things, though they usually coincide.

… there were from the earliest times two types of houses. The dwelling was, of course, much more numerous, but the other kind is the kind which architectural historians usually know more about. To greatly oversimplify, we can say that this second kind was in many ways the complete opposite of the first. It was identified with a family over generations — so much so that another term for a dynasty is house — like the house of Windsor or the house of Rothschild. It was as large and as permanent as possible because it was a symbol of power and status in the community. … [W]hereas the dwelling by its very poverty has few ways of preserving and providing for the long-range future, the mansion is deeply involved in both concerns. It is at once a monument to the history of the family and its power and wealth and a legacy for future generations to honor and preserve.

… For all their squalor, medieval peasant dwellings had a remarkable flexibility and mobility — not only in that they could easily be taken down and reassembled elsewhere, but also in that they could easily change function and change tenants. If their life span was brief, it allowed for frequent replacement. When the old dwelling collapsed, the new one was apt to be better and was certain to be cleaner. Finally, the temporary nature of the dwelling, its negligible material value, meant that it could be lightheartedly abandoned when the crops failed, when war threatened, or when the local lord proved too demanding. Its flimsiness protected the family from the dangers of staying put. If people could not fight misfortune, they could at least escape it by leaving house and environment behind.

… It is very tempting to analyze the dwelling entirely in socioeconomic terms; certainly, dwellings do not lend themselves to analysis in terms of architecture or folk art. But the real significance of the temporary dwelling, of the box house, to take one example out of many, lies elsewhere. I think it has always offered, though for a brief time only, a kind of freedom we often undervalue: the freedom from burdensome emotional ties with the environment, freedom from communal responsibilities, freedom from the tyranny of the traditional home and its possessions; the freedom from belonging to a tight-knit social order; and above all, the freedom to move on to somewhere else.

… Not everyone can sympathize with this other, more popular tradition, with its rejection of environmental loyalties and constraints, but all of us who think about architecture and its many bewildering manifestations are in a sense duty bound to try to understand the new kind of home we are all making in America.

My most recent previous post from Jackson’s book is here.

-Julie

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