Architectures of Domesticity

If you’re a woman, all you really want is a room of your own, on your own terms. What needs to be negotiated in order to acquire this small architecture is not always easy to achieve, nor is it entirely clear. There’s been much study, analysis, discussion and writing. The body, it seems, is still, astonishingly, mostly feminine, and the house, the domus, while tying the female to domesticity and the containment that implies, most often belongs to the man. (Perhaps today with some legal enlightenment, a house is held by both partners, but wealth and property remain the domain of the male). To the body’s being female–it’s the hard to erase the Cartesian split of mind and body, the cleft that designates cool rational thinking as masculine and the sensual physical body that houses it, feminine.

While acknowledging the longing for a room of one’s own I like the suggestion posited by Giuliana Bruno in Public Intimacy: Architecture and the Visual Arts (The MIT Press, 2007) to reconsider sexual difference as an aspect of space. “Thinking geographically,” she writes, “we can design different cultural maps as we venture into the terrain of an architecture of gender–a lived space.” Doing this, she goes on, “requires undoing the fixity of binary systems that have immobilized the female subject in the domestic realm and erased her from the maps of urban mobility.” The age-long epic problem apparently has been that the point of departure–home–must also be the ultimate destination, the place of return, making the journey a circle. The hitch, as Bruno points out, is that, “The beginning and end are asked to be the same destination, revealing the biological destiny behind the destination…. In this circular critical structure, domus, domesticity and domestication are confused, and gendered feminine.” Who is it who waves the handkerchief of farewell, babe on hip, and keeps the hearth warm?

The alternative she suggests, to this closed circle of travel and its cultural consequences, would be “a constant redrafting of sites,” which ensures that “spatial attachment does not become a desire to enclose and possess.” Andrea Zittel is one of the artists Bruno cites, whose work responds to this socio-geographic, not to mention gender-inherent, highly charged psychic limitation. I remember admiring, at a New York installation, Zittel’s wheel-less Escape Vehicles, small, customized stationary trailers that provided, as she described, “a refuge from public interaction.” To be considered, then, is the possibility that the idea and realization of home be subject to shifts, and that maybe pinning the feminine specimen to one spot on the map is neither possible nor desirable. (Limited apologies to Nabokov for the butterfly allusion.)

Reading, I’m finding varying definitions of desire. My eye is drawn to the fragments that refer to desire as always, and only, anticipatory. This perpetual suspension, this protracted state of immanence is seductive, stimulating of course, but it may be a goad around which endless questions could also be asked.

In her introduction to What the Body Costs: Desire, History and Performance (University of Minnesota Press, 2004), Jane Blocker indicated that one of her topics would address “how the object of desire always exceeds and is uncontained by desire’s longings.” She’s referring in this instance to the necessary elusiveness of the body in performance art and, as I think of it, this may explain the hostile or alternately, the reticent response that performance art often receives. The body, having provoked desire, is now unavailable and the audience is enraged, or being unavailable but still desired, a positive response is withheld. Or Roland Barthes, with whom Blocker opens her book, saying, about the flash of skin that shows in the place when a garment separates, ” … it is this flash itself which seduces, or rather: the staging of an appearance-as-disappearance.” Always–what isn’t there.

Another fragment: “one of the vital functions of architectural representations, especially of popular representations, is to operate as transcendent projections of desire…. And even if that desire has not always been lusty, it has sponsored a similar gaze of longing for the unattainable” (George Wagner, “The Lair of the Bachelor,” from Architecture and Feminism, Yale Publications on Architecture and Princeton Architectural Press, 1996).

In the following brief excerpt, desire is posited as something that could be, might be, achieved. Giuliana Bruno writes, in Public Intimacy, that the “interrelation of space and desire, the desire of owning the room, and the desire for ‘a room on one’s own,’ mark a female experience.” She elaborates with the work of artist Rebecca Horn and says that in its different forms, “Horn’s obsession with a spatial representation of desire writes the woman, and the female experience of space.” Further, it’s in this “mapping the association of desire and space and the mechanics of desire” that Horn’s works are “female topographies.”

I confess to topophilia, to love for a place. The place is Gimli, an Icelandic fishing village on Lake Winnipeg where I have the cottage my father built in 1949. It’s here that I have identified a particular room of my own, not figurative but indeed, spatial, actual. It’s a bedroom which was added some years after the cottage was built, and it juts out, toward the lake. It measures 10 by 12 feet and has double windows on each side, one pair facing south, the other north. Inside, it appears almost unfinished, the outside perimeter boards being the only boundaries between inside and out, and a pitched shed roof that rises only a few feet above upstretched fingertips. Still, it could be no more complete. Equidistant from the windows is a double bed. A small wooden chest of drawers and an antique walnut dresser as bedside table are all the room contains. When I think of the room’s furnishings, it’s the rough white cotton curtains I’d list first. They’re crooked because I hand-stitched them on my lap, on a chair in the grass, and they’ll remain uneven. I think it’s the filtered, slightly mediated view through these curtained windows that give me my scopophilic fill of the world. Here I am all eyes. I look out. Facing south, I watch the blue jays plummet to the peanuts I throw on the grass to lure them, and onto the branches of the pines along the lake side. Once spotted, I give them no more than 20 seconds to move to the other side of the cottage and I follow to the north windows where, soundlessly, I part the curtains and watch them in the branches of the pines that run along the bedroom’s north side. Over 50 years old, the trees now almost rub against the cottage and some of the branches are thin and wear spider webs and brown needles. I watch: the hooked little feet that hold the peanut, the precise black beak that jack-hammers it open, the flamboyant blue and grey suit, the downy white underdressings, the occasional feather that spirals slowly to the ground. Time.

