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The House as a Symbol of Self, Article Critique Example

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Article Critique

Thesis Summary

Clare Cooper Marcus uses her essay “The House as Symbol of the Self” to advance the thesis that our homes operate as symbolic representations of our self-image.  Marcus demonstrates that the sacred nature of homes, both historically and in a modern context, have infinite symbolic meaning and helps to determine our conceptions of both self and space.  She suggests that the study of architecture and design, both in practical and philosophical terms, can be greatly improved by an awareness of the ways in which one’s home acts a reflection of the resident’s internal and external self.  Using a framework steeped in Jungian psychoanalytic theory, Marcus demonstrates that the homes we inhabit speak volumes about our socioeconomic class, our aesthetic preferences, and how we wish to present ourselves to the rest of the world.

Key Definitions

Marcus introduces several key terms and concepts.  Primary among these, is her exploration of Carl Jung’s psychoanalytic theories.  Building off Sigmund Freud’s study of the unconscious, Jung sought to explore the idea of a collective unconscious, meaning an innate psychic connection to other human beings.  The collective unconscious was Jung’s way of explaining man’s link to a “primitive past […] in which are deposited certain basic and timeless nodes of psychic energy which he termed archetypes[1].”  The role of the symbol also played a part in this exploration, and can be understood to have an “objective visible reality [that] always has behind it a hidden, profound, and only partly intelligible meaning which represents its roots in the archetype[2].”  Viewed through this lens, the physical interior and exterior spaces of the house can symbolize the inner and outer workings of the self by reflecting both how we see ourselves and how we allow others to see us.

Marcus’ Arguments

In discussing the house as a symbol of self, Marcus cites a study conducted by Berkeley sociologist Carl Werthman which found that the homes people purchase can be directly correlated to their attempt to “bolster their image of self–both as an individual and as a person in a certain status position in society[3].” Thus, businessmen who displayed extroverted tendencies tended to buy homes which visibly demonstrated their affluence whereas people in careers which emphasized personal over professional success tended to focus on the aesthetic elements of their homes.  Economic and social stability play an important part in developing the stability of an individual’s self-image, as demonstrated by the work of sociologist Lee Rainwater.  Her work illustrated that in times of economic or social unrest, one’s home is often viewed as “a shell, a fortress into which to retreat”[4] such as is often seen in low income American neighborhoods which must utilize window bars and other security elements to ensure their inhabitants safety.

Relation to Broader Literature

Marcus furthers her discussion of the house-as-self by exploring the manner in which our ideas about home and house materialize in literature, poetry, and dreams.  She notes that humans have a tendency to apply human emotions and qualities to homes, despite their inanimateness, perhaps as a way to create a stronger connection between self and the place which shelters self.  Looking at a diverse array of writers ranging from Gunter Grass to Anais Nin, Marcus concludes that the symbolic nature of the home can allow it to operate as a womb which transports us back to the security of infancy and childhood.  Marcus also critiques Jung’s writing in regards to a series of dreams he had about houses to demonstrate that the dreams (and realities) we have in regards to house and home can represent our own evolving maturity.

Critical Questions

The notion of home is a sacred one that resists change in its most basic architectural elements.  This raises questions about the space and economic issues which find many people living in apartment building instead of houses.  It also raises issues about the ways in which modern architectural elements (pre-fabricated homes, McMansions) reveal negative aspects of the human condition.

Relevance

Marcus suggests that in order for architects and designers to truly provide their clients -many of whom they will never actually meet – with homes that allow for a positive relationship between self and physical structure, they must take into account the sacred, symbolic, and archetypal meanings of houses.  Marcus’ Jungian analysis of the house-as-self has important implications for the future of design, especially in relation to low-income and affordable housing, which has traditionally been designed without an eye for either the aesthetic or the symbolic.

Bibliography

Clare Cooper Marcus. “The House as Symbol of the Self.” In Designing for Human Behavior, edited by Jon T. Lang. New York: Dowden, Hutchinson, & Ross, 1974..

[1]    Clare Cooper Marcus, “The House as Symbol of the Self,” in Designing for Human Behavior, ed. Jon T. Lang, (New York: Dowden, Hutchinson, & Ross, 1974), 300.

[2]    Marcus, 300.

[3]    Marcus, 302.

[4]    Marcus, 303.

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