Environmental & Architectural 
Phenomenology  Newsletter

About

Selected
Articles

Selected
Reviews

Cumulative
Index

Subscriptions
& Back Issues

Selected Reviews

Clare Cooper Marucus, 1995. House as Mirror of Self: Exploring the Deeper Meaning of Home. Berkeley, CA: Conari Press.

Reviewed by Margaret Boschetti

Just as many people in the 1970s were inspired by Clare Cooper Marcus’s “House as a Symbol of the Self” [1] , her House as Mirror of Self, may work to enlighten a new generation of design professionals about the importance of human emotional attachment to the physical aspects of the home and to the role of dwelling in the life-long process of individuation—of becoming who we truly are.

In her examination of new dimensions of person-place experience, Marcus may also inspire a regeneration of research that involves at least three important issues: (1) the kinds of methodology used in gathering information from participants; (2) the life-cycle framework of the home-self relationship; and (3) the need for the home environment to nurture what Marcus calls the “soul-Self.” In this review, I discuss each of these issues in turn.

 

1. A CREATIVE METHODOLOGY

Marcus’s book is the fruition of over 20 years of interviews with people to discover why they felt the way they did about their houses and homes. The more than 60 men and women Marcus interviewed lived in the San Francisco Bay area and represented a wide range of backgrounds in terms of age, income level, owner/renter status, type and size of dwelling, and urban/rural context. Most centrally, all informants expressed strong relationships with their homes, both positive and negative.

In order to elicit unconscious feelings in as natural and non-threatening a way as possible, Marcus interviewed all informants in their homes and used a process of picture making and role playing to establish a dialogue between the person being interviewed and his or her home.

Interviews were taped and transcribed; in some cases multiple interviews were conducted over a seven- to ten-year period. This thoroughness of methodology generated rich descriptive data, though when used by persons less able than the author (who has training in Gestalt therapy techniques), the results could be less successful. Marcus describes how she interacted with her informants:

Each story in this book was told to me while sitting in the person’s own home. I found this to be a necessary part of putting people at ease. In order to have them begin to focus on their emotions, I first would ask that the person put down his or her feelings about home in a picture; I supplied a large pad of paper, crayons, and felt pens. If they objected with ‘Oh—I can’t draw,’ I reassured them that this was not a test in drawing, but rather an opportunity for them to focus on their feelings without speaking. Some people did childlike house diagrams with words or colors indicative of feelings. Others produced mandala-like symbols, semiabstract images, or artistic renderings. For most people, it seemed that this experience of beginning to explore feelings in a visual image while I absented myself from the room was extremely helpful in allowing the person to focus before starting to talk.

While this was going on, I would wander around the house or apartment, taking photos and notes about how the setting seemed to me. Then, after 15 to 20 minutes, I would return and ask the person to describe, somewhat objectively, what they had put on paper. For example, a young woman who was happy with her recently purchased woodsy house described how she had first drawn an image of a pond with the phrase, calm like water in a pond and then had added small, smiling houses and the words cozy, spacious, gracious, and lovely. (p. 8).

Included in Marcus’s book are many drawings and color plates that illustrate a range of expression from highly pictorial to abstract. The combinations of graphics with oral expressions enrich the participants’ stories and provide additional information for analysis. While this style of presentation is not an entirely original approach for eliciting highly personal information, the power of the method is clearly demonstrated through the specific conclusions of the study.

 

2. LIFE CYCLE AND THE HOME-PERSON RELATIONSHIP

Though much has been studied about the sociological aspects of housing, Marcus’s book offers an empirical basis for the theory that the “house interior and its contents mirror our inner psychological self.” Furthermore, the author shows that this relationship is a lifelong process beginning in childhood and following through the teen and adult years. Additionally, the relationship includes a wide number and scale of settings, both interior and exterior, in which people experience feeling at home.

The book is organized into ten chapters documenting the life-cycle nature of the home-self journey, or developmental path: Special places of childhood; growing-up; always or never leaving home; self-image and setting; disruptions in bonding with home; and home as transcendent self.

Each of these topics introduces several issues that are explicated in a very readable, story-telling format based on individual case studies interpreted by the author using Heidegger’s pre-logical thought processes—i.e., attempting to capture the pre-verbal aspects of the self/dwelling relationship, with references to studies by other researchers. After reading the introductory first chapter, one may read the other chapters in any order, as each can stand alone, though reading them in sequence convincingly builds reinforcement that the home/self relationship is a life-long journey.

