Under my byline

Booking a flat

Posted in Books, Living by Rrishi on 28 October 2008


The house is a “machine à habiter” (a machine for living in), wrote Le Corbusier in 1923. He was the most radical and influential modernist architect of the 20th century. But after all, he designed very few houses that were actually built. His houses may have been efficient and even elegant by virtue of their functional and aesthetic purity, but most were scarcely habitable. Humans are not machine-like and the purposes we require our homes to serve are rather more complex and contradictory than a “machine for living” can accommodate.

Shelter and protection are the least of a house’s duties. Our dwelling also represents us to ourselves, to our neighbours and fellows; it must embody our values and proclaim our status. Ever since the invention of cheap artificial lighting, which reclaimed the night hours from darkness, we’ve had more time than ever to spend in wakefulness at home. Inevitably, work has grown to fill some of the time thus created — but not all of it, and so we have discovered leisure. So a house must service these needs as well.

There are home-based machines to serve our entertainment, self-improvement and social needs. Chief among them are TV and computer, and one or both are found in nearly every urban home. Neither is cheap, but both are affordable — and the cost is part of their attractiveness. Neighbour’s envy, owner’s pride.

But there is another technology which performs the same functions, and a slew of others, at a fraction of the investment. It’s cheap, ubiquitous, portable, practically immortal and doesn’t add to your electricity bill. The only downside is that it requires your undivided attention. It is, obviously, the book.

Neither TV nor computer will make your home more beautiful. A wallful of books presents a feast to eye, mind and fingertips. It is an infinitely mutable array of individual articles of different sizes and colours that form a single, pleasingly abstract display. Cheaper than good art, and more personal.

No two people own the exact same set of books, and even if they did, they wouldn’t be arranged in identical fashion. (Engineering and history professor Henry Petroski, in his excellent book on bookshelves, The Book on the Bookshelf, lists 25 methods of ordering books on shelves.) One of the pleasures — illicit thrill, almost — of entering a home with books is that there in front of the visitor is laid bare, in effect, an intimate biography of the owner. Each book represents a choice or an inheritance, a decision rooted in its own moment to buy or to keep.

As a journalist, I find that a quick survey of an interviewee’s bookshelf provides useful clues to his personality and interests. And if there are no books in an otherwise well-appointed home, that’s a clue too — that this person has an impoverished internal life, and does not understand the value of silence.

Apart from intellectual street-cred, books help make a home. “[T]his room is full of my past,” writer Al Alvarez told the Guardian about his book-filled writing room. “It’s like being in some kind of nest.” Books make small rooms less oppressive, and big rooms cosier. UK real-estate agents know that a home with bookshelves fetches a better price.

Indians are born into a culture that reveres books and learning, the work of the mind rather than the hands. But in how many Indian homes have you seen more than a handful of non-textbook books? Few people can be too busy to read. Perhaps they turn over custody of their time to machines like the TV and computer, and thus impoverish themselves.

This week’s news says that desperate property developers are offering fabulous extras to tempt reluctant buyers. With your flat you can now get a Mercedes, a BMW, gold coins — even a second flat.

How about books? Creative developers can advertise “High-quality display solutions to showcase your intellectual prestige” — aka bookshelves — pre-fitted, which hold from 400 books (small flat) to 2,000 (big flat). The bookshelves can fill awkward corners, make a staircase look grander, or be the centrepiece in a drawing room. If the location is prestigious, property buyers will be more keen to fill the shelves.

To recoup his (fairly negligible) cost, the developer can then tie up with one of the big-chain booksellers, who, anecdotal evidence suggests, are not doing particularly well either. For a nice discount, the flat buyer can line his new shelves with new books. The bookseller can charge extra for personalised library-building advice.

It’s true that social engineering through architecture has a lousy reputation, partly because of the ill-judged efforts of less-intelligent disciples of Le Corbusier. But perhaps in such small and unobtrusive ways, we can modify Le Corbusier’s notion of the house to the altogether more human “machine for living better”.


One Response

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  1. Sunny said, on 3 November 2008 at 11:03 am

    “High-quality display solutions to showcase your intellectual prestige” – love it… now if we can only find a way to put ‘books’, ‘domestic architecture’ and “resort-style living” in one sentence and they’ll be more money to be had! some recent research into speculative housing in Bangalore revealed that developers were trying to manufacture desire on the idea of “buy a house, live in a resort”! guess “holidaying” and “resort-ing” are big now in India… on a related note, …gone are those days when a holiday meant spending a month at the maternal village with grandparents and great grandparents… where entertainment was going over to the stables and playing with calves …and dinner time was when the sound of crickets engulfed you as they reached their decibel climax as the last rays of twilight turned into night.

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