Witold Rybczynksi was uncomfortable.
Uncomfortable with the fact that comfort was left out of his architectural education. It made no sense — but that didn’t stop them from charging far too many cents to get the diploma! Anyways that curious omission made him, well, curious and that curiosity (after killing the cat) sparked an interest and that interest grew into a book and that book charted the historical progression of one question:
What is comfort?
In a highly condensed form in a paragraph on a page toward the end of the book Home: History of an Idea, he sums it up:
In the seventeenth century, comfort meant privacy, which lead to intimacy and, in turn, to domesticity. The eighteenth century shifted the emphasis to leisure and ease, the nineteenth to mechanically aided comforts — light, heat, and ventilation. The twentieth-century domestic engineers stressed efficiency and convenience.
All these historical developments coalesce into what he terms the “Onion Theory of Comfort”:
New ideas about how to achieve comfort did not displace fundamental notions of domestic well-being. Each new meaning added a layer to the previous meanings, which were preserved beneath. At any particular time, comfort consists of all the layers, not only the most recent.
Understanding why the idea of comfort is what it is and how it arose over the course of 300+ years is not only useful as input for creating buildings worth being inside, but also, inside the definition of comfort itself is a whole story about the people and historical forces that contributed to that definition.
So lets take a look at some history.
FROM BOURGEOISIE TO THE 20th CENTURY
The notion of comfort in the Western-Northern world is part of a bourgeois tradition that stretches back to, you guessed it — the bourgeoisie.
The term itself takes us back to the 11th century in France when it was uttered from the mouths of 11th century French-folk to describe a new class of merchants living inside walled cities.
At the time, life in Medieval Europe was basically a public affair. Houses consisted of one or two large open rooms that provided shelter for the “nuclear” family, the extended family, and family servants. This arrangement stays consistent for a few hundred years.
However, those few hundred years come to a close during the 17th century when some folks in the Netherlands started to make life private.
It’s in this country that the first steps (literally and figuratively) are taken to break up the large, public houses of medieval times into the smaller, private homes of modernity. A hierarchy is established with the aid of stairs: downstairs is meant for the public and upstairs is meant for the “family”, which shrinks toward the nuclear.
And so it goes for the next few centuries.
The new environment that begins to emerge helps usher in a new, more individualistic sense of self. The novel explodes, the activity of people spending long periods of time enmeshed in the inner dynamic of fictional worlds becomes more and more popular.
Writers like Jane Austen add new layers of emotional meaning to the word “comfort”. The centuries-old definition of “to strengthen or console” (from the Latin confortare) is discarded and the word begins to express the idea of enjoying one’s physical surroundings.
These physical surroundings include the interior of the increasingly private homes — the places where people were sitting down to read the novels. So one’s sense of being comfortable becomes bound up with the sensual experience of being encased in “a home”.
This sense of being at ease in one’s home, of having a space of privacy and intimacy, is so strong that you no longer walk up to a friend’s house and barge in for an impromptu visit. Rather, you would leave a calling card at the gate and wait for a response.
Those who left the cards were, more often than not, those with a bit of money and those with a bit of money in 18th century Victorian England also became, for some strange reason, obsessed with the “evils of bad air”. These evils largely meant the fumes and smoke of the fireplace and the tobacco pipe.
To remedy this Evil, inventors created new ways of lighting and ventilating a room, thus creating — to tweak Hemingway’s famous short story — a “Clean Well-Lighted (and ventilated) Room”.
The 18th century concerns itself with the emotional qualities of comfort, but as we move into the 19th and 20th centuries, the mechanical comforts allowed through new technologies begin to carve out their space in the definition.
During this time scientific managers (guys like Frederick Taylor) were figuring out how to create efficient workplaces and the enthusiasm for this type of mentality spilled over into the home. What Rybczynski calls “domestic engineers” sought to maximize the efficiency of the home with a bevy of new appliances.
This drive toward maximizing efficiency sort of reaches its apex in the mid-20th century with the minimalist style of architecture. It might have been very efficient in its use of space (largely furniture-less rooms and beds that folded up into the walls) but it left out or explicitly rejected the emotional qualities of “comfort” that grew up around Jane Austen and others.
Whether one agrees with it or not, the cultural idea of comfort we’ve inherited– that mix of intimacy, privacy technology, and design — is not one that can be easily discarded by a few avant-garde designers.
SENSE OF SELF
In the 17th century when the house was undergoing its own little revolution and ideas about comfort started to evolve, dictionaries start recording words like “self confidence” and “self-reliance”. This historical co-incidence signals a shift toward our modern definition of self as a “unitary body with successive varying states of consciousness”. Rybczynski writes:
The emergence of something new in the human consciousness: the appearance of the internal world of the individual, of the self, and of the family. The significance of the evolution of domestic comfort can only be appreciated in this context. It is much more than a simple search for physical well-being; it begins in the appreciation of the house as a setting for an emerging interior life. In Lukac’s words, ‘as the self-consciousness of medieval people was spare, the interiors of their houses were bare, including the halls of nobles and of kings. The interior furniture of houses appeared together with the interior furniture of minds.’
