Home & Garden Columns

About the House: Houses Are an Extension of Selves

By Matt Cantor
Friday September 14, 2007

My wife and I have been arguing about our house for 20 years. I know this isn’t unusual but it’s noteworthy and I’m going to take the long way ‘round in proving the point.  

People fight about houses. They fight about what color to paint, who gets to put a painting up on a particular wall, what repairs to make and how clean to keep it. It’s hard enough when one person owns and cares for a house but when two try to negotiate the arrangement of space, it’s congressional oversight 24/7. 

I, for one, feel like I’m having a serious debate every time I try to decide where to place a piece of furniture in a room. I’m quite capable of having an argument with myself (“stop that!”, “no, you stop that!”). 

Carl Jung argued, some 90 years ago, that I do this because I’m really whole bunch of neatly packed into one anatomy, and further, that I’m also identifying with the table, the room, the floor and the cat. So, it’s not so much that I’m rearranging the room, it’s more like I’m fixing my hair and deciding how tanned I should be. When the table isn’t just so, I look wrong. Just imagine when we get to painting the room! 

Berkeley is an exciting and wonderful place and due, in no small part, to our bountiful and delicious university. Nearly 30 years ago, I had the good fortune to study here and among the fascinating soldiers of knowledge I encountered on the field of battle was one Clare Cooper Marcus, a student of both Jung and of Architecture. 

Clare talked in class about what would eventually become ink in House As a Mirror of Self (published in 1995, some 15 years later. The paperback came out last year).  

She posits the notion that we experience the built world as an extension of ourselves. This perspective both enriches and also complicates our relationship with our houses, huts and garages. It also provides a valuable tool for looking into our relationships, particularly those we share real estate with. 

If I see my house as an extension of myself (Does this porch make me look fat?) and my partner sees the SAME house as an extension of herself, how the hell do we manage to remodel anything. Anyone who’s been through the arduous remodeling process with a partner can attest to the strain it can put on the relationship. In fact, while I’ve never seen any statistics (and would love to), I’m quite sure that a major remodel is one of the primary causes of a breakup or divorce. I say this simply having been around the remodeling (and marital) world for decades and having seen a shocking number of these in my own field of vision (or as stories shared by friends and colleagues). 

When two people are trying to express their own inner selves on the canvas of home, it’s a trial of mythological proportion. All the demons and homunculi come out, put on their little tiny tool belts and go at it, tearing down walls, throwing spaghetti and tiny balls of fire. Our distant pasts collide and can either blend into artistic visions (as in the case of the great collaborations of art and science history) or rail and raze the cities of our inner and outer lives. 

Again, this is hard enough when one person is involved. As a recovering remodeling contractor I can say with authority that helping a single person remodel their home is often quite trying. Remodelers usually try to keep their personalities out of the work and let the client have all the say (at least on what it looks like since how it’s built should be their domain) so you would think that this would simplify things. Well, it surely does but it’s still hard. Mr. Jung and Ms. Cooper Marcus have shed some light on why this is. Allow me to take this light and focus it a bit. 

If we accept the theorem that the house is a symbol of the self (Your self for example) what happens when someone starts remodeling your house is that they begin moving your nose a little to the left, your hairline backward or down to your eyebrows or your knees up to your hips. 

O.K., let’s set this grotesqueness aside for a second in favor of another. Remodeling is physically like surgery on your house, full of incisions, joint replacements and catheterizations. When we rewire your house, is this neurosurgery? When we replumb, is it a triple bypass? 

Remodeling is, in some psychological way, a reshaping of the person, people or relationships that exist inside the space. Even if we set the Zen-crystal-macrobiotic stuff aside for the moment, it’s not hard to see the Cartesian (republican) equivalents. Cutting up my house is disruptive and the dust and mess and lack of peace is harsh, dude.  

Nevertheless, I’m actually convinced that there IS something deeper going on and the test is in the identification that people clearly have with the smallest details in their homes.  

Anyone who has ever spent time with a really ob-com (obsessive compulsive) person can tell you that the relocation of the smallest object or the tiniest mess can set them off into flights of mania. This is due to the fragility of their inner I.D. When we have a deep, strong sense of ourselves and are grounded in a profound understanding of our place in the universe, a dirty car is not a big deal. When we’re not, we need to build masks that hold our identity (house, car, income) over the void of doubt. 

This suggests that in some sort of way, a remodel is a radical therapy, forcing the inner self to the surface and into the light of day. Remodeling contractors know this even if they don’t know that they know it. They know that at some point, even the nicest, sanest client is going to lose it when they’ve been deprived of their serene space for 10 weeks.  

When I was in the business, I used to interview clients and pay close attention to the neatness of the house. If it was fussy-perfection clean, I would find a way to avoid taking the job. This was the client that was going to go ballistic at some point when their image of the world (self, house) had literally crumbled into plaster dust.  

Now, that said, there are people who are just the opposite, looking for the extreme psychic makeover. The adventurous person who will go on Nepal treks or change jobs at the drop of a hat. Younger people more often fit this profile but that is definitely a generalization that wears thin fast. You get the point. The free and open-minded do better when we begin the psychic surgery of remodeling and the tight-as-a-drum go catawampus. 

If no other good comes out of this area of inquiry, I’m certain that the remodeling industry can gain greatly. Of course, they don’t tend to listen to this sort of thing so it will have to be “hammered” into them by academics, clients and writers so in say, 100 years, I think we’ll be good to go. 

This week’s column is dedicated to my old aerobics classmate Anita Feder-Chernila. Anita, a Berkeley gestalt therapist, consulted with Clare Cooper Marcus in the early years of Clare’s development of her theories and I’m certain that all those leg lifts and Cyndi Lauper records must have somehow insinuated themselves into Clare’s theories. Or maybe it only proves that Girls Just Wanna Have Fun. 



Got a question about home repairs and inspections? Send them to Matt Cantor, in care of East Bay Real Estate, at realestate@berkeleydailyplanet.com.