Life, death and habitation

RIP, Renato Bialetti
RIP, Renato Bialetti


438-COVER-OF-RAMESES-II-SARCOPHAGUSEven in death, there’s a social impulse that insists that we must inhabit something. While a moka pot is an unusual choice for an urn, it’s somehow fitting. The choice of a utilitarian object to me is far less precious than say, a jewel encrusted sarcophagus.

Each choice, in its own way, is precious though. To dwell in the shape of your significance on earth, be it a un unusual urn or decorated monument or tomb, is motivated by a desire to make it known that to be in a place was your choice. It didn’t just happen by accident. Either you wanted it, or someone else found the need to adore and celebrate you. 

That’s one of the things I found most compelling about Vincent Van Gogh’s dream of home. He didn’t want it to be precious, but he wanted it to be recognizable as his.

Van Gogh’s proclamation of “nothing precious” is the most curious demand though, for an artist who was hoping to decorate nearly every surface. What Van Gogh was striving for, in his own words, was character. Invariably, we always look to appearance to find clues.

The Mummy of Ramses II.
The Mummy of Ramses II.

“King of Kings am I, Osymandias. If anyone would know how great I am and where I lie, let him surpass one of my works.” Works, loosely defined, surely must include all those things we do to form and deform the space around us. Van Gogh wanted to shape not only the space of the canvas, but also the space he and those who knew him would inhabit. Decoration plays a part in this.

As far as I know he didn’t follow through on it, but Van Gogh’s naked ladies adorning the bed would have been an unusual choice for the late 19th century. From what I’ve been reading, the movement was to de-sexualize the sleep chamber in most countries. Bedrooms, instead, were generally striving to look and be clean places. Though the Arts and Crafts parlors were dark and heavy woods, I was a bit surprised that even they wanted to paint the bedroom white. Habitations always tend to follow conventions and deviation is usually the proclamation of an “artistic” taste. The foundation of these conventions is not just a matter of decoration, but also of spatial placement.

Feng Shui, the Chinese science of spatial arrangement deployed for both buildings and interiors, has deep roots in the graveyard. The Zangshu, or Book of Burial is perhaps its oldest surviving text:

VIII. The Cardinal Aspects

A. The Four Aspects

1. Bury with the Cerulean Dragon to the left, the White Tiger to the right, the Vermilion Bird in front, and the Dark Turtle in back.

2. The Dark Turtle hangs its head; the Vermilion Bird hovers in dance; the Cerulean Dragon coils sinuously; the White Tiger crouches down.

3. If contours and features do not conform to this, according to the art of fengshui, there will be destruction and death.

4. Therefore the crouching tiger is said to hold the corpse in its mouth.

5. The coiled dragon is said to be jealous of life.

6. The Dark Turtle that does not droop will reject the corpse.

7. The Vermilion Bird that does not dance will soar off.

The Chinese developed the compass, not for navigation, but rather to figure out how to situate themselves and their dead in the world.  The curiosity about optimal orientation by cardinal direction is persistent. In The English House from 1904, Hermann Muthesius discusses the optimal arrangements for bedrooms at length:

A south-easterly aspect is again considered best for the bedroom. The bedroom is a room in which we spend about one third of our lives in continuous periods of between seven and nine hours. Consequently its position must be a particularly healthy one, which means, most importantly, that it must be sunny by day. Yet the afternoon sun in the summer would make the room too warm. Since people like to salute the morning sun as they rise, an easterly aspect would seem to be indicated. But that room may get continuous sun for several hours after the occupant has left it, it is better that it should face south east rather than due east.  (91-92)

Not quite as poetic and nuanced as the Chinese positioning literature, but consummately well reasoned as is fitting the western approach. Also predictable is the certainty of the discussions of position:

Yet there can be no doubt that the only proper position for the bed is with the head against a side wall and the plan of the room must without fail provide for this. This having been established, English opinion further requires that the left side of the bed be near the window. The reason for this is that the conjugal bedroom in England is always used as a dressing-room by the woman and the furniture that she needs for her toilette such a wash-stand, dressing-table and wardrobe stand next to a window. As we shall see, the dressing-table indeed, stands right in the window. The woman therefore takes the side of the bed nearest to her part of the room and since by ancient custom the woman sleeps on a man’s left, the bed must stand with its left-hand half on the window side. The position of all the bedroom furniture and of the doors and windows is now firmly established. The door into the man’s dressing room is in the wall nearest to the right-hand side of the bed. (92)

East or West, we expend a great deal of energy attempting to divine the best positions for ourselves, both in life and death. I hadn’t really expected a book ostensibly about architecture to discuss furniture arrangement in such detail, but it makes sense. Our habitations are essentially matters of habit.