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.

As a prelude to his analysis Halle describes the kinds of house he got to examine, and in doing so makes sense of aspects of American domestic planning which a purely architectural study might ignore: for example, the entrance foyer with a larger-than-door-sized opening to the living room – a reversion in planning terms to the hall as main room, not entrance passage. I knew this pattern from American movies about suburban life, but assumed it was a cinema-designer’s device, a kind of stage set, not real architecture. Halle relates planning conventions like these to changes in American family life. One lifetime has seen the home bar fall into disuse; it had appeared in the Fifties, often in the basement, to compensate the male breadwinner for the time he was no longer spending with cronies in the tavern. The ‘den’, a family living-room (not, as I thought, a male retreat), has become the centre of much of the family’s life – the most-favoured room. Similarly, the way the main entrance to Upper East Side New York brownstones has been abandoned in favour of what was originally the ‘back door’ entrance at ground-floor level is something you notice walking around New York without thinking through the social changes it implies. In this case it is part of the rearrangement of functions which has followed on the virtual disappearance of live-in servants (and, interestingly, of any desire for their services). Halle prints plans which show how a typical 19th-century Upper East Side Manhattan town house was organised, and how it is organised today. In the 1880s and 1890s the basement contained the kitchen and servants’ hall. The house was entered formally at first-floor level – through a vestibule and front parlour. Today the entrance is at basement level (in a third of the houses he visited the first-floor entry had been removed altogether), what was a cellar is now labelled ‘basement’, and the old basement is the new first floor, with a dining-room on the street side and a kitchen on the yard side. The yard, now the focus of the house, not the rat-infested, unvisited place it was in the 1890s, is fenced, lit, prized and planted. None of the occupiers Halle talked to wanted to have non-family about; a nanny was a necessary but passing and unregretted phase in the family’s history. In Greenpoint, a working and lower-middle-class area in Brooklyn, Halle found a similar retreat to family-only occupation; here, however, it is the lodger who has disappeared. When sections of these houses are rented they are made self-contained.

What makes Halle’s book refreshing for readers outside his discipline is that it considers art in its domestic context. Only in this way, he says, ‘can its meaning for an audience, and the nature of its links with material and social life, he discerned’. The theories which his study tests suggest that the audience (be it of fashion victims, snobs or connoisseurs) has its responses determined by external pressures. The relationship between these and the audience are set out neatly, if cheekily, in a table. The first theory is ‘status striving’ (high status attained through ownership and display of culturally approved objects), the second ‘Frankfurt/mass-society’ (domination of ordinary people by corporations/Madison Avenue), and the third Bourdieu’s ‘cultural capital theory’ (access, via education and family socialisation, to dominant class positions, which are strengthened by the possession and understanding of art). The last column of the table is headed ‘Force driving acceptance of new modes of high art/culture’. In all three cases the forces are the same: ‘Artists and critics’. His own findings, he says, ‘raise questions about the entire approach, popular in sociology, that sees art and culture as being primarily about domination and power’. ‘It is unclear,’ he goes on, ‘whether there is one particular group, or even one particular combination of groups, that can be said to hold cultural and ideological dominance in the West.’

One of his moves is to identify ways of using images which cross all social classes. Thus formal portraits – painted or photographed – are nowhere currently popular. Almost everyone, it seems, finds them too self-aggrandising. Where painted portraits do exist they are informal, and of groups – the children, for example. He was obviously delighted to find a family portrait by Bob Stanley made up of square panels – two of each family member – bolted together. As illustrated, there are six panels, showing father and two children – Mum took her two away when the marriage broke up. This neatly supports Halle’s notion that the formal family group asserts more stability than the facts of social life can support. Snapshots on the other hand allow easy regrouping.

The commonest kind of picture for his subjects to have prominently displayed on their walls, no matter what their social class, was a modern landscape, almost never with people. While these pictures may also be status-enhancing, there is, as Halle says, ‘no need to resort to explanations in terms of how museums and other élite cultural institutions, still less large corporations, have imposed their tastes on the public’ in order to explain this preference. Halle’s examination of two categories of image the domestic display of which is socially determined – abstract and primitive art – suggests that responses to them are ambiguous and complex. For example, very few people liked the masks they owned (they were, of course, very often intended to be frightening) and even found it hard to explain why they had them around. Unlike the landscapes and the abstracts which seem to provide pleasant feelings, these and some other ‘primitive’ pieces may have a quasi-didactic function. Halle suggests that they must be understood in the context of US race relations, just as the replacement in Catholic houses of the traditional full-length images of the Virgin with half-lengths must be understood in the context of changing ideas about the value of virginity. Whether you agree or disagree with Halle’s more speculative interpretations, his accounts of how people talk about and display their possessions brings you closer to what seems, intuitively, a truer account of the ambiguous place images have in people’s lives.

The first volumes of the American Society of Architectural Historians’ Buildings of the United States – the beginnings of an American ‘Pevsner’ – deal mainly with the outsides of buildings. Indeed, readers are warned to keep away: ‘Almost all of the properties described in this book are visible from public roads, or in some cases from the water. If they are not, “not visible” is noted at the end of the heading ... Of course, we know that readers of this book will always respect the property rights and privacy of others as they view the buildings.’ This note on etiquette, and the fact that the Architectural Historians set out with the assumption that much of what is interesting, amusing or excellent in building can he spotted from the road, is fine so long as you bear in mind that much else can only be known by getting inside and asking questions. Tracking down a Sullivan Bank or a Frank Lloyd Wright house in its native habitat, seeing the physical context of buildings which also have an art-historical context: these are pleasures and an education.

