Environmental & Architectural
Reaching Home: Reflections on Environmental Autobiography
Environmental psychologist Louise Chawla first presented the following ideas as a participant in a special 1994 Environmental Design Research Association workshop, "Environmental Ghosts: Negative and Traumatic Images of Place," organized by environmental psychologist Nora Rubinstein. Chawla is author of In the First Country of Places: Nature, Poetry, and Childhood Memory (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 1994).
The geographer Anne Buttimer (1980) has described our relationship to place as an exchange between home and horizons of reach. Home embodies our desire for rest, territory, security, community. Horizons of reach represent movement, range, adventure, innovation.
Buttimer notes that these complementary poles of human existence function geographically, socially, and imaginatively. When the home and reach of our imaginations and our social affiliations are fulfilled in the place where we live, we enjoy centered lives. Often, however, what we desire to be and the people we desire to be with conflict with where we are.
The environmental psychologist Nora Rubinstein (1993) has brought attention to the reality that, all too often, family violence creates places where people are housed but not homed, where basic needs for security and community are violated. She has suggested that there is a special horror associated with victimization in the dwelling, a place that our culture defines as "sacred" to families.
Considered together, the observations of Buttimer and Rubenstein demonstrate the ambivalence of home. We expect the house where we live to be home to the degree that we often use these words interchangeably. We use physical functions of home‑-shelter, rest, nourishment--as metaphors for psychological needs. Yet reality often frustrates us, so that the meaning of home contains within itself two poles: our longing for familiarity and comfort; and imaginative horizons of reach beyond where we are.
This ambivalence regarding the meaning of home is inevitable. We need psychological comfort and rest as well as food, and physical familiarity partially provides it. The settled, however, does not hold us. We also inhabit reaches of thought and imagination that trouble our rest. We cannot help but compare the present with the past and future, noticing change and loss. We ponder limitation and mortality. We conceive distant or fictional places that tempt us with total fulfillment.
Western culture accentuates this natural ambivalence. This essay traces some leading cultural associations with the idea of home through a few influential texts of classical, medieval, and early modern philosophy and literature, with a focus on major shifts in the assumptions that these texts reveal.
PLATONIC IDEALS OF HOME
In the great cultural current of Platonism, "home" is an inner attainment of the philosophic mind. According to Plato's doctrine of anamnesis, our souls preexist our earthly birth; our true home is our place of origin among the gods. In this sense, we return home through a recovery of memory. But because our origin exists outside time, this recollection takes us beyond time--rather than backward through it.
Through the medium of Socrates, Plato describes this return home in a myth in the Phaedrus. According to Socrates, when the soul nourishes itself on beauty, wisdom, and goodness, it regrows wings and ascends to the company of the gods, "even to the summit of the arch that supports the heavens" (247b). There, standing on the plain of Truth, it looks down upon the turning sphere of the universe:
The home that the soul returns to is the dwelling place of its ruling god, not far from this still point at the axis of the universe.
CHRISTIAN IDEALS OF HOME
After the fall of Rome, most of Plato's dialogues were lost to Western Europe, not to directly inspire art and literature again until the Renaissance. The essence of the Platonic sense of home--that it is a place of philosophic calm beyond the physical limits of the universe--was not lost, however. It was dramatically popularized by one of the most influential books of the Middle Ages, The Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius.
A sixth-century Christian, a scholar of Plato and Aristotle, and a leader of the Roman senate under the Ostrogothic king Theodoric, Boethius was at the height of his power and fortune when he was falsely accused of treason. He wrote The Consolation in exile in prison, awaiting torture and execution.
As the book begins, he lies on his bed in his cell, prematurely aged, shaking with grief. Suddenly the vision of a tall imperious woman, Lady Philosophy, appears to him. She scolds him for his anxieties and tells him that she knows the real cause of his despair: he has forgotten himself and his true country.
"You have not been driven out of your homeland," she tells him, "you have willfully wandered away" (Book 1, Prose 5). What disturbs her, she says, is his attitude, but given his former devotion to her, she makes him a promise that echoes the Phaedrus:
The path home proves to be the practice of philosophy, by which Boethius is convinced that true happiness is perfect goodness. Though only God is perfectly good, human beings can dwell in the proximity of God by sharing godly qualities.
The theme of returning to the soul's true home, to God, echoes through the centuries, and still rings in church hymns. This tradition contains two competing claims. One is that the soul's home is a place, paradise, vividly imaged on church walls. It is this tradition, that the soul's true home is heaven, a place never reached until after death, that persists in conventional liturgies.
