Detour: Transformers: Home is Where the House Is

I spent my last week before leaving the U.S. at my parents’ homes. Nestled between the harried months preceding graduation and the summer abroad that lay ahead, that week was lost to the domestic doldrums. The great organ that was undergraduate life had just let go its death belch, and it was given an open-casket wake in my mother’s living room.

Not that everything was dirges, the limbo stage was actually quite pleasant, like a forced delay in Ibiza/Cairo/Zürich/Chicago and the airline foots the bill. It is quite pleasant to, for example, fall asleep on a couch and not worry about someone drawing on your face, or to slip back into your red Volvo station wagon and put the driver’s seat back to your ass’ perfect setting. Creature comforts, I guess, and only good for so long. The layover’s open arms can quickly become tired and it starts to whine and become inhospitable. The bed feels like one from a motel, everything on vacation from, instead of being, normalcy. I no longer had any sense of ownership over the structure that my parents still called home, but I could still recognize it as the places that helped give shape to my current self.

Ownership alone over objects or spaces can’t substantiate that sense of home. I never owned the house I lived in as a child but still considered it home at the time, and my time in the Berkeley co-ops may be the coziest in memory and was based on shared spaces and communal responsibility rather than individual possession. In fact the co-ops may have seemed the least hospitable to developing a sense of homely permanence because of the perpetual transitioning of those structures, of people and policy and physical surroundings. Everything is always capable of changing, so you do your best to keep your spot warm for the new wave of heirs. Sometimes it felt like I was occupying multiple generational roles, being the child as a newcomer, or the responsible adult as a senior student. But because of the flexible utility of the house, questions arise of how the actual physical construction determines its function.

You could say that architecture is designed with a function in mind; that each building serves some overall purpose in the urban or societal landscape. But those functional constraints, let alone ideas of private ownership, are harder to apply to the public space. How do you determine what happens in an open park? What can you suggest by planting a tree here and placing benches there? How do you simultaneously liberate and determine the identity of a place?
This question may seem like an overwrought humanist approach to a basic problem in urban design, but it’s not a far cry from a discussion of semantics. Words are constructions like buildings, with real limitations and nuances, but nonetheless flexible in their usage. Context can be a crutch or an enabler, determining significance and accessibility.

Recently I traveled to Essen, one of the Ruhrgebiet cities of Germany with a strong industrial heritage. The city emerged from the peripheries of the coal industry, communities forming around a coal mine and coking factory and slowly growing and knitting together. The mine itself shut down in the early 1980s, but unsurprisingly its impact is hard to eradicate. In an elegant display of acceptance the Ruhrgebiet has transformed many of its former industrial sites into public parks, retaining the actual constructions on the property. A forest encircles a man-made mountain of mining rubble, the top of which sits a giant metal tetrahedron. You climb the casualty of industrial mining to enjoy a piece of public art and look out over an entire city. The constraints on the land are simultaneously accepted and harnessed, liberated for public use.

An even more arresting transformation is the Zollverein coking factory, also in Essen, which has been inactive for decades but not preserved, leaving itself vulnerable to vegetation, rust and animal (including human) exploration. Part of the attached coal mine has been transformed into a local history museum, and another building serves as a cafe and exhibition space. A wedding reception was being held atop one of the coal dispensaries while tourists filtered through the mine and wandered around the coking plant. The industrial monsters became pets of the city, hybridizing history and recreation.

It can be seen as conservationism, this transformation of urban relics, or simply repurposing. But what it most definitely isn’t is preservation. The hope is not to seal off these places from use or time, but to open them back up again to interpretation. When I think of homes, I think of places that I have some claim to and that have shaped me in some way. These buildings and places become a public home, establishing a symbiotic and reciprocating relationship with the humans around them.

The hope then becomes to make a home out of anywhere, and trust that the person and the place can always impress and inform one another.