Monday, June 11, 2007

The Achitecture of Fear

The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, dir. Robert Wiene, 1919
There is something about certain architecture which inspires fear. Modernist housing, for example, with its brutalist angles and sheer blank walls, make us feel small and helpless; the superclean, cold spaces inside leave no place for us to snuggle in. Everything is hidden away; there are no cubbies, no hiding spaces, no comfortable clutter. Ceilings soar; everything is bright; there are few walls. Furniture looks dwarfed and lonely.

On the other hand, a place with too many cubbies, too many hiding places, or too much darkness, can be pretty frightening too. Think of the consummate haunted house, with its secret doors and dark corners. Cellars. Attics. The imaginative child spends a lot of time thinking about what might be hanging out in those places. My father, for example, had to walk to the back of the cellar in his house to shovel coal into the furnace. The stairs had no kick-plates on them, so they were open to whatever was below them (whatever it was could easily reach through and grab his ankles). The wall next to the stairs was connected to a disused root-cellar, fenced off by planks with large gaps full of darkness between them. He used to run down the stairs, shovel fast, and run up again.

Original sketch for a scene in The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, dir. Robert Wiene, 1919 from Lotte Eisner - The Haunted Screen

As for me, I was one of those kids who spend a lot of time scared. Did you ever see that movie Sixth Sense? That kid was me: though I didn't see dead people, I know exactly the kind of terror that kid felt. Did you ever see the first Poltergeist? Remember the scary/friendly clown? I was afraid of my dolls sometimes in that same way. All the stuff in Stephen King's It, with the drains and the sewers and stuff? That was me - I was terrified of toilets. I thought a disembodied hand would come up out of the toilet (never imagined what would happen next, of course).

Mostly I was scared in my house (though the roaring toilets at school, in the prison-like bathroom, were pretty bad). I grew up rurally, on a lonely road, in a ranch house. By this I don't mean ranch-style, as in modern suburbs, but really a ranch-house, built in 1901, with people having died in it and all. The house was porous in all the ways that made my dad's trip to the cellar awful: it had creepy closets and dark corners and was three stories tall, with long, long dim shotgun hallways and tall stairs. It was always creaking, because we lived in a windy place on a ridge above the ocean.

Curiously, I had (and still have, occasionally) dreams about being on high walkways with no railings, or traversing rooftops, or terrible pathways between frighteningly blue swimming pools. Despite the waking fears of hiding places, my dream-fears were of soulless places with no containment. The lack of warmth, of walls, of hiding places was naked, vulnerable, awful.

So, given that it's pretty hard to avoid scary structures, what is it that we want from a structure, other than shelter from the weather and a place to keep our stuff? I'd say a place to nest. A place where we can curl up and feel safe. All the other stuff, running water and dinner party capability, those are all extras. The most important thing, especially for children, is a sense of safety. And the biggest hurdles to that feeling are vulnerability, that sense that your self is available, even on display, for bad things that are watching, and porosity, the failing of walls, when the structure which offers you safety does, in fact, have too many holes in it (read: gaps, doors, windows, open grilles, even drains and plumbing).

My fear of toilets, for example, was really a fear of that hole in the bottom of the bowl. Where did it go? It was bottomless, constantly sucking things down. It was a porous place between the everyday world and...somewhere else, a place I never even tried to imagine. Neil Gaiman captured this sense of porosity to Another Place beautifully in Coraline, and managed in the process to capture the horrible vulnerability, too, when Coraline gets to the other side.

Any good horror movie maker knows both these concepts as well. Think about the shower scene in Psycho. Why is that so terrifying? My main guess is: the shower curtain. It makes you feel there's a wall there without actually offering any protection. There you are, naked and vulnerable, and there's that shape standing outside the curtain! That curtain which is really only a porous membrane, an obscuring, a nothing. There are oodles of horror movies where the hero(ine) is walking around in front of windows or through a forest while we watch, from the point of view of the monster/slasher/bad guy, and the implicit understanding is that it's horrible because s/he's so vulnerable to be seen. And my friend Gwyan points out that the scariest part of Night of the Living Dead is the part where the zombies are sticking their arms through the boarded-up windows (which were supposed to keep them out, right?). Shades of my father's cellar! And, oldest of all: the minotaur, down there in his creepy Labyrinth, waiting to catch you and eat you.

On the other hand, there is a flip side to all of this, where the secret can become magical. How many stories are there of cool attics full of wonderous stuff? Or haunted houses full of treasure? Think about Baba Yaga's house, on its chicken feet, waiting for you in the depths of the forest. Or a witch's house, full of hanging herbs and smelly smoke? Or the famous Magic Shop? All of these things are totally fascinating: even though they might be dangerous, they don't feel so vulnerable, perhaps because they're so full of stuff. And the porosity to otherwhere can also have its flip side: think of the wardrobe in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe! Or the trap-door in The Twelve Dancing Princesses! Or that wonderful idea of turning a conceptual corner in your room at night to get to other worlds, as in the fabulous Diana Wynne Jones' The Lives of Christopher Chant.

