Other People’s Rooms

Peter Campbell

  • Inside Culture by David Halle
    Chicago, 261 pp, £23.95, January 1993, ISBN 0 226 31367 0
  • Buildings of the United States: The Buildings of Michigan by Kathryn Bishop Eckert
    Oxford, 603 pp, £27.50, June 1993, ISBN 0 19 506149 7
  • Buildings of the United States: The Buildings of Iowa by David Gebhard and Gerald Mansheim
    Oxford, 565 pp, £27.50, June 1993, ISBN 0 19 506148 9

David Halle’s researches earned him a licence amateur voyeurs would kill for. He got to nose about, more or less at will, in other people’s rooms. His study of the landscapes, portraits, snapshots, saints, masks and so forth which a representative group of Americans, in and near New York, have on their walls and shelves, of how they display them and what they say about them, required that he get to know more than a hundred and sixty different houses. The aim was to test and develop theories about art and class. His book provides, incidentally, much information about how American houses are used and what the art they contain signifies. When curiosity about this kind of thing feeds through to television shows investigating the lifestyles of the rich and famous it makes mass entertainment. In magazines and books, pictures of rooms seed fantasies about perfect lives lived in country cottages, or exciting ones lived in New York lofts. But most people feel happier looking around strangers’ houses than having strangers look around theirs. What persuaded residents to co-operate with Halle?

Among respondents of the upper middle class (the study was designed to cover upper, middle and working-class areas) a New York Times review of a previous project and a Columbia University letterhead aroused interest and guaranteed respectability. The working class responded better to the letterhead of the State University of New York at Stony Brook. ‘In the end,’ Halle writes, ‘people allowed us into their homes’ – he had a female assistant – ‘because they allow properly credentialed strangers (such as repair people, delivery people) into their homes all the time. We too presented our credentials.’ His subjects should be reassured. They have served a good purpose.

Inside Culture is a corrective to ways of looking at buildings and what they contain which are constrained by the habits of art history. It helps you to think about how owners and inhabitants influence the way buildings look, and how they are used, and shows how the intentions of designers and makers are embroidered, elaborated and subverted.

Buildings may be old or new: the life in them is, by definition, modern. Halle’s book corrects any tendency one might have to believe that there can be, or ever was, a golden age when an uncorrupted system of visual codes governed the man-made environment. Perhaps in a materially poor and physically isolated culture one might find such a thing. We must, we are privileged to, draw on a more complex, and constantly changing, language. It must be read in the details. Halle’s statistical tables do not stop him presenting anecdotal evidence, or showing photographs of the rooms he discusses. He begins his book with an account of a telling failure:

One evening, I knocked on the door of a Manhattan townhouse to which I had mailed my standard request for an interview. This house had been selected as part of a random sample, but I recognised it as belonging to the architect I.M. Pei. To my delight he opened the door himself, greeted my research assistant and me warmly, and offered us drinks. Only when I began the interview did it become clear that he had mistaken us for dinner guests whom he had invited but never met. We were summarily evicted and rebuked for trying this kind of research.

The author’s photograph on the jacket gives the story a sharper edge: Halle bears some resemblance to Peter Sellers in one of his manic roles. That Pei, architect of the Louvre Pyramid, thought Halle’s study out of order is not surprising, but he was mistaken if he thought it crudely reductionist.

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