A Room for the Family
June 22, 2016
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“No social group…can survive without constant informal contact among its members. Any building which houses a social group supports this kind of contact by providing common areas. The form and location of the common areas is critical…
Relatives and intimate friends may be made to feel at home in the family room, where the family is likely to spend much of its time.” Christopher Alexander et alia, A Pattern Language

Constant informal contact: this is, or should be, one of the central aspects of living together under the same roof. It provides a necessary counterpart to more formal or intentional gatherings, since informal and impromptu contact is a necessary ingredient in the growth of relationships and community life.

Alexander is suggesting that we should be intentional about non-intentional time; that we should seek to facilitate such ‘accidental’ contact. The ‘family room,’ then, is here conceived as a place for being together where there is nothing specific that has to be done. But precisely for this reason, a family room is best when positioned and arranged so as to be easily accessible and comfortably inhabited. It will be close to, yet normally distinct from, much-used spaces such as the kitchen. Alexander also suggests that it will be set back from the entrance to the home and more formal receiving areas, thereby lending itself to more intimate contact not open to all passersby.  He also has very practical suggestions for making the room more inviting; one simple principle is that there should be windows on at least two walls. See the quotation below for his description of a ‘sitting place.’

To utilize a family room well requires more than its strategic placement and arrangement. It will require that people have habits of being-together, in this case casually. One of the greatest enemies of such habits is our addiction to entertainment—especially canned entertainment from television, computer, etc. It might even seem strange to the younger generations that there would be a room that is not wired for entertainment. What might people actually do there?

What people used to do is talk. Talk about today, and about tomorrow; and perhaps especially about yesterday. People told stories, about simple life experiences and the happenings that have made us who we are. They also sang, or read out loud. Perhaps some whittled or colored or wrote a letter. And all these are ways of being together, as a ‘family’—in either the strict or the broad sense.

The family room incarnates a pattern of living as humans. It is a room defined by actions that are neither work nor play, though these too can happen in it. Here we live the conviction that it is good to be together, united in simple, rich activities as old as mankind itself. If we, and especially our children, lose the understanding and the practice of such activities–pushed out by pervasive and often banal substitutes–human life itself is threatened at its very core.

That we cultivate habits of spending time together in these ways is of the first importance. But there are other things we can do to facilitate such presence, and shared life. One of these is to be intentional about having a space that is conducive to it. While many of us are not able to change the physical position of our family room or the disposition of its windows, we can all be more thoughtful about its arrangement. Most of all we can be more intentional about how we spend our time in it.

That we have a space we call a ‘family room,’ arranged for family life, is itself a reminder and a catalyst to live an aspect of human life we must not leave behind.

A quotation on a ‘Sitting Space’…
“A group of chairs, a sofa and a chair, a pile of cushions—these are the most obvious things in everybody’s life—and yet to make them work, so people become animated and alive in them, is a very subtle business. Most seating arrangements are sterile, people avoid them, nothing ever happens there. Others seem somehow to gather life around them, to concentrate and liberate energy. What is the difference between the two? …
Place each sitting place in a position which is protected, not cut by paths or movement, roughly circular, made so that the room itself helps suggest the circle—not too strongly—with paths and activities around it, so that people naturally gravitate toward the chairs when they get into the mood to sit. Place the chairs and cushions loosely in the circle, and have a few too many.” A Pattern Language (Oxford University Press, 1977), pp. 858-59

Introduced by last week’s post, this is the first of several posts taking a thoughtful tour through a house, room by room, based on the writings of Christopher Alexander.

Christopher Alexander (born 1936) was born in Austria and is currently an emeritus professor of architecture at the University of California, where he taught for almost forty years. He has been widely influential through his theories of architecture, and is especially known for his 1977 book A Pattern Language.

Image: by Knut Ekvall (1843-1912)

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  1. This touches on something that made a strong impression on me when I first visited your house for one of your student get-togethers at the end of the fall semester of 2010 (my freshman year). I and Savanna were the among first to arrive (in fact, I think we were the first) and when we entered your parlor and met your family I remember being profoundly struck by the fact that here there was no “canned entertainment,” as you put it: no football game on a TV above the fireplace, playing for anyone’s distraction, no party playlist of music going in the background to hide pauses in conversation–unlike most (maybe all) parties I could recollect. Instead, it was just a room with people in it, gathered around a hearth. For a fleeting second I remember thinking, as I noticed the absence of other filler noise or background entertainment–“But, what are we going to *do* with everyone?” What followed–the singing, the reading from Belloc, the discussion–was surely one of the most lovely evenings of my life, and ever since I’ve been hopeful of recreating that sort of environment someday in my own home.