Which brings me to one of my favorite books. One of the most interesting tomes I know about human living space, A Pattern Language actually talks about what kinds of things make a building more psychologically comfortable - more human, if you will. Their theory is that houses traditionally have been a conglomeration of added-on spaces, arising organically from need (however if you read the book, please discount most of what they say about the larger landscape, it's pretty outdated and ecologically uneducated, though well-meaning).

What I like best about this book is that it talks about architecture in terms of conceptual spaces and details. It doesn't use high-flying jargon, it only talks in terms of the people-ness of a place, what makes places work, towards beauty and comfort. The book breaks down into 253 different ideas about comfortable space, some of them only a page long, and the pictures make you drool. The best bits are about houses themselves. You can read about "Common Areas at the Heart", for example, or "Corner Doors". "Windows Overlooking Life" discusses how to avoid creating rooms that are prison-like. Some of my favorites are "Thick Walls", "Open Shelves", "Built-In Seats", and of course "Child Caves". In #204: "Secret Place", they summarize something essential that I never thought of until I read it:

"Make a place in the house, perhaps only a few feet square, which is kept locked and secret; a place which is virtually impossible to discover - until you have been shown where it is; a place where the archives of the house, or other more potent secrets, might be kept."

The book endorses the use of bed alcoves (who could be scared in one of those?!), with a view out into a larger space. They like ceilings that come down low enough to touch (at least one place in a house), low windowsills, thick walls, and places to sit that feel safe. While it doesn't address the idea of fearfulness per se, it does identify and speak about issues of what makes architecture work better for people and their deeper needs, as in the passage, below:

"Modern architecture and building have deliberately tried to make windows less like windows and more as though there was nothing between you and the outdoors. Yet this entirely contradicts the nature of windows. It is the function of windows to offer a view and provide a relationship to the outside, true. But this does not mean that they should not at the same time, like the walls and roof, give you a sense of protection and shelter from the outside. It is uncomfortable to feel that there is nothing between you and the outside, when in fact you are inside a building. It is the nature of windows to give you a relationship to the outside and at the same time give a sense of enclosure."

One of the safest-feeling and best places I have ever stayed was in a yurt - you know, those circular tents favored by nomads in the steppes? There are a lot of modern versions nowadays that you can buy made of up-to-date, durable materials, but based in structure on the traditional ones. Instead of a smoke-hole in the top, there is a bubble skylight (where you can watch the clouds and the stars), and the walls, including where the windows are, are made from a wooden lattice-work covered with thick fabric. I always thought it was the lack of corners that made the place so incredibly comforting, but perhaps it was the way the lattice-work covers the windows as well.

I suppose not all people are sensitive to the space they live in. I remember an argument between two friends of mine, one an interior architect/designer and the other an extremely pragmatic engineer, about the word "home": the designer said that a house and a home are different things, and the engineer claimed there was no difference at all. If I had been more than passingly there for the argument I would have said that a home is safe and has a certain kind of domestic magic.

Ultimately, A Pattern Language manages to touch on what can make a house a magical place, and we all need that.

(PS. For a wonderful synopsis of the movie The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, try here.)


Unknown said...

I stumbled across your website today. :) I must say, I can relate to the feelings of fear as a child!

Such a great post, very stimulating! Reminded me of a book I read once, similar to A Pattern Language, entitled Placing Words.

Home is where the heart is... the hearth, and the mother. :) All of that is nestic. (to coin a word)

I suppose the practice of it would be termed nesticism, then. :)

Anonymous said...

Have you ever seen the architecture of Hunderwasser? His stuff is part hippy, part folkart, and all odd angles. He believed in incorperating amazing green spaces into his designs, which I must say gives a very comfortable and cozy feeling. He had ginormous roof gardens, trees growing straight up through three floors of a building, and little greenhouse/terrarium things built right into the rooms. I totally understand making the outside a separate are from the inside (ie. huge windows) but making trees and plants part of the inside, that's a whole different comfort, sort of like a tree house. I can't say as I love the other elements of his design (super colorful and awkward angles), but I will vouch for the uneven floors. It would make placing furniture a bitch, but in the gallery of his paintings in Vienna, the uneven floors are more organic and cozy than unnatural and frightening. You can see his architecture here.

Anyway, awesome post. You're right on with everything. When I was a little girl I turned my small closet into my bedroom and slept there for weeks. My mother thought me insane, but my bedroom was so large and I just wanted to be contained safely.

Heather McDougal said...

I have seen Hunderwasser's stuff, and it looks really fun. I agree with you about the bright colors/odd angles getting tiresome to live with, but I do like the floors (furniture be damned). His whole philosophy is that living spaces should be more humanized and stimulating, and that people who live in a sensual and stimulating place are less likely to get sick or grow senile.

Thank you for the compliment, I was wondering if this post was too odd, but now I know at least two people liked it I can rest easy!

Anonymous said...

Interesting post - I like the sound of A Pattern Language. I agree about the bed alcove thing in particular - I remember when I started at university I was given quite a grand but very big and cold room, and the bed just felt so exposed, facing the door - it really exacerbated my feelings about being away from home for the first time etc, at first. A cosy corner to sleep in must be a very primal need...

Anonymous said...

I think everyone who reads A Pattern Language finds "Child Caves," out of all those patterns, and loves it. I used it as the basis for "reading caves" in my media center for Read Across America Day and both the kids and the teachers went wild.