The assumptions which the taxonomy of style and the hierarchies of art history underpin can be coercive, however, particularly when they are used to justify putting an area in aspic. Halle gives an example: he writes of the ‘breathtaking ignorance’ implied by the Landmarks Preservation Commission’s opinion that the application of aluminium sidings to wooden houses in Greenpoint was ‘a cause for concern’, creating ‘jarring notes in otherwise harmonious rows of houses’. Things are more complicated than this identification of ‘bad’ working-class taste implies. Sidings were an economical way of preserving decaying wood. Wooden row houses were then not much valued. Now that they are valued, the taste of many working-class residents has caught up: ‘restored’ houses, make better prices than ‘improved’ ones. ‘This case study,’ Halle writes, ‘exemplifies many of the pitfalls involved in too easy proclamations of the discovery of taste differences between the social classes, especially if these taste differences are to form the basis for grander theories about the role of cultural differences in class domination.’

The Buildings of the United States includes Thirties gas stations, diners and such like. As there is less old architecture to write about, it gives a better feel of the texture of ordinary urban environments than Buildings of England. Moreover, without trespassing, or even seeing these buildings in the flesh, one is able to put a sort of life into them. What keeps one dipping – when far from Iowa and Michigan and the possibility of making proper use of these guides – is not architecture as architecture so much as architecture as a setting for fiction. The stoops, porches, tower rooms, sun decks, office blocks, silos, courthouses, barns and schoolhouses shown here are known to us from novels and, more particularly, movies. These are the Gothic houses burnt-out writers returned to, the town halls corrupt mayors peculated in, the quiet streets terror stalked. They are the subject of Hopper’s paintings and provide backgrounds to Norman Rockwell’s cover art.

So one stays with the Buildings of Iowa, despite the fact that entries are often reduced to the kind of description which is obscure when the building is not illustrated and, one would guess, redundant in the field. A note can be as brief as this one, for what sounds to be a pretty boring building in Osage, Iowa:

Commercial Building. South side of Main St near Seventh and Chestnut Streets. The street level has been ‘modernised’ on this two-storey building, yet its strong character is established by the open loggia on the second floor, a visual device seldom found in midwestern commercial buildings.

One could argue that this information should be shown on a map or in some Michelin-like symbol system. But as you read on you find that even brief notes like these add up. From them you make a portrait of a kind of American town you feel you already know, in which there really are addresses like Chestnut and Main. The general note on Osage tells of a hope abandoned: when the town was ‘platted’ (laid out) in 1853 a block was put aside as ‘College Square’. All that came of the campus which was to be built there is the Cedar Valley Seminary, on the corner of Mechanic and Sixth, now the Mitchell County Historical Society. Many Midwestern towns were drawn up with such field-marshal’s batons in their knapsacks. The original plan tells you when public ambition aimed too high. Again and again grandiloquent Colonial Revival porches, Richardsonian rustication, elaborate barge-boards, and decorated porches assert a kind of pride which in England is subdued by convention, modesty and manners.

Scraps of neighbouring buildings showing up in illustrations remind you that this is America, that suburban houses will be set back from the road, often on unfenced plots, often close to each other; that porches will be there to sit on, and that house plans will be different from those we know in Europe. You begin to sense an American idea of how life can be lived which, as much as low eaves and ground-hugging silhouettes, characterises the houses of Frank Lloyd Wright. (There are twenty-odd buildings of his – mainly houses – in these two volumes.) New ideas spread fast. There are Californian bungalows in Iowa and prairie houses all over; you must travel not state-wide but country-wide if you wish to see all the surviving octagonal houses derived from Orson S. Fowler’s Home for All, or the Gravel Wall and Octagonal Mode of Building (1848).

If the impression given by these volumes is a true one, the new towns of the Midwest, built on flat land to gridded plans, took more of their life from the desires and fantasies, of individuals than from received notions of urbanity. The epitome of the architecturally desirable is not (as it can be in the East) seemly towns all cut from the same cloth. The history you read here is more self-assertive than that recorded in the brick-built streets of Boston or the clapboard houses of whaling towns. Around Detroit you are pointed to the houses of Affleck who made quick drying paint, and Dodge who made automobiles. These – the former by Wright, the latter an imitation of English styles – are both now parts of universities. There are also houses which must have their own stylistic cubby holes: a splendid example, in Marshall, Calhoun County. Michigan, is the Honolulu house of around 1860, based on ‘Hawaiian prototypes with Italianate stylistic elements’, and built by a retired US Consul to remind him of his time in the Sandwich Islands.

Some American details, like the giant orders and grand porticoes which stand before quite modest domestic buildings (and, of course, the Greek Revival plantation houses which are another of the building types the movies have taught us to recognise), can be grandiloquent, even pompous. And there are, to be sure, hateful buildings recorded here: buildings into which we are liable to read the forces of capitalist triumphalism – the squashed pyramid of the Steelcase Corporate Development Centre, for example, granite-trimmed, 128 feet high, and threatening. But there are also the capitalist equivalents of the country house and the royal palace: the handsome buildings commissioned by Herman Miller Inc (manufacturers of furniture by Eames and Mies van der Rohe) and the glass-fronted modern Versailles of the GM technical centre. Some of the best buildings are those which record pure Yankee ingenuity: the Octagon Barn of the James L. and Cora Purdy Farm, for example, which is 100 feet in diameter and has 48 foot high walls – a machine for automated cattle-feeding. And there are things which might be ignored if they did not take place on an American scale, like the Breughelish scene when Lake Michigan is frozen over and up to two thousand shanties are pulled out onto the ice by people fishing for walleye, perch and northern pike. And there are buildings which could not be ignored anywhere: ‘The Grand Hotel exceeds all superlatives ever written to describe its stately majesty and festive quality,’ the authors write, and even a picture which allows you only to register its monumental three-storey verandah tends to make you believe they are right.