The Living Room: A Place for Formality
July 27, 2016
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“Unless the spaces in a building are arranged in a sequence which corresponds to their degrees of privateness, the visits made by strangers, friends, guests, clients, family, will always be a little awkward…
[speaking of the custom in Peru…] Formal friends, such as the priest, the daughter’s boyfriend, and friends from work may be invited in, but tend to be limited to a well-furnished and maintained part of the house, the sala. This room is sheltered from the clutter and more obvious informality of the rest of the house.” Christopher Alexander, A Pattern Language

If formality has a place in our lives, it should likewise have a room in our home.

Yet we are told that formality distances us from actual life, that informality is always more authentic. Since people do not naturally interact with formality, why should we impose an unnatural ‘form’ on ourselves? And why should we have a place in our home designated for formal gatherings?

It is clear that some intimate interactions should be informal–in other words spontaneous, not according to pre-determined forms.

But I think we have misjudged formality. This is understandable. Forms of interacting can indeed become empty, and can exist apart from the right inner dispositions. Pharisee-ism is always a danger. We have taken a turn toward free-expression, and the importance of ‘being ourselves.’

Yet we can need help in ‘being ourselves,’ especially in situations of irreducible awkwardness or tension.

Formalities of interaction have an irreplaceable role, especially on certain occasions. They set a context that encourages good dispositions, and they set boundaries within which we can exercise creativity. When a suitor comes to introduce himself for the first time to the parents of a young lady, the meeting is usually, and rightfully, fraught with a certain pressure. Here formality, rooted in tradition, is freeing; it aids all involved to navigate a complicated reality.

Hospitality, a practice trans-culturally recognized as having profound human significance, often rightly demands a certain formality. As Alexander notes, to shelter a visitor from the informality of other places in our home is a way of showing respect. This is not a matter simply of hiding our clutter; our guests are worthy of an honor we show them precisely through how we maintain a special room, and receive them into it.

Hilaire Belloc, relating how in his region all men address one another as Mr. —-, notes: “for twin brothers rocked in one cradle give each other ceremonious observance here.”

Ceremonious observance. The very words ring with a beauty of something lost; but it is something that we can try to recover, at least in our own homes.

This is the seventh of a series taking a thoughtful tour through a house, room by room, based on the writings of Christopher Alexander.

Christopher Alexander (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: When a Suitor Meets Her Family, Carl Herpfer (1836-1897)

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2 comments

  1. Perfect…No formal living room, no suitors for my daughters!

    1. Hmm. I’m not sure it’s that easy.