The chapter, “Special Places of Childhood,” introduces new descriptive information to reinforce familiar themes discussed in Marcus and others’ work using environmental autobiography with design students. Marcus links the resulting themes (hiding places, child-created dwellings, home-away-from-home, exploration vs. fear of the unknown) with important developmental behaviors that guide children’s growth. Marcus addresses the issue of whether childhood memories are based on reality or fantasy with the following story:

A woman architect I met talked about a recurring memory of an attic—of creeping up into it, exploring it, knowing it was forbidden territory. She couldn’t be sure if it was a real place, or if she had once had a particularly vivid dream of an attic that kept reverberating in her mind. In some ways, I told her, it doesn’t matter; if the image keeps recurring, we can be sure it is the unconscious trying to tell us something, nudging us to explore, perhaps, what is in the attic. Eventually, this woman built herself a real attic by adding a second story to her suburban home. Accessed by a ladder, this space was hers alone, forbidden territory to her husband and children. Here she daydreamed, watched shadow patterns on the skylight, and eventually started a meditation practice. The attic was the opening to her spiritual journey. Whether she had ever, in reality, visited an attic in her childhood was irrelevant (p. 39-40).

 Another chapter, “Becoming Partners,” illuminates the importance of the home setting in reinforcing or upsetting the challenge of adults living together. Symbolic meanings attributed to physical things—houses and objects in them—are deeply ingrained within us, though often unconsciously so. These parts of the self assert influence upon personal relationships within the family and home setting. As the following story suggests, family therapists and specialists in family studies could gain insights into the impact that the physical environment can have in human social relationships:

It may be that what a home symbolizes for each person is more critical than almost any other issue. In all the conversations I had with couples who were comfortably making and sharing a home together, they all seemed to be in accord over the basic function and meaning of home. Concerns over privacy, territory, and personal space can usually be negotiated or made to work via house-remodeling or a move. But if one perceives the home principally as a symbol of status, the other as a nurturing vessel for family life, or if one cares deeply about homemaking while the other seems to just use the place as somewhere to sleep without appreciation for the partner’s efforts, it may be more difficult to avoid resentment and conflict (p. 153)

 

3. HOMES NURTURING THE SOUL

Though each chapter of Marcus’s book is rich in detail and depth of insight, it was the last chapter, “Beyond the House-as-Ego: The Call of the Soul,” that I found most fascinating and revelatory. The discovery of connections with the soul, or “Higher Self” as Marcus calls it, was not anticipated when her conversations with people about their homes began.

Many of these connections, though not all, were discovered through people’s experiences with the natural environment: Examples include tree houses, the desert, or an ocean house. The struggle in the middle years to reconnect with the “soul-seed” planted in the child’s unconscious offers the opportunity and challenge to grow by returning to a part of the self that is at the core of a person’s being but which may often get overlaid and stifled by outside pressures and adult responsibilities. In her introduction to this chapter, Marcus explains:

In keeping with the theme of this book, I am most interested here in the environments that seem to trigger that poignant reconnection [with the “soul-seed”]. Each of us has to find the place of our soul—in our memories, our imagination, or in the material world. For some people, this place of soul nurturance may not be in the home at all; it may require spending time in another place or—over a lifetime—in varying soul-nourishing places, each appropriate to a particular stage of emotional development. When we start to feel not totally at home in our dwelling, or conversely, when we seek a broader home in another place, it is likely that the soul is demanding recognition (p. 254).

 I find the idea of the higher Self of the soul (as opposed to the ego-self) in relation to one’s home on earth, a focus well worth attending to by individuals personally, by educators and students in the classroom, and by designers in their practice. This possibility seems to be an issue that a mature society could and should address, as well as the mature person.

In this regard, some reviewers may criticize Marcus’s book for its lack of generalizability, but it is a book to read for insights, not for prescriptions. The book sheds light on universal themes, wisely recognizing that the home-self relationship is dynamic and individualistic, defying simple solutions. Because of its range and scope, the book should appeal to professionals in several fields: housing and design, psychology, human development, and sociology. Because of its very readable style,  House as Mirror of Self should interest the layperson as well. Do-it-yourself exercises following each chapter allow readers to explore their own personal histories and experiences with homes. These exercises could also be used in the classroom to provide the topic with personal significance for students.

Marcus’ list of references is extensive but omits some important contributions to the topic of this book by researchers in housing interior design. Though the body of work arising from those disciplines is not large, there are studies that corroborate the message in this book. In addition, there are unfortunate reference errors that could confuse readers; hopefully these will be corrected before another printing.

In spite of these minor blemishes, House as a Mirror of Self is a major work and a fascinating read.

 

NOTE

1. Clare Cooper, The House as a Symbol of  Self. In J. Lang. C. Burnette, W. Moleski, & D. Vachon, Eds., Designing for Human Behavior (Stroudsburg, PA: Dowden, Hutchinson & Ross, 1974).