Eve Tushnet, a Catholic writer who has written movingly about friendship, faith, and being gay, recently had a piece about how the form of our built environments relates to human connectedness.
I particularly like this paragraph where Tushnet discusses the role that “unofficial places” play in the memory and imagination.
There is . . . something poignant in the human tendency to live and love in the margins, in the hidden places. So many of my childhood friendships took place in back alleys, in the unofficial and neglected places where adults were near enough if something went terribly wrong, but far enough away that we felt our freedom—the hush in which friendships flourish.
Tushnet goes on to quote a conversation she had with me about “nooks and crannies” in the layouts of classic small towns—back lots, the backs of houses backing onto something else. These oddly liminal places are an important part of the three-dimensionality of the space. “You can go behind stuff,” I told her. “Nobody goes behind a strip mall; it’s like, ‘What are you doing there?’”
These sorts of places have become important to the way I think about built environments. For an idea of what I’m referring to, here’s an illustrated piece I wrote about a small town in Northern Virginia that typifies this kind of urban design. I may have been thinking about this town while chatting with Tushnet.
I’m not sure I was linking these together in my head at the time, but for years—long before I gave much conscious thought to urban design and related matters—I’ve liked small towns in the same way that I like old houses. Both of them seem to have these “nooks and crannies.” In a way, houses are like neighborhoods in miniature.
Not long after my wife and I were married in 2018, I found myself thinking a lot about this. Her parents came to stay for a couple of weeks and were doing most of the cooking for us. (I usually do the cooking in our home.) For the first time in years, I was able to come home from work and relax until dinner was ready. It reminded me of being a kid again, back in my parents’ house. And that got me thinking about how that feeling of comfort and relaxation might be related to the actual, physical layout of the house.
I thought about how a quirky floor plan, like a classic town, engages your brain: textures, hiding places, closets under the stairs, crawl spaces, semi-finished basements, awkward corners. I wonder to what extent the fun times I remember from visits to friends’ houses in childhood had to do with the layout of their houses.
There was my best friend’s dim, quasi-finished basement, for example, with all its advantageous positions for hide and seek. (Under the desk holding the obsolete computer, or behind the stack of cast-off tube televisions packed under the staircase.) I remember his odd L-shaped room, and the funny little corner area under his L-shaped desk where one of us would always hole up during a sleepover. These slightly uncanny spaces sparked something in my young imagination: They were caves, tunnels, undiscovered spaces. You could be an explorer in your own house. (This also reminds me of the dark staircase in an old residential rowhouse that I once found at the back of a store in Washington, D.C. It was dimly lit and tucked between an interior and exterior wall. I peered down, but didn’t have the courage to descend.)
A lot of modern housing, on the other hand, has a certain bland, flat, sanitized vibe. Some of that has to do with the decor and some with the slick and minimalist finishes that are trendy right now. Part of it is the construction and floor plan itself, which is simple and plain—or lacking entirely: “open concept” floor plans continue to be popular. Once, going open concept meant removing doors and widening door frames. Today it often means removing the walls altogether, leaving the entire main level without any quiet or private spaces.
There might be something deeper here than conscious interest. For example, Charles Marohn of Strong Towns argues that we have a physiological tendency to stick to “edges.” That’s one reason so many people like richly textured, ornamented public squares, Main Streets, and, well, houses with nooks and crannies: We don’t like blank spaces, or big empty spaces. If that principle applies to our preferences when we built cities and towns, perhaps it applies in some way to houses, too. Modern homes almost resemble modern tech: sleek, blank, slightly alienating, difficult to personalize.
Think about the design of old stereo equipment. A model from the 1970s, say, would likely have been encased in real (or faux) wood. The analogue radio dial would have been lit warmly by an actual light bulb. The control panel would have been full of dials and switches and buttons that clicked and clacked and turned and pushed and snapped. There was something about that design that engaged you, that invited you to do some of the work. By contrast, a modern piece of audio equipment is usually very sleek, a literal black box, with minimal opportunities for user input.
That’s the feeling of coldness and remoteness that so much modern interior design and urban design communicate. I wonder how different my childhood memories would be if the houses and built landscapes I knew as a kid had been like this?