Beyond Buildings


(Not) Homeward Bound

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There I was, on the road again, with millions of fellow travelers in Thanksgiving week, trying to nestle myself into the terminal, cocooning myself in with my Ipod, and the first song the shuffle produced was Simon & Garfunkle’s “Homeward Bound.” As luck would have it, I was heading the opposite direction, and the song awoke a sudden sense of disconnect with the surfaces and spaces of the airport, so much larger and so different than home, where “my love lies silently waiting.”


Thanksgiving as a ritual helps build that sense of home like no other holiday. It is all about building a sense of belonging with family, wherever you are, including all the dysfunctional family relations fed by the memories and regressions home evokes. It is a particularly American thing, this cult of the home. Not that other countries don’t have it, but it was the United States that, starting after the Civil War, turned the home into more than just a place to live and a bit of a refuge, but to the core building block of culture, the place where children were bred and educated into shared values, the place where the family created the social unit that replaces clan and class, and the place where each family unit can have its own particular relationship to their little bit of the seemingly endless terrain that make up the country of Manifest Destiny.


That home quickly became quite standardized in its form and image: a stand-alone structure, usually built with a balloon frame, looking out over a small front yard from a porch, possessing, if at all possible, a larger back yard, with its formal rooms on the ground floor and bedrooms above. The type could and was elaborated and distended, or could be as compact as the Levittown basic dwelling, but the basic elements remained the same. The home was the domain of the woman, who used her skills to create an ordered and miniaturized version of the perfect world. If you want to see the most succinct statement of the ideal, read Catherine Beecher’s (she was Harriet Beecher Stowe’s sister) The American Woman’s Home of 1869.


These days over half of all Americans live in suburbia, which is the world the American home necessitated. However, fewer and fewer actually live according to the ideal. And yet we refuse to give the ideal up. Or do we? A personal point of passing for me was the recent closing of Metropolitan Home, a “shelter book,” or compendium of domestic interiors, for which I was Contributing Editor for over almost two decades. Working for the magazine drove me crazy at times, as I tried to conform to its notion of the ideal American home, but it did try to push the boundaries by showing non-traditional couples and even, in recent years, modern interiors.


Metropolitan Home was always dwarfed by larger rivals such as Architectural Digest, while recent arrivals such as Dwell stole its more “edgy” territory, but it tried to preserve the notion that the well-designed American home was out there and should be admired. It concentrated not on the mansions of the rich, but on houses and apartments you and I might have, or at least aspire to, and where I could imagine gathering my family for a Thanksgiving feast.


Now it is gone, and I am even more adrift, floating through the global skein of modern connections wondering where home is. It is out there, and after Thanksgiving I will return there, but I place myself less and less in its cozy constraints. For now, I nestle myself in the cocoon of the airport seat, turn the volume up, and press send. Happy Thanksgiving.




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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.