Self and surroundings form a feedback loop, an entwined whole. The quality of self that emerges within the sparse, communal houses of medieval times is far different than the self that begins to emerge within the cozy, private homes of the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries.
Sigmund Freud — who greatly admired the novels of Jane Austen — was incredibly influential in designing and decorating this new “interior furniture of minds.”
In his book Solitude: A Return to the Self, Anthony Storr writes:
Psycho-analysis has exerted so widespread an influence that it has become the dominant idiom for the discussion of human personality and personal relationships even by those who do not subscribe to all its doctrines.
One of those who “do not subscribe to all its doctrines” would have to be Storr himself. He wrote the book to tout the importance of solitary, creative work in a happy life. To follow interests and master a craft-skill that allows one to “colour the forms of the exterior with the hues of the imagination” is just as important as healthy interpersonal relationships.
Traditional psycho-analysis tends to overemphasize the importance of the interpersonal. It leaves out, or conveniently overlooks, the fact that countless creative genius’s (as well as your average Janes, Joes, and Ricks) have found happiness and a deep sense of purpose through their relationship with the impersonal.
This doesn’t mean they were neurotic.
SOLITUDE AND THE SELF
The capacity to be alone is fundamental to healthy human beings. If it is thwarted it can lead to all sorts of problem, ones deeply explored in Erich Fromm’s classic book Escape From Freedom.
So, it begins developing in the presence of the mother after one is fed and comfortable, safe and secure. The stress on after is significant because it shows that the capacity to be alone is not the result of a lack (being unfed or unsafe) but it’s the result of a satiated need: to be fed and loved. It’s a sign of inner security.
Once we are fed and loved in the presence of a mother and start to develop our initial capacity to be alone, the next step is developing that capacity in her absence. This is a critical stage in the development of our creativity.
It’s during this period that our first creative acts emerge in the form of “transitional objects”. These objects (teddy bears, blankets, dolls etc.) are animated with emotional qualities like love and safety and these newly animated objects become a source of meaning for our little lives.
This ability to create meaning is possible because it was stored as a felt experience in the presence of the mother and then was able to be recreated in her absence. Our inner life becomes linked with an outer object. This process is termed “creative apperception” by D.W. Winnicot and according to him, it’s what makes life worth living, so make of it what you will.
That isn’t to say that interpersonal relationships are unimportant, but what it does say is that our first creative acts, the womb of our imagination, is deeply connected with solitude. In this space, our sense of self develops and as the process continues, refreshed with periods of healthy alone-ness, it enables us to get in touch with deep needs, cope with loss, sort out ideas, and change attitudes.
TO TRAVEL ALONE OR WITH OTHERS, THAT IS THE QUESTION
Spoiler alert, the answer is both.
Yes there is such a thing as healthy or positive solitude, but there is also, most definitely, such a thing as unhealthy or negative solitude. Likewise there is healthy sociability and unhealthy sociability. If we become too introverted, we can lose others and all contact with reality and, likewise, if we become too extroverted we can lose our sense of self in others and be neurotically obsessed with the need to please.
As with most things, the answer lies somewhere near the middle. Creativity can be likened to a bridge that connects the objectivity of the world and the subjectivity of a person. It’s ideal to not spend too much time stuck on either side, but rather to spend the bulk of our time in movement back and forth along the bridge, making sure it’s both sturdy and beautiful.
We cross many bridges during travel, meet many people and spend lots of time alone. People travel for all different types of reasons and often those reasons, like everything else, begin to travel too, taking off one their own. Sometimes the reasons tell you it’s time for a party in the hectic hubbub of a backpacker ghetto, other times that you should head for the calm patch of rural openness.
If travel becomes seen as a sort of self-education in the school-of-life, then the self in that education needs time alone to deepen. It needs solitude.
Yes, it also needs new experiences in different cultures (which is what travel is all about), but this quest for the new can often be over-emphasized in the culture-at-large, much in the same way that interpersonal relationships are over-emphasized in psychoanalysis, and often leads to a great quantity of soon-to-be-forgotten experiences.
Slow down. Find a cozy corner after that crazy adventure and cultivate your capacity to be alone. Step back on the bridge and link inner and outer through some creative act — a collage, a poem, music. Don’t forget to travel inward as you walk along the contours of the world.
Near the end of the book, Storr writes:
Removing oneself voluntarily from one’s habitual environment promotes self-understanding and contact with those inner depths of being which elude one in the hurly-burly of day-to-day life.