But in the Neoplatonic tradition preserved by Boethius and revived in the Renaissance, home is a practice, philosophic contemplation, achievable in this life when a virtuous soul secures a point of calm from which to survey the ever-turning cycles of the universe. As an embodied practice, it is temporarily entered into; as Lady Philosophy reminds Boethius:
MODERN DEFINITIONS OF HOME
In the seventeenth century, with the spread of middle-class wealth and the secularization of society, home became a present place of earthly comforts (see Rybczynski, 1986). First celebrated in Dutch paintings, then spread throughout Europe and North America by the fashion of family portraits posed in the library or garden, these domestic images of material fulfillment are now marketed worldwide by the housing and home products industry.
But perhaps because total earthly happiness is "never completely achieved and never permanently kept," the Platonic search for an inner security that transcends temporal change has not been lost. In eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Romanticism, it was assimilated into another transformation.
As Boethius joined a Platonic sense of home to the Christian search for salvation, Romanticism joined it to modern secularism. After early adulthood in Cambridge, London, and the European Continent, Wordsworth returned to the place that was home to him, the Lake District of his childhood. He did so with the intent of consecrating "the simple produce of the common day" ("The Excursion," line 55) as he first knew it in childhood. Nowhere else, he said, could he regain life's fundamental sensations:
("The Recluse," Part I, Book I‑-Home at Grasmere, lines 142-151)
The "Perfect Contentment, Unity entire" that Plato associated with the plain of Truth at the axis of the universe, the still center of the turning world outside the limits of the earth itself, Wordsworth grounded in a personal geography.
Honored in 1843 as England's Poet Laureate, Wordsworth combined the Romantic effort to spiritualize the secular world with Victorian sentimentality and domesticity. Like the Neoplatonic tradition he consciously inherited, Wordsworth identified the soul's true home with mature meditation. This home that was now a physical place of personal origin could never be understood and attained until one returned to it sadder and wiser, rediscovering it after "years that bring the philosophic mind" ("Ode on Intimations of Immortality," 10.19).
Nevertheless, this Romantic home was now an earthly place, associated with recollection as much as reflection, and fundamentally with impressions of childhood. "Spots of time" is what Wordsworth called memories of formative places and events that "retain/a renovating virtue" (Prelude 12.208-210).
Not coincidentally, he chose this term at the same time that landscape painting, which permanently fixes visual spots of time, was becoming a popular art form. In paintings, engravings, soon photographs, and poetry more pictorial than philosophic, this conjunction of home, memory, and childhood became, quite literally, a Victorian cottage industry.1
But the Romantics also passed on to the Victorians another side to these happy images: the doppelganger, the double, the Gothic novel in which sinister ghosts haunt the halls and byways of home.
In the 20th century, this emphasis upon memory, childhood, places of fear behind masks of nostalgia, ghosts that must be exorcised through reason, reclothes itself in psychoanalytic theory. In the work of Freud, spots of time became screen memories--indelible detailed images from childhood, usually neutral or benign‑-that signal repressed sexual experiences (Freud 1960). Home, in the 20th century, has become a suspect site of childhood trauma.
AN UNSETTLED AMBIVALENCE
Explorations of home in design research have assimilated this complex cultural legacy. Following the example of Wordsworth and landscape painting, residential and environmental autobiographies commonly involve detailed narrative and visual images. Autobiographers assume that it is necessary to recover the past in order to understand the present, and that keys to self-understanding can be found in geographic spots of time.
Following secular material conventions, home is commonly assumed to coincide with a house, domestic habits and comforts. Anticipating the emergence of either "renovating virtues" or Gothic ghosts, designers justify environmental and residential autobiographies on the grounds that they will reveal how people seek to recreate, or avoid, childhood places in their adult houses and gardens (Cooper Marcus 1978, Hester 1979, Ladd 1977, Rubenstein 1982).
Nora Rubenstein (1982) notes that analyses of environmental autobiographies emphasize positive, even nostalgic images, while negative experiences have gone largely neglected. She suggests this failure to acknowledge that the house often harbors violence and abuse may be encouraged by our cultural designation of the house as a sacred place of domestic intimacy (a home both secular and spiritual).
To expose this deception, psychology provides tools similar to those used to create it: a focus on recovering and elaborating visual images from the past, flashbacks, screen memories. Again, the assumption is that spots of time contain keys to our self-identity.
