"Alongside every dream home
is its nightmare twin"

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Sam Jacob opinion haunted house

Opinion: fiction is essential reading for architects because it explores ideas about homes and buildings that are "normally repressed," argues Sam Jacob in this latest column.


I'm working my way through three stories put together by Will Wiles for a Book Club at the Architectural Association. Titled Malign Interiors, the series looks at fiction and architecture, specifically stories whose protagonists are variously assailed and tormented by architecture. Wiles is author of the novels Care of Wooden Floors and The Way Inn (to be published this June) as well as an architecture and design critic - so positioned between the very real world of designed things and the imaginative world of fiction.

Wiles' list is short and the stories are pretty short themselves - short enough even for notoriously bibliophobe architects and designers - and I'd recommend all three stories as texts that talk directly to architectural issues, as well as damn fine books on their own. First is The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1899), then H.P. Lovecraft's The Dreams in the Witch House (1933) and finally Wiles's own Care of Wooden Floors (2012).

Literature and design don't often cross paths. For reasons buried deep in the mists of time, we conceive of and use these forms of cultural product for entirely different ends. In broad strokes (and in Anglo Saxon culture at least) architecture and design deal with the exterior world, while fiction deals with our interiority.

Architecture and design - the realm of physical stuff - is conceived as a matter of either practicality or taste. That is to say it's underwritten by the deep cultural bedrock of either engineering or class.

Objects and things - spaces even more so - are described as though they have little or no psychological depth. Think of the language used as evidence of a kind of impenetrable surface presentation. Words like elegant, vibrant or iconic give a hint of design's limited awareness of its own psychological hinterland, or perhaps its ability to repress more troubling sensations.

In fiction however, things, places and buildings often act not only as settings but as metaphors, narratives and character. Think of Manderley in Rebecca or Satis House, Miss Havisham's dilapidated home in Great Expectations. Or, as Wiles has asked us to do, about the role of the interior in The Yellow Wallpaper, Dreams In The Witch House, and his own novel Care of Wooden Floors.

In all these examples and many more, architecture takes on a psychic interiority absent from its professional incarnation. It becomes a place we construct of multiple and simultaneous meanings, possibilities, effects and roles. As Wiles' selection explicitly notes, these meanings and roles are often disquieting, unsettling and horrific. Especially when they deal with the idea of home.

Home is the one place that should be safe and secure. It's a place bound up with our own status, identity and sense of belonging, but domestic space also contains the flip side of these ideals. Darker things, more mysterious. Things that creep up on you, things that torment you, things that won't let you escape. Alongside every dream home is its nightmare twin.

Fiction gives us the space and words to describe these sensations that the real world denies us. It provides a way to safely explore feelings and ideas connected to home that are normally repressed. Forces of economics, the media or the social pressure to conform all discipline our psychological relationship to our homes. Daily Mail "dream cottage giveaways", Grand Designs' individualist fantasies, the status envy of Keeping Up Appearances, the responsibility of mortgage repayments and the fluctuations in house prices that turn our homes into financial instruments are all ways our own private individual ideas of home are repressed and controlled. Under these kinds of pressure, it's no wonder that our homes can also become places of tremendous psychological disturbance.

Haunted houses may be entirely fictional but they describe something very real. That's because for all the ghosts and ghouls they imagine, they are actually stories about the very real spectres of our own hopes and fears wailing in the night. That's why stories like the ones Wiles has put together should be on every architect's bookcase, somewhere between the Metric Handbook and the Building Regulations.

For more information about the Book Club, see the AA Night School website.


Sam Jacob is principal of Sam Jacob Studio, professor of architecture at University of Illinois Chicago and director of Night School at the Architectural Association and edits Strange Harvest.

  • BriH

    Essential reading: House of Leaves by Mark Z Danielewski. Now that’s a nightmare property!

  • jana

    Borges and Aalto and Koolhaas and libraries. Of course Foucault and prisons, but also schools?

    “Haunted” house not so fictional when a meth cook moves into the neighborhood.

    Am I the first to coin n’architecture – think narcissism, narcotics, non-architecture – of suburbia?

    Maybe now is a good time to further consider cause/effect relationship between human psychology and the spaces we occupy? Further discussion on responsibility of architecture and architects? Collaboration between psychologists, communication designers, architects? Educators, community planners, political leaders? Real estate developers, venture capitalists, computer scientists?