Beyond Buildings


Thanksgiving and the American Home

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Rockwell Thanksgiving Dinner 

Image credit: Norman Rockwell, "Freedom from Want." 1943.

No doubt most of you have been cocooned at home or with family and friends for Thanksgiving this year. It is remarkable how this event has the power to bring people together across many different time zones and locations. For this last week, I have watched as all social engagements, all trips, and all activities have been in about family. The ingathering was all around us. The home, that central artifact of the American Dream, worked its attractive magic.

In other countries occasions for gathering are usually religiously based or have a strong tie to a particular time of year, like the Chinese New Year. In America, Thanksgiving is the feast celebrating our arrival in a new land and its domestication. It is a harvest festival, to be sure, but it is, more than that, about having made ourselves at home in a new and seemingly boundless space. The table is its altar, the coziness of being inside its point. Its focus is not a church or some communal celebration, but the place within that boundless American space, the home. We gather there to eat, to talk, and perchance to argue; rituals include cooking and cleaning, as well as touch football. All but the latter affirm the domestic aspects of our existence. It is a celebration of the act of creating a space for ourselves, turning our backs on the world around us, and framing a sense of belonging.

This year, I escaped, though not by choice, what I still find one of the most comforting rituals of my life. As I write this, floating somewhere over India on the day before Thanksgiving, it occurs to me once again how strange the spaces are that we occupy these days. Mine is a particularly privileged one at the moment, courtesy of Holcim Concrete: a wide seat in an all-business class Singapore Airlines plane taking me non-stop from Newark to Singapore, a flight of about 18 hours. For almost a full day, this my cocoon, fed by lights, electricity, dry air, music, and films, and separated from the other compartments where my fellow travelers snore, work, or watch movies. I am in another world.

We occupy many such strange spaces, albeit they are not all this rarified. The airplane cabin is only the most extreme example of the kinds of cocoons we build for ourselves, and which the philosopher Peter Sloterdijk (his books are finally beginning to come out in English) describes as essential to our modern existence. We make such nests for ourselves wherever we live or work, in our apartments and homes, our hotels and camping tents, our desks at work, and, as best we can, in the spaces we wait. Only when we play do we truly turn outward, contesting territory or watching such competitions from stands (unless, of course, you are in a luxury box).

We tend to think of architecture as being both a social act that frames our relation to others, and a way of emplacing us in a particular context. We forget that the buildings most of us want are homes or home-like: inward-turned wrappers. We want the wider context to be as neutral as possible, and the furniture and furnishings, the contours of our immediate spaces, to be as soft and forming of a container as possible. Of course we like views, but they should be framed and contained. The Thanksgiving I am missing, as well as the luxury cocoon I am in now, remind me of what an American architecture must truly do: make us at home.



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About the Blogger

Aaron Betsky

thumbnail image Aaron Betsky is the director of the Cincinnati Art Museum, and in 2008 he was director of the 11th Venice International Architecture Biennale. Trained as an architect at Yale, he has published more than a dozen books on art, architecture, and design and teaches and lectures about design around the world. Aaron worked for Frank O. Gehry and Associates and Hodgetts & Fung Design Associates as a designer, taught for many years at the Southern California Institute of Architecture, and between 1995 and 2001 was curator of architecture and design at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. From 2001 to 2006 he was director of the Netherlands Architecture Institute in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.