The unsettled ambivalence of the word home, in which we tenuously seek to dwell, persists in this effort to more accurately explore different dimensions of environmental autobiography. If the idea of home expresses a basic human need for rest, territory, and security (Buttimer 1980), then we will seek it in a still point, a stable spot of time. Even when we protest that the reality of home imprisons us and denies us the horizons of reach necessary to find our true identity, we seek to expose the illusion through alternative images, frozen frames of haunted time.
What other ways do we have of understanding, expressing, researching the meaning of home? In the EDRA workshop sessions which reopened the subject of environmental autobiography, Leanne Rivlin suggested that memory itself is a motion, an ongoing commentary in which we repeatedly readjust past, present, and future, rather than a stable archive.
Clare Cooper Marcus proposed that we would be wise to exchange the Platonic and Christian desire for a still true home that transcends time for a Buddhist acceptance that everything is in change and motion and we are part of this larger fluid unity. Jerome Tognoli reminded participants that the goal of trauma counseling is to provide a safe relationship in which people can acknowledge the realities of past pain so that they can subsequently "get on with their lives."
Perhaps stages of recovery from trauma provide the best guide to how researchers and teachers who use environmental autobiographies should proceed into this risky territory.
First, as the trauma counselor Judith Herman (1992) has described, there is a need for safety. This need includes physical safety and safety within personal relationships. For people gifted with restorative spots in time that appear "a Centre... made for itself and happy in itself," the creation of environmental autobiographies may be a safe prelude that enables them to hazard other, troubling memories and a changing self-identity.
Not knowing what the process will initiate, however, it is critical for teachers and researchers to communicate safety within the classroom or research setting, interrupt memories when it appears that unmanageable pain may surface, and be prepared to recommend opportunities for therapy.
According to Herman, the second stage in healing is remembrance and mourning, when people reconstruct the story of their lives with appropriate emotion. In this case memory functions, as Leanne Rivlin has suggested, less as still pictures and more as an adaptive narrative. In the final stage of recovery, personal memories are acknowledged to testify to larger histories of exploitation and abuse in which the individual is one of many. By speaking out as a witness to this history, people can accept that loss, even major trauma, as much as happiness, unite them to the human community.
To apply Buttimer's terms, in this stage of wisdom, we integrate home as an ideal of security and rest and as a painful reality with our horizon of reach, whereas we risk movement and new identities. In this centering, the achievement of home turns out to be, once again, more of a practice than a place--and, like the examples of Plato, Boethius, and Wordsworth, a reflective, philosophical practice.
Unlike the meditations of Plato and Boethius, this contemporary practice no longer seeks to transcend the universe. If we begin to expand the boundaries of environmental autobiographies by inviting memories of pain as well as pleasure, we initiate a process of remembrance that commits us to the goal of healing. In doing so, we become part of a larger history of current cultural transformation.
Like the Platonic soul at the axis of the world, we survey ever-moving gain and loss, but we no longer seek to escape this world of transience. Within the resources of this universe, we commit ourselves to creating the temporary stabilities of home in real earthly places.
1. It was often pure nostalgia. Consider, for example, Thomas Hood: "I remember, I remember/The house where I was born,/The little window where the sun/Came peeping in at morn" ("I Remember, I Remember," lines 1-4).
Boethius, 1962. The Consolation of Philosophy. NY:Macmillan.
Buttimer, A., 1980. Home, Reach, and the Sense of Place. In A. Buttimer & D. Seamon, eds., The Human Experience of Space and Place. London: Croom Helm.
Cooper Marcus, C., 1978. Remembrance of Landscapes Past. Landscape, 22: 35-43.
Freud, S., 1960. Childhood Memories and Screen Memories. In J. Strachey, The Standard Edition of the Complete Works of Sigmund Freud, vol. 6. London: Hogarth Press, 43-52.
Herman, J., 1992. Trauma and Recovery. NY: Basic Books.
Hester, R., 1979. A Womb with a View. Landscape Architecture, 69: 475-481.
Hood, T., 1980. Complete Poetical Works. Westport, Ct: Greenwood Press.
Ladd, F., 1977. Residential History: You Can Go Home Again. Landscape, 21: 34-43.
Plato, 1961. Phaedrus, Collected Dialogues. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Rubinstein, N., 1982. Residential Reminiscences. Metropolis, June
Rubinstein, N., 1993. Environmental Autobiography and Places of Trauma. Proceedings, 24th Annual Meeting, EDRA. Oklahoma City: EDRA.
Rybczynski, W., 1986. Home: A Short History of an Idea. NY: Viking.
Wordsworth, W., 1949. Poetical Works, vol. 5. Oxford: Clarendon.