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Understanding The Poetics of Space

Editors Note: I’m taking this week off to spend quality time with my mom and I have a number of fun guest posts lined up. The first guest post is by Victoria Vargas of Smaller Living. She is a writer, archaeologist, historic preservationist, and loves small dwellings. Victoria recently relaunched smallerliving.net. Enjoy the post!


“…the house protects the dreamer, the house allows one to dream in peace.” ~Gaston Bachelard in The Poetics of Space

One of the main facets of simple living revolves around simplifying the spaces in which we live. Purging our excess “stuff” and de-cluttering our homes is a first necessary step to simplifying and freeing our lives for what matters. Getting rid of the material things that don’t serve us often brings the realization that we don’t need as much space in which to live. Downsizing to smaller digs is typically the next logical step.

So there you are—you’ve purged all the excess stuff you warehoused in your home for years and maybe (hopefully) even downsized to a smaller residence. Now how do you make your space home, one that supports your simple living goals? Unfortunately (or blessedly), there is no single formula for creating a sense of home in our dwellings.

I’ve long been interested in how our surroundings affect us emotionally, physically, and spiritually. Why do some spaces seem to feed us while others deplete us? Why do some spaces make us feel supported, relaxed, and happy while others make us feel vaguely (or acutely) uncomfortable, restless, and drained? Why are some people in absolute bliss in a bare room with white walls furnished only with a table adorned with a vase and single flower and to others this feels sterile and bleak? Why do some people feel claustrophobic in small, cozy rooms with walls covered in bookshelves and artwork while others feel exposed and vulnerable in large rooms with soaring ceilings?

With everyone I’ve talked to about this, it always seems to be visceral – an inexplicable, instinctual feeling, either positive or negative, that is evoked when in certain types of built environments. But just as interesting, it also applies to our feelings in different natural settings.

Some people are drawn to the open expanse of the prairie, while others feel skittish and exposed. Some, like myself, prefer the soothing shelter of mountains and forests, while others prefer the dynamic action of the ocean. Some people are more comfortable in small towns while others seem to literally need the energy and density of a large city. It makes me wonder if our environmental preferences and needs are coded right into our DNA. Is it possible that we each hold some level of faint ancestral memory as to which types of environments we need to inhabit to thrive?

Size of dwelling, however, seems to be more about personal wants than needs – one does not need a large house to thrive. If this Great Recession, peak oil era, and global warming data have taught us anything, it’s that we need to live smaller and walk more lightly on this earth. Thankfully, the over-consumption pendulum is swinging back to a saner and more responsible way to live. As I connect with more and more people who are transforming their lives to live more simply, it gives me great optimism for our future. A big step for many, is reducing the square footage of the dwellings they inhabit.

Any dwelling small in square footage can feel open and expansive if it has an open layout with tall ceilings and huge banks of windows across the walls. I have experimented quite a bit through the past ten years with home sizes, room sizes, furniture scale and arrangements, wall color, fabrics, and artistic elements. And I have finally come to identify those pieces that together form the supporting refuge I need in my home. But what I’ve also come to realize is that what works for me often wouldn’t work well for someone else. What makes a dwelling a home is deeply personal.

Alain de Botton, a modern philosopher, delves deeply into the relationship between our emotions and our built environments in his book, The Architecture of Happiness. In one of my favorite essays in the book, he writes:

“[The house] has provided not only physical but also psychological sanctuary. It has been a guardian of identity. Over the years, its owners have returned from periods away and, on looking around them, remembered who they were….Along the stairs, small still-lives of eggs and lemons draw attention to the intricacy and beauty of everyday things. On a ledge beneath a window, a glass jar of cornflowers helps to resist the pull towards dejection….Although this house may lack solutions to a great many of its occupants’ ills, its rooms nevertheless give evidence of a happiness to which architecture has made its distinctive contribution.”

