When We See It, We Know What We Like
Some places just feel like home. As soon as you walk through the door, you want to stay. You want to curl up by the fireplace, throw a party in the loft space, lounge on the old porch, or follow that staircase to wherever it goes. These special homes come in all sizes, shapes, and styles, from twee country cottages and grand prewar apartments to rambling suburban ranch houses and small beach condos. What they have in common is a tonic effect on your behavior: how you think, feel, and act. One indication that you're in such a home is that you feel both interested and relaxed.
As soon as you enter the modest house in the vertiginous, verdant Forest Hill section of San Francisco that was designed for a couple in 1914 by the architect Bernard Maybeck, you're intrigued. This seductive home courts you with an array of different spaces -- big and small, open and sheltered, extroverted and intimate -- that you can choose from, depending on how you're feeling at the time. Moreover, Maybeck insured that your pleasure in wherever you decide to settle down will be amplified by the contrasting alternatives.
The most obvious example of Maybeck's artful juxtaposition of the house's spaces is the contrast between the interior and the glorious natural setting. You are almost compelled to enjoy the larger world while savoring the smaller private one. There are the dazzling views of the bay, of course. But even seemingly small details -- the "French-Dutch" half-doors that frame both horizontal and vertical vignettes or the clerestory windows whose moving light functions like a sundial -- play variations on the theme of inside and outside, culture and nature, that draw you toward involvement and delight in your surroundings.
One particularly beguiling example of the Forest Hill house's ability both to captivate and comfort you is its intricately carved interior balcony. Opening off the second-floor master suite and overlooking the living-dining area, this romantic perch especially designed for a couple must summon thoughts of Romeo and Juliet. Depending on your mood, you might feel drawn to this lofty micro-environment, from which you can survey the "public" zone below and savor the options of retreating, watching, or descending to take part in whatever's going on. On the other hand, if you choose to socialize or read in the big downstairs space, your experience will be enriched by the sight of the enchanting balcony and thoughts of the private realm beyond. Offering this combination of shelter and outlook is the hallmark of what environmental psychologists call "a womb with a view" -- an excellent brief definition of home from a behavioral perspective.
The reasons why we feel at home in certain homes, whether a farmhouse or a penthouse, and delight in certain features in them, such as the fireplaces Maybeck mandated, have less to do with aesthetic fashion than with evolutionary, personal, and cultural needs of which many of us are mostly unaware. Some elements of a just-right home are strictly individual, but even there, we're apt to focus on secondary matters -- the love or avoidance of beige or modern design -- rather than on more essential ways to personalize our dwellings. Other deep feelings about our habitat are particular to our species; still other inclinations and aversions, to our society. A homelike home fulfills these profound individual, human, and cultural needs, becoming a place that shelters and fascinates -- a womb with a view.
"Home improvement" summons thoughts of renovating the master suite or installing a restaurant-style kitchen, but evolutionary psychology and architectural history suggest some more basic criteria for creating just-right houses and apartments. To the architect Grant Hildebrand, such dwellings exemplify what he calls "innately appealing architecture." Many homes built before World War II, when most development was on a small scale and craftsmanship was less expensive, have this likable quality. However, over half of America's houses and apartments have been built since the 1970s. The huge modern housing industry's low-overhead, mass-production orientation, combined with much of modernist architecture's emphasis on public buildings rather than private dwellings and on aesthetics and novelty over behavior, means that truly contemporary homelike homes are in short supply.
Concerned about this predicament as a designer, teacher, and scholar, Hildebrand decided to search for the integers of inherently likable buildings. He began with a very basic question: Why might Homo sapiens be drawn to some places and repelled by others? To survive, the first human beings needed food, water, and protection, and their descendants eventually inherited a taste for supportive environments. Our enduring fondness for the combination of field, stream, and grove of trees -- hunting range, water, and shelter -- is abundantly illustrated in the paintings of old masters, the terrain of many parks, and our scenic kitchen calendars.
As an architect, Hildebrand wanted to identify the man-made equivalents of that archetypal meadow bisected by a brook and edged by trees that so deeply attracts us. Then designers could build those innately appealing features into our homes, thus improving our quality of life and perhaps even our mental health. With colleagues at the University of Washington at Seattle, including the geographer Jay Appleton, the biologist Gordon Orians, and the psychologist Judith Heerwagen, he eventually distinguished five characteristics -- prospect and refuge, enticement, peril, and complex order -- that, more than a spa bath or three-car garage, enhance our experience of home.
The most important evolutionary elements of an appealing home are the paired features of prospect, or a big, bright space that has a broad, interesting view, and refuge, or a snug protected haven. As in the Maybeck home, when you settle down by the fireplace in Frank Lloyd Wrights house for Edwin Cheney, designed in 1904 in Oak Park, Illinois, you immediately feel at ease yet engaged. Wright ensured that you would simply by lowering the ceiling in the area around the hearth, which created the cozy, cavelike refuge from which to survey the living areas loftier, brighter, open prospect. Having the option of . . .