Belonging is rooted in understanding, right? And understanding comes from knowing.
So a place where I feel I belong is a place I know and a place I understand.
Much of this is manifested through stuff. If I’m in the kitchen here then I know where the teaspoons are. Not only that, but I know the different teaspoons we have – the usual thin ones, the one rounded one, the two with monkeys on from when we were little, the one with shell designs on the handle that came from our grandparents, somehow. More than that, I know which was mine when I was a child, and which belongs in the sugar tin, and that one is currently missing because it’s in a mug in my room. I understand how all this fits into us, our needs and rhythms and characters. This is a tiny bit of belonging.
Multiply this through the kitchen, for every cupboard and surface and the stacks of stuff on the dresser. Then do the same for my room, and most of the rest of the house, and see how much there is to know and understand, with which to be familiar. See how deep that belonging goes.
There’s a reason they’re called belongings. (They belong to you, but maybe your belonging also rests with them?)
Anyway, I start to get very uncomfortable with this whole idea, because it starts to suggest that without this stuff there can be no sense of belonging, and I don’t believe that’s true. It suggests that it’s impossible to live or to travel without your own familiar stuff and still feel at home. I simply don’t agree, partly because I’m very bad at getting attached to things.
So let’s go back to the principles: knowing, understanding, belonging.
Having stuff is definitely one way of getting to that sense of belonging; it follows that path. But it’s not the only way. Would I still feel a sense of belonging in the kitchen if it were completely empty? I don’t know. It would probably be strange – eerie, really. But I’d still have the knowledge and understanding of how it can be lived in, and maybe that’s what’s important.
Some feel a sense of belonging in a place of worship because it follows its own pattern: it’s a place they know and understand, not because of the stuff that’s there but because of the systems and rituals and actions and people and protocols. It’s codified. There’s a shared history.
Or in a public place, where the sense of belonging comes from knowing the patterns and actions and habits around you – seeing people in their daily routine, knowing them and who they are and where they’re off to now, understanding the way lives are played out.
Stuff is really just evidence of this broader understanding. People will always have things – to use, to admire, to keep, to trade, to give and save and investigate and preoccupy. Of course we will: we need them. Knowing and understanding what stuff is for and why it’s there and how is really no more than knowing and understanding our place in the world, following the traces of our own lives and those of others.
What I don’t know now is this: when does stuff end and place begin? Ok, it’s easy to decide that a wall is part of building fabric rather than an object. But what about a chair? A window seat? A dwelling place – the architecture of it – carries traces of our inhabitation. But it cannot be taken away, the way stuff can; it’s specific to its location…
Stuff has stories. So do places. So do people. Architects shouldn’t ignore that.