Our built environments have a profound effect on us, it’s clear. So, in our haste to de-clutter our spaces, downsize, and simplify our lives, let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater by unequivocally equating simplicity with austerity or any four walls with a home. Instead, let’s each take the freedom gained from the purging of too much stuff and too large of spaces and use it to create our true home, one that supports and nurtures us and reminds us of what we value, who we are, who and what we love, how we wish to live our lives, and – just as important – that which we find beautiful and inspiring.

Minimalists may find beauty in less while others on the simple living path may yearn for a bit more texture, color, and imagery. That is as it should be. Just as one size doesn’t fit all when it comes to our dwellings, one approach to simplicity or minimalism doesn’t fit everyone either. We are all in different places along our paths and none of our paths are exactly the same. It is in satisfying our idiosyncrasies in stylistic preference, openness to experience how particular spaces affect us, and an understanding of what we need (or can’t abide) in our surroundings to support and nurture us, that we can find and transform a dwelling into a home.

For me, simple living and happiness are both intimately intertwined with where and how I live. I depend on my small home to be a “guardian of my identity,” to remind me of who I am upon returning from the cacophony and confusing chaos of a consumer-driven and materialistic society. If I am not supported, comforted, and inspired by my own home, how will I maintain the strength and conviction to walk my talk in the outside world?

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Eric Normand May 18, 2010, 7:07 am

    This is a beautiful reminder that it’s not just about less. It’s about finding the right amount of the right things. Thanks, Victoria, for your balanced views.


  • Dawn May 18, 2010, 7:08 am

    🙂 Good post! Well written.

  • Kylie May 18, 2010, 10:27 am

    Victoria, this is a beautiful piece. It eloquently states a lot of things I’ve found to be true in the past few years. I feel truly supported and at peace when I live in a space that reflects me and my values. In addition, my mental state improves immensely when I’m in a space where there is lots of natural light and where things are organized. Thank you for sharing these words.

    • Victoria May 19, 2010, 5:19 am

      Kylie, thank you so much. I didn’t touch much on living in an organized space, but I totally agree with you. I may not always keep my place white glove inspection clean, but I do keep it tidy and organized and it makes a huge difference in my mood and outlook on life.

  • Victoria Vargas May 18, 2010, 11:01 am

    Eric and Dawn, I’m so glad you all enjoyed my post. Balance really is the name of the game, isn’t it? Thanks for the kind words! 🙂

  • Pam Reinke May 18, 2010, 2:16 pm

    Oh Wow Vic…blown away by the smartness of your language while also intuitive at the same time. What a wonderful read, as I am re embracing my own space after years of rejection, perfect in its timing and thought provoking! The term “guardian of my identiy” made me intake a breath, moved me will stay with me a long time! Ole ole, my friend, you are a tremendous writer!

    • Victoria May 19, 2010, 5:22 am

      Hi Pam! Thanks so much for popping over to read my post. I love that you’re reconnecting with your space – and that beautiful mural you painted in your studio is exactly the kind of thing I’m talking about. It’s so YOU, reminds you of what’s important to you, and is part of what makes your house a home.

  • Rebecca Truly May 18, 2010, 3:03 pm

    Your post resonates with me, not only for our homes but the places where we work ( for those of us still working outside of our home)..I have worked in many environments and the relationships between the “personality of a place” , the workers within, and its physical structure become evident soon after entering the space. For example, I worked in a long term care facility that was out in a rural area, and it had so many meandering hallways and little cubby nooks that frequently a person residing there would become “lost” in their own home. In addition, the offices of the department heads who worked there were far apart from each other, which mirrored the isolated and distant attititude of these folks. In a different rural skilled nursing facility, the assistant director of nurses, the medicare case managers, the social worker and the admissions coordinator all worked in a huge bright room and there was a continual *cheerful buzizng* of busy bees there-things ran more smooothly and seemingly much less effort. I think it would be a great book for you to write about the physical space of workplaces and what they mirror and facilitate.

