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Home is where the Heathcote is

If you spent yesterday evening eating your dinner in front of the TV in your living room, Edwin Heathcote has got something to tell you

Your living room ‘is the room that was once reserved for special occasions, and one special occasion more than any other – death.’ Bodies of deceased relatives were laid out in this room before burial. Now, ‘the modern era has seen the focus of the room shift from the coffin to the box.’

If there is something that doesn’t quite work about this space, a sense of it all being slightly off-balance, that’s not surprising. There used to be three foci for the living room: the window, the fireplace and the piano. ‘These have been replaced entirely by the TV, which has somehow never quite been incorporated into the architecture – as if acknowledging its centrality to everyday life is some kind of admission of failure.’

And if you’re wondering what’s happened to the evening’s conversation – well, that’s ironic. One of the living room’s other names is the ‘parlour’ from the French parler; to talk.

Heathcote’s The Meaning of Home is a forensic look at the place that is most important to us, from front doors to halls, floors to ceilings, bedrooms to bathrooms. The author has an archaeological approach: he’ll sift and dig to nuggets of meaning, and then he’ll go deeper.

Heathcote’s The Meaning of Home is a forensic look at the place that is most important to us, from front doors to halls, floors to ceilings, bedrooms to bathrooms. The author has an archaeological approach: he’ll sift and dig to nuggets of meaning, and then he’ll go deeper.

The significance of home, Heathcote explains, is so central it shows its traces in the very building blocks of our language. The letter B ‘derives directly from the word Beth, or house.’ Ancient pictographs depicted a house with a triangular pitched roof, and ‘the early Greeks abstracted this symbol so that it became a double roof on its side, which in turn became the familiar double dome on our B.’ Delta represented a door; the Semitic ‘He’, which became our E, represented a latticed window; the pictograph which evolved into our F was a tent-peg or hook… and on it goes.

It is this love of discovery that one imagines drives Heathcote – and it’s infectious. Each bite-sized chapter can be devoured on the train, during a coffee break, in a queue (the essays are based on a series that has been appearing in the Financial Times since 2008). Each will teach you something new, or remind you of a half-forgotten fact, or at the very least prompt you to make connections between things.

The green-tiled roofs of a Chinese palace, which are so well-known and somehow so very of their place, ‘refer to the scaly back of the dragon which symbolises Yang’. Of course they do. Why does a door-knocker often depict a lion’s head? ‘It embodies a memory of a time when spirits were thought to dwell by doors, around thresholds and openings… The opening of a door is a moment in which we leave ourselves open. The knocker provides a semblance of symbolic protection.’ Of course it does. (Heathcote has particular knowledge in this area, since he co-founded a hardware manufacturer in 2001 and has ‘been thinking about ironmongery ever since, even when I didn’t really want to.’)

Heathcote’s style is warm, with a lightness of touch that belies his range of reference. He takes in Jorge Luis Borges and Jung, Harper Lee and Hitchcock, Vitruvius and Venturi. He has a particular fondness for Hermann Muthesius, the German architect, diplomat and author of 1905 book The English House.

Which is all very well, but why does it matter? He admits that ‘the idea of meaning in architecture has, over the last century or so, become rather unfashionable.’ But he counters this with a compelling call to care: ‘Our houses and homes, no matter what style they are realised in, no matter how modest or seemingly ill-considered their architecture, are vessels of an extraordinary history, perhaps the last repositories of the language of symbol and collective memory that ties us to our ancestors.’

The Meaning of Home is not a book to be read through at one sitting, nor necessarily in the order the essays are presented. It is a book to be dipped into. It could do with some illustrations: Heathcote is a master of describing the visual, but sometimes a line drawing would underline his points. Overall, however, the book is nicely produced, small enough to pop in your bag, pleasing to hold, with an illustration of a traditional door on its hardback cover, and yellowing wallpaper on… what do you call it? – the frontispiece? Another architectural term. Heathcote would have something to say about that, too.

The Meaning of Home, by Edwin Heathcote, is published by Frances Lincoln, price £12.99

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