Nearly five years ago, caught out by a snow storm with my second cousin Chanel, we took shelter in a giant glass and concrete block on Manhattan’s 5th Avenue, home to the Rockefeller Centre and more importantly the Rockefeller Centre branch of Starbucks Coffee. The mood inside the café was solemn and concentrated. Customers were sitting alone, reading newspapers and magazines or staring at grey tiles. The café’s true talent lay in the generation of anxiety. The harsh down lighting, the intermittent sounds of the coffee machine and the frenzied behaviour of the counter staff who yelled out misspelled names written on takeaway cups invited thoughts of loneliness and meaninglessness of existence in a random and violent universe. The only solution was to continue to drink what Americans think is coffee (I actually had a chilled drink) in an attempt to compensate for the discomfort brought on by the location in which one was doing so.
Prompted by Chanel, we drew our visit to a precipitate close, and walked out into the street adjacent to Rockefeller Centre, where I properly noticed the incongruous and imposing Neo-Gothic forms of St Patricks Cathedral. It’s brick clad in marble soaring 100 metres into the dramatic snow-filled sky.
Drawn by snow and curiosity, we entered a cavernous hall, sunk in tarry darkness, against which a thousand votive candles stood out, their golden shadows flickering over illustrations and statues. There were smells of incense and sounds of murmured prayer. The facile din of the outer world had given way to awe and silence. Children stood close to their parents and looked around with an air of puzzled reverence. Visitors instantly whispered, as if deep in some collective dream from which they did not wish to emerge. The anonymity of the street had here been subsumed by a peculiar kind of intimacy. Everything serious in human nature seemed to be called to the surface; thoughts about limits and infinity, about powerlessness and sublimity. The stonework threw into relief all that was compromised and dull, and kindled a yearning for one to live up to its perfections.
After ten minutes in the cathedral, a range of ideas that would have been inconceivable outside began to assume an air of reasonableness. Under the influence of the marble, the stained glass, the darkness and the incense, it seemed entirely possible that Jesus was the son of God and had walked across the sea of Galilee. Concepts that would have sounded demented fifty metres away in the company of anxious coffee customers, had succeeded — through a work of architecture — in acquiring supreme significance and majesty.
I just want to clarify here for my friends and family, yes, I do believe Jesus is the Son of God, the story above is making the point about how we are different people in different locations. We gravitate towards different styles because those styles and forms speak to us. In fact, every form speaks to us, every form communicates.
Every form is an art form and every art form communicates something.
Although I could spend the span of an entire book explaining this in different contexts, let’s go through some quick thoughts about “home” which hopefully helps us become more aware of what is around us and how it is influencing us.
Our environments rebalance our misshapen natures and regulates our extremes. We arrange around us material forms which communicate to us what we need.
“Home” is the harmony with our own prized internal song.
A refuge, our rooms align us to desirable versions of ourselves and keep alive the important, evanescent sides of us. We can identify objects and features which correlate with our inner states and encourage us to foster them within ourselves; evoking the qualities with which our lives had been inefficiently endowed. This is why we can call places outside of where we sleep "home".
When viewing a beautiful object, it is not merely a question of just wanting to buy it, it is a question of absorbing the virtues to which it alludes. Purchasing the object does not mean the virtues within it will rub off on us. What we seek, at the deepest level, is to inwardly resemble, rather than physically possess, the objects and places that touch us through their beauty.
It is only logical that we should be drawn to styles that speak of excitement as well as calm, of grandeur as well as cosiness, given that these are polarities around which our own lives revolve.