In the morning I lift the windows as high as the sashes allow. The curtains cover them. On the white cotton I have solar photos of what passes–the shadow of a crow, or the jays on one side, on the other a series of thinned pine branches moving. While it’s not the case, standing in the middle of the room I feel I can stretch my arms and touch both sides. It’s a nest, a flying space, a panopticon onto all I want to see. I look out at a world from this intimate space, and the outside looks in. When the moon clears the lake at the horizon and rides to a point in the south sky, I’ve parted the curtains and the cool slow light enters, almost enough, when the moon is full, to read by. And sometimes there’s wind and the curtains move like breathing and this is how, in my room, the world comes in. This is a domus, gendered feminine, to which I come, and which I inhabit and leave when I choose.

In the 1940s Louise Bourgeois began a series of drawings and paintings she called “Femme-Maison,” which incorporated the house and the female body as one. Here, home is not a carapace, nor the readily portable turtle’s shell. Instead, the house (I’m referring here, particularly, to the drawing Giuliana Bruno reproduced in Public Intimacy) has a female torso, or the woman, from the waist up is a house–a unity of being like the seamless human/horse creature that is a centaur. Claustrophobic, mobile, liberating, both wry and fulsome in its representation of the myriad readings a house can have for a woman. A house is not a home, the homily goes, and a woman is not a house, unless there’s a willingness to consider the peripatetic possibilities that would allow all the geographic and psychic latitude women desire. Giuliana Bruno refers to Bourgeois’s “Femme-Maison” work as architexture, where “the body and the house are joined in the itinerary of dwelling.” Bourgeois’s intention with her drawings was to suggest the possibility of a woman “remapping herself in different notions of home.”

The brittle, yellowed pages of mail-order catalogues from the 1950s and ’60s that you find now only in mouldy stacks in age-old cottages, or preserved in provincial archives, offer an endless range of comfortable, easy to launder “house dresses” in a variety of prints and colours so similar, one to the other, that focusing on a choice would have been, I imagine, futile and depressing. Designed to provide no constraints to the wearer as she moved efficiently through her household tasks, their very practicality would have reinforced the profound sense of limitations these garments guaranteed. Dowdy and as clearly proscribed as most uniforms for women were, they functioned as effectively as an electric anklet in keeping the woman contained inside the walls of her house.

These are not the “house dresses” imagined by German modernist architect Bruno Taut in the 1920s, where he drew readily on the activities of a woman as she moved inside the spaces in her house. Identifying their use and inhabitation, he saw women as active in making and altering architecture. Giuliana Bruno acknowledges the importance of Taut’s contribution in his recognizing that architecture is made by the ways in which it is used. This led him further, to identify “the birth of the female public.” She notes, “His architectural study programmatically addresses the new fashions of female subjectivity as a public.” He refers to this as mobilizing the environment and he found a parallel to this mobilized architecture in another active form of design–fashion. Bruno writes, “Speaking of the ideal form of habitation, Taut compares the house to a piece of clothing and quite literally calls the house a woman’s dress.” No pale and draining or florid and diminishing dresses here.

There’s an essay in Architecture and Feminism by Vanessa Chase, called “Edith Wharton, The Decoration of Houses, and Gender in Turn-of-the-Century America.” The mansion summer houses of America’s title-less bluebloods, as cozy as the legislative houses found in Canadian capitol cities, and in the same scale, populate Newport, Rhode Island, where Edith Wharton also summered. At the turn of the last century she was an early feminist who assessed with a sharp eye and wrote with wit and facility about the wealthy, about property, fashion, manners, women and the travails that beset them, most of them finally occupying, but never able to fully claim, a home for themselves. Gardening and decorating–deemed the weaker aspects of house design–were given as the domain of women but Wharton recognized these areas as integral and claimed them instead for architecture.

Remembering a performance in dance that I’d seen in New York, based on Wharton’s novel The House of Mirth, I recalled how bitterly astute her reading had been of the social conditions of the period. A beautiful but orphaned young woman without property of her own–no roots, no centre or ground on which to draw for fortitude or support, finds herself without remedy and, homeless, takes her life.

A woman can build whatever house she’s able, or find for herself a room of her own. This abode should be as mobile and variable as required, as purposefully supple as a woman wishes. Perhaps odd to conclude, in the early months of 2008, with a quotation by Edith Wharton written a century ago, offering counsel to a colleague, but here it is. “I believe I know the only cure [for nervous disorders] which is to make one’s center of life inside one’s self, not selfishly or excludingly, but with a kind of unassailable serenity–to decorate one’s inner house so richly that one is content there, glad to welcome anyone who wants to come and stay, but happy all the same in the hours when one is inevitably alone.” With the high cost real estate still exacts, her advice against anxiety–even acknowledging advances and rereadings over time–remains, alas, pragmatic and sage.