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House Thinking: A Room-by-Room Look at How We Live
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House Thinking: A Room-by-Room Look at How We Live

by Winifred Gallagher

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Ethan Allen and HGTV may have plenty to say about making a home look right, but what makes a home feel right? In House Thinking, journalist and cultural critic Winifred Gallagher takes the reader on a psychological tour of the American home. By drawing on the latest research in behavioral science, an overview of cultural history, and interviews with leading


Ethan Allen and HGTV may have plenty to say about making a home look right, but what makes a home feel right? In House Thinking, journalist and cultural critic Winifred Gallagher takes the reader on a psychological tour of the American home. By drawing on the latest research in behavioral science, an overview of cultural history, and interviews with leading architects and designers, she shows us not only how our homes reflect who we are but also how they influence our thoughts, feelings, and actions.

How does your entryway prime you for experiencing your home? What makes a bedroom a sensual oasis? How can your bathroom exacerbate your worst fears? House Thinking addresses provocative questions like these, enabling us to understand the homes we've made for ourselves in a unique and powerful new way. It is an eye-opening look at how we live . . . and how we could live.

Editorial Reviews

Architectural Record
“The book’s strength lies in the author’s intuitions...a small book with many valuable insights.”
New York Times
Boston Globe
“This rich and intelligent book...leads us on an intimate and revealing pilgrimage into America’s restless soul.”
Los Angeles Times
“An engaging book…enlightening and helpful.”
Book List
[Gallagher] conducts a tour like no other of the American house, excavating its fascinating history and covert psychological influences.
Architects and home decorators ignore the psychological aspects of their trades at their own risk. In House Thinking, cultural critic Winifred Gallagher takes us on a room-by-room tour through the homes that we thought we knew so well to reveal the implicit power of place in our lives. She draws us on behavioral research and interviews with professionals to show us how homes influence nearly every aspect of our domestic lives. Must-reading before any move or renovation.
Dominique Browning
House Thinking is a book full of tenderness and care. It's wonderfully generous with information about everything from health to pets and plumbing. At its best, it's enthusiastic and unpretentious. Despite its reliance on sometimes dubious experts, Gallagher's work is valuable because of her own thoughtfulness, imagination and insight, and for the range and quality of observation she brings to a subject that's dear to the heart: home.
— The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
Tapping into the American consumer's burgeoning interest in home design, cultural critic Gallagher (Pride of Place) takes on the single-family home in her latest cultural inquiry. Chapters are themed by room, beginning with the entry and living room and moving through to the basement, garage and garden; each ends with anecdotes describing how Gallagher's own family has changed its home with her new-found knowledge. Equal parts architecture, history, sociology and psychology, Gallagher's book easily makes academic discussions relevant to the general reader. The text is liberally peppered with pop culture references, though at times these appear humorously off-mark, as when she cites MTV Cribs (a hip-hop version of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous) as a "popular children's show." Gallagher is not an unbiased observer - she makes a clear argument for her own preference for traditional notions of comfort and craft. Avant-garde architects and designers are often derided for their emphasis on novelty and art over homeyness and practicality. Because of this, Gallagher's text often feels like an etiquette book evoking a romantic nostalgia for propriety. She is at her most engaging when discussing notions of prestige and social hierarchy-issues particularly relevant in an age of proliferating McMansions and Martha Stewart-inspired interest in the hallmarks of good taste. (Feb. 7) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
How our living spaces affect our behavior-that is, how they support or hinder our lives-is the question explored here. Cultural critic and journalist Gallagher, who examined the broader question of how the larger environment influences our moods and behaviors in The Power of Place (1993), has now narrowed her focus to how the houses we live in make us feel. Feeling at home in a house, she says, has less to do with aesthetic fashion than with cultural and personal needs and inclinations that we may be largely unaware of. Her "psychological house tour of the American home" proceeds one room at a time, with most chapters opening with a description of an especially noteworthy or famous one. Thus she takes the reader into the idiosyncratic entry hall at Jefferson's Monticello, Abigail Adams's colonial kitchen, Longfellow's impressive dining room, Edith Wharton's private bedroom-and Hugh Hefner's more public one. Gallagher, who visited dozen of architects, draws on their work and on that of environmental designers, psychologists, ecologists and primatologists to discover just how our homes can best support us in our daily lives. She considers the function of each room; how the needs of sociability and privacy must be balanced for maximum personal comfort; and the benefits of contrasting small and large, high and low and quiet and busy. Gallagher also recounts the history of various spaces, showing how technology and lifestyle changes have shaped and reshaped our bathrooms, kitchens and basements. She winds up with a brief consideration of the nearby natural world and the psychological benefits of a second home close to nature, and finally, a sketchy look at the pros and cons of suburbanneighborhoods. Between chapters, she inserts brief essays about her own home and the changes she made once she began examining it from an environmental-behavioral point of view, a technique that goes far towards reassuring the reader that making one's house more you-reflective and more user-friendly is no big deal. One quibble: in a book that cries out for illustrations, why repeat the same line drawing of a house exterior at the opening of each chapter?

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HarperCollins Publishers
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P.S. Series
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5.31(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.82(d)

Read an Excerpt

House Thinking

A Room-by-Room Look at How We Live
By Winifred Gallagher

HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.

Copyright © 2006 Winifred Gallagher
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0060538694

Chapter One


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 Wright's 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 area's loftier, brighter, open prospect. Having the option of . . .


Excerpted from House Thinking by Winifred Gallagher Copyright © 2006 by Winifred Gallagher. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Winifred Gallagher is the author of House Thinking, Just the Way You Are (a New York Times Notable Book), Working on God, and Spiritual Genius. She has written for numerous publications, including Atlantic Monthly, Rolling Stone, and the New York Times. She lives in Manhattan and Dubois, Wyoming.

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