Thursday, December 3, 2009

The Architecture of Hospitality

In his excellent work, The Devil Reads Derrida, James K.A. Smith shares a brief essay concerning the ways in which architectural attributes of a house can contribute to or deteriorate the experience of community within a neighborhood. There was, undoubtedly, a time when I would have rejected that sort of an idea, After all, I would have thought, only a person of weak moral fortitude would allow their relationships with others to be impacted by a house. Things have changed, however, and I now benefit from a slightly more robust understanding of the ways in which we humans are bodied beings. The old understanding of souls stuck in bodies was never a Christian idea, although it has proven to be a particularly infectious belief within the Church. The truth of the matter is that we are, in our wholeness, body and soul so united that the two cannot be separated from one another in a meaningful way. We were created good with our bodies and we hope for the day when we will live in our resurrected and perfected bodies in a physical New Jerusalem. Most importantly, we worship the God Who took on flesh and joined Himself to a body in the person of Jesus Christ.
With that being said, it is hard to deny the truth that our physical environment has a very real impact upon us. Smith points out a particular point in which contemporary American home architecture has been tainted by consumerism and individualism and, in response, encourages us to be consumers and individualists. His example is that of the disappearance of the front porch. It was not all that long ago that front porches were a staple in home construction, which moved the home's center of gravity toward the street and increased the likelihood that those living in a given house would interact with, know, and love their neighbors. Why is it that the front porch has suddenly disappeared? The answer is surprisingly obvious: the increasing importance of the garage. We treasure our cars and want to protect them from the elements and so we allow the garage to encroach upon the porch's allotment. As we buy more cars, we need more space in which to put them and so the garage expands to fit two or even three cars, leaving no space for a front porch. It becomes possible to drive home, open the garage door with a remote control, park, close the garage door and enter the home without ever being exposed to the threat of encountering one's neighbors.
Smith's example of the front porch leads me to consider what other architectural elements might encourage us to know and love our neighbors. The first to spring to my mind is the guest room. A guest room serves in several ways to encourage us to be hospitable. (I recommend this short article of Smith's concerning the loss of hospitality and the growth of the hotel industry). When friends and family, a missionary on furlough, or even a perfect stranger needs a place to stay, having a guest room prepared allows us to meet their need and to extend the hospitality and welcoming love of Christ and His Church. A guest room is, of course, a burden in a way. Having a place for someone to stay dismantles many of the comforting arguments we use to convince ourselves that we are excused from extending hospitality. Often, though, we need to remove our excuses in advance so that we might more readily live like Christ. Even during the majority of days when our guest rooms are empty, they will serve as a symbolic reminder that we have an empty place in our house yearning for a life to fill it. Not only does a guest room provide us with the means of hospitality, but also with a constant reminder of the virtue of hospitality.
The dining room must also be mentioned, as the breaking of bread and sharing of a meal is of key importance to Christians in particular. Although I am not sure what sort of a dining room design would most encourage us to actually have our neighbors over for dinner instead of meaning to have them over (and would appreciate your ideas in the comments section), I have a few ideas. The table should be big enough to accommodate at least two more people than there are in your family, so that, once again, you remove your excuses in advance. Furthermore, the table should not be allowed to become a collecting place for every loose item in your house (a tendency that afflicts me in particular), nor should it be decorated so extravagantly that it seems a crime to eat at it. Beautiful centerpieces are great, but if they ever begin to impede upon the table's intended purpose, fellowship, they must go.
Finally, one must consider the living room. It is now expected that the seating of a living room will be arranged around the television (our apartment is generally situated in this way, as well). I do not expect this to change completely, but we cannot allow our furniture to be directed toward the television in such a way that it inhibits our ability to have conversation. This, of course, rules out stadium seating, but also means that from any given seat on a chair or couch we should be able to easily make eye contact with a person in any other seat. Most of the seats should also enjoy healthy amounts of available light (for reading) and close access to a side or coffee table so that we can enjoy coffee with one another.
If you have any thoughts or ideas concerning how we can better design our houses for community, please share them below.


Debbi aka Mom said...

You certainly covered the high points. You would be interested to hear that Martha Stewart has written extensively (or at least her magazine has) about making hospitable guest rooms, making guests feel welcome, etc.
When I was a child, I remember it was commonly spoken about . . . keeping a place at the table for a stranger/guest . . . It seems to me the reference was entertaining angels unaware. Reference your Great Grandma, and her many stories of feeding strangers, even letting a soldier sleep at their house in the daytime, because he asked for a place to sleep . . . even though she had to have a neighbor come to stay with her, to avoid the appearance of evil. I love your premise! I hope you start a trend!

Deb said...

Hi Sam! I've been enjoying reading your blog :) As you know, I live in an over 100yr old house which only has one bathroom, is drafty in the winter and hot in the summer (no central air). However I have more "guests" over than anyone I know. Spending the night, dinner or just coffee. Why? It's something I had to learn over the years...folks are coming to see ME and visit ME...not my house. I am not the most pristine house keeper, but that actually puts people at ease. They feel "at home" here. We eat in my kitchen and that suits everyone just fine. I say the mugs are here, the coffee's yourself. If you are waiting for the "perfect" time to have someone might never happen! Spontaneity, defined as open, natural, and relaxed, is key! Nearly everyone has "junk" on a counter or table somewhere :) I once had someone drop by unexpectedly at dinnertime. I had nothing in the house but hotdogs (no buns) and some potato chips. My husband asked them to stay, then went out and lit a fire in the pit outside, dug out the hotdogs and handed each person a stick. It was fabulous!! They still talk about the wonderful time of fellowship we had together...laughing at the circumstances and food!! I guess we all need to take ourselves a little less serious than we do.

Zach said...

As we become all too accustomed to instant grattification, anything like sitting on a front porch or making small talk with the neighbors becomes something of a mysterious activity to many. Bring over a pie to a new neighbor and you are met with suspicion. A neighbor asks what you do for a living and you wonder, "are they casing my house?" No one trusts each other anymore before we assume the worst, that everyone else is only worried about themselves nd is out to hurt you.

What a cold miserable world we are creating for ourselves!