    • Victoria May 19, 2010, 5:30 am

      Rebecca, I love the observations you make about the two different work environments you experienced – both in the effect they had on the staff and your working relationships, but also on the residents in those care facilities. What a profound difference! I also think a lot about work environments and actually starting writing this article about both home and work, but realized it would be much too long – so I narrowed the focus. I would love to write a book on this subject! One book I love that covers a little of this kind of thing is Shelter for the Spirit by Victoria Moran. It might be something you’d enjoy reading. Take care! 🙂

  • The Minimalist Guy May 19, 2010, 1:08 am

    “If I am not supported, comforted, and inspired by my own home, how will I maintain the strength and conviction to walk my talk in the outside world?”

    I can really relate with this Victoria. My own home is a place where I draw my strength from. And it is very true since I try to maintain a clear floor and table surface most of the time.

    Extra space leads to extra mental space and clarity 🙂

    • Victoria May 20, 2010, 4:51 am

      It sure does for me! I don’t even like having any furniture in the middle of a room. I try to keep the middle of rooms clear and easy to move through – just seems to make things flow more easily through the house. I have one coffee table that I keep eyeing for possible elimination – I have to take steps around it to get to the back door. hmmmm. time for a little rearranging 🙂

  • Katie May 19, 2010, 10:19 am

    This is a wonderful and thoughtful post. So true. I take great comfort from my home, my home office, my view from my home, all of it. I was just talking to a friend about her home and how, in her words, “there’s not a room that’s just mine or that isn’t cluttered.” She’s sad. She needs that comfort and I hope will create it soon.

    • Victoria May 20, 2010, 4:53 am

      Katie, I hope she will create it for herself too. We may not all be able to have “rooms of our own,” but we do need space of our own and uncluttered homes.

  • Brandy May 19, 2010, 5:42 pm

    This is a beautiful post – in thought, intent, and writing. Thank you for it! It came at such a wonderful time for me as I consider another move, a short-term lease (8 months), and how to both be frugal in that but also maintain my mental health.

    • Victoria May 20, 2010, 4:58 am

      Hi Brandy! Thank you for your kind words. I’m so glad you enjoyed it. As someone who has done a TON of moving in my life, often into short-term lease situations, I totally understand that tension between needing an inexpensive place to rent and needing it to be livable and cheerful. It’s not always easy to find, but with some perseverance and refusal to settle, I was usually able to find something that fit the bill. It may only be a short-term lease, but it’s eight months of your life. Good luck on your hunt!

  • Pearl Helms August 8, 2010, 9:14 pm

    Yes yes yes to poetics of space. and small spaces, I agree. But I love all my stuff in my small space. I collect textiles, books, tea pots, tea cups, stuffed toys, rocks, shells, sticks, feathers, fabrics, etc etc. I am a bower bird of nesting. Please don’t leave my kind out of the small is beautiful movement. I appreciate your words above that one way does not suit all. So true!

  • cindy rock October 9, 2011, 11:42 am

    Our 90 yr. old bungalow is small, but had a porch attached to the kitchen, that had an outside door that led to a public sidewalk just 10 feet from that door. We wanted privacy and calm. We walled the door off, put in a row of six small windows about head high on that wall. We put in four new sash windows on the wall looking out into the back yard. The view looks directly out into the branches of an old clarodendron tree, where birds gather and chirp. The windows are about 10 ft. from the ground level, so the feeling is like being in a tree house. We turned this old, drafty dark porch into a sunny place to dine, to read, to enjoy nature and find peace. It’s a small room – just 8 x 10, but because of the light and flowering tree full of little birds, it’s become a favorite place for us to relax. We don’t even notice the joggers running or cars driving past that side of the house now. In the winter, the tree is full of bright fushia/purple berries that hang like little lanterns. It is possible to create a room that draws the outdoors in and creates a natural peace for the home.

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