Scholars' Association News
Issue 39
July 2016

05/07


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The bedroom as the material backdrop to our identity
by Dr. Myrto Kiourti

The way in which material culture around us forms, the objects we use, the furniture we place things on, sit or lie down on, the way in which we structure the rooms in our home affect our body, mind and psyche more intensely and more deeply than we often believe. The bedroom is just another product of our material culture, closely associated with the practice of sleep and with a series of latent perceptions about our relationship with our body, the institution of family, the social distinctions between age groups, the management of sexuality and overall the modern experience of our own individual identity. The four walls that define a specific room were not always there, and the history of architecture –from the perspective of a brief history of the bedroom– gives us a chance to understand a little better how one aspect of culture, society, and consequently ourselves, has emerged historically.

According to the historians of architecture, Monique Eleb-Vidal and Anne Debarre-Blanchard, the home has not always consisted of separate rooms with a specific purpose. In pre-modern Medieval Europe, even the homes of the well-to-do bourgeois were single spaces, i.e. open-plan areas where all the day-to-day activities were located: cooking, eating, play, social interactions and, of course, sleep (Eleb-Vidal & Debarre-Blanchard, 1985). The single-space homes found in traditional Greek architecture, i.e. houses from pre-industrial rural communities without any internal segregation into rooms, are a corresponding phenomenon in the case of Greece (Papaioannou, 2003). According to the theoretician of architecture, Robin Evans (1997), the birth of the segregated room dates back to the Europe of the 16th century, and is related to the appearance of the corridor inside the home and coincides with the rise of Puritanism, namely the movement which sought to impose increasing control on sexuality.

According to Evans, the separate room which one could reach along a corridor, doing so without discomforting or coming into contact with those who were in other rooms, is a material expression of an intention to control and curtail physical contact between family members. Parents now slept separate from their children, and relatives who may have been staying temporarily in the house also slept elsewhere. Gradually the separations became more clear-cut, with different bedrooms for the boys and different ones for the girls in the family, or with rooms for each individual child, which were therefore completely private. In Evans’ opinion, the birth of the private bedroom is the material backdrop on which the experience of individuality was built in mental terms, since the boundaries of the space establish and visualise the boundaries of the person himself.

According to social thinker Norbert Elias (1969), the separation of the private bedroom, which is associated with curbing physical contact, is part of a wider process of civilising Western societies. According to Elias, the increasing density of communities associated with the shift from rural to urban societies entailed increasingly stricter controls on bodily urges. So, in order for members of society to be able to live together in increasingly restricted spaces, they established conventions within the context of rules of behaviour that gradually morphed into habits and customs.

Those new, quite self-limiting customs required protocols and segregations which the architecture of the home was able to provide. Food was cooked in a specific space, the kitchen, but consumed elsewhere in the dining room. Bodily hygiene was also assigned to a separate room, the bathroom. Likewise, two strangers were not allowed to sleep together, in contrast with past cultural sensitivities where the rules of good conduct merely required that when two strangers shared the same bed, each would stick to his own side. The control of bodily urges, according to Elias, is of course related to the control of sexuality, and to the gradual establishment of the nuclear family as we know it today. The Greek case, where we saw a sudden leap from the pre-modern to the contemporary post-modern age (Panagiotopoulos, 2010), has left us with fresh memories of large beds where large, so-called extended, families in the past would all sleep together.

In modern times the question of how rooms, and in particular the bedroom, are managed continues to be associated with the formation of our own individual identity. Virginia Woolf (1929) sought to have a room of her own, and Freud reconstituted man’s psyche, demanding that he rethink his dreams, on his own in a room lying on a single bed. One emblematic architectural movement from the late modern age which emphasises the timelessness of the tendency to highlight our individual identity by managing the bedroom is House VI designed by Peter Eisenman in 1975, father of the so-called Deconstructivist architecture movement. Eisenman deconstructed the traditional cuboid home and then divided the cube that was the conjugal bedroom in the middle, with a dividing line running through the walls, the classic double bed, the window behind the bed and the floor beneath it. Rumour has it that one evening the man of the family forgot about the gap which divided up his house and bedroom, and tried to roll over to the other side and fell into the post-modern chasm of his own individuality all the way down to the ground floor of the home and broke his leg. He sued the architect.

Of course, we do not know in the future how our bedrooms will look, nor do we know if the support they offer to our individual identity will continue at the same pace or whether it will take a different path. One thing is certain though, that the four walls of the bedroom and the furniture they surround will continue not just to determine the picture of our homes but also the relations we develop with others around us and therefore how we view ourselves.

(Myrto Kiourti is an architect).

REFERENCES

Monique Eleb-Vidal & Anne Debarre-Blanchard, Architecture domestique et mentalités. Réflections sur les méthodes et les sources, Paris: Secrétariat à la Recherche Architecturale, 1985.

Norbert Elias, The Civilising Process, Vol. I–II, Oxford: Blackwell, 1969 [1939].

Robin Evans, “Figures, Doors, and Passages”, Translations from Drawing to Building and Other Essays, London: Architectural Association, 1997 [1978], pp. 55–91.

Panayis Panagiotopoulos, “Entre Hypermodernité et Traditionalisme: Souffrance de la classe moyenne grecque et palliatifs politiques”, in Nicole Aubert (ed.), Changement social. La société hypermoderne: Ruptures et contradictions, vol. 15, Paris: L’Harmattan, 2010, pp. 109–131.

Konstantinos Papaioannou, The traditional Greek house, Athens: NTUA University Press, 2003.

Virginia Woolf, A Room of One's Own (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 2002 [1929]).


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