7 March 2015

(No) Home

I’ve become somewhat of an ascetic wanderer. While I do have an official residence in the administrative sense of the term, a place where I sleep and get my mail delivered, it’s a far cry from the kind of place I would call “home” – because I travel quite a bit for work and for leisure, I’m only renting my place, and I’ve even sub-let a couple of rooms. Perhaps the only location I could have described as “home” was the family house before all hell stopped breaking loose and my mother was forced to give it away to be able to pay off ten years of half “rent” owed to my father, even if he had been forced out of the house upon court decision. By an ironic twist of events, the house is now exclusively his. But that house will have had anyway forever been anchored in the past of my childhood, and not in the present or the future of my own life.

Casa Batlló, Barcelona

Simplicity and minimalism are probably what define my style of living nowadays – my interests lie less in material things than intellectual and in the realm of lived, physical experiences, although I can still appreciate a nice piece of furniture or equipment. But I just don’t need to own it. In fact, I want to be able – I am able – to move anywhere pretty much instantly without worrying about a piece of property somewhere (yes, Bali is still on my mind) or, by extension, worrying about any responsibility tying me somewhere.

It didn’t use to always be the case that I didn’t care so much about having a “home”. More than ten years ago, I would tear apart pages from home decoration catalogues to keep track of inspiring designs for a future home. And since my parents had built their own house, it was indeed on my mind to also architect my own cosy place: a big library with all the books I read and loved even if I paradoxically don’t like to read things twice (there are so many good books to read and extend my wisdom from), a warming fireplace for those cold winter evenings, a cinema room to appreciate a good old vintage film by Kurosawa, an acoustical room for playing the piano or appreciating music across all the audible frequency spectrum.

Casa Batlló, Barcelona
Casa Batlló, Barcelona
Casa Batlló, Barcelona

I was reminded of that old dream twice, in rapid succession over the past few months. First when I was fortunate to visit an extraordinary private mansion on the borders of a lake up in the mountains. Every room was opened by thick wooden doors rounded at their top, stone and wood were interlocked all around the house, an imposing chimney gave the impression that a single fire could keep the place warm all winter long, an impressive living room highlighted the largest TV I had ever seen and which I thought was perfect for screening films… until I entered the dedicated cinema room! Heck, there was even a lift inside the house and an outdoors jacuzzi (imagine watching the silent stars above, naked in hot water while the snow is falling). Yes, it was too grandiose (I haven’t even described a tenth of that mansion) but you had to hear my interjections of surprise every time I entered a new room.

Is this the back of a dragon? Casa Batlló, Barcelona

The second time I was reminded of that dream of having a home – or is it more about feeling at home? – occurred shortly afterwards when I visited the Casa Batlló in Barcelona. Also a private mansion, originally built in 1877, it is nowadays open to the public for a hefty fee (more than twenty euros!). It’s special because the architect who completely renovated it in 1904 was world-famous Antoni Gaudi, whose masterpieces sprinkle Barcelona. The colourful ceramic-tiled exterior of the building is already quite extraordinary, as if coming out of a fairy tale. Interpretations abound: is it the surface of a lake with water lilies? Are these protruding balconies the skulls or masks of djinns trying to peer into my mind? Are these the big eyes of a dinosaur or of a dragon, which back is represented by the roof? Do watch this fantastic video of a light show projected on the façade of the building – and let your imagination wander with the help of the (mostly! you’ll see why) appeasing music.

Ceiling lights at the Casa Batlló, Barcelona
Overhanging light at the Casa Batlló, Barcelona
Gaudi’s own font, at the Casa Batlló, Barcelona
Casa Batlló, Barcelona
Chimney with seats at the Casa Batlló, Barcelona

Gaudi also designed some of the furniture – check out the funky overhanging lights – and went to the extreme of crafting his own font to name the rooms (that’s an F on one of the pictures above). Retractable slits in wooden panels cleverly serve as natural ventilation system. And what about this romantic fireplace, with seats carved on each side of the chimney? There would be so much more to say, from the oval windows to the arched loft and the central blue-tiled well. Notice carefully how the blue shade of the tiles gets lighter as one goes down the staircase: less light reaching the lower levels, it thus allows to create a homogenous blue atmosphere throughout the well. How ingenious!

Windows at the Casa Batlló, Barcelona

For some reason, I was attracted to the round corners of every room and ceiling: it was that detail in particular that made me wonder how it could be easily replicated in any other building (maybe through the use of some plaster?) to break the harshness of monotonous horizontal and vertical lines of any traditional room. In the back of my mind were the Blanco Renaissance museum in Ubud, or the Guggenheim museum in New York, which interest not only lies in the works exposed but also in the architecture of their building. And then I was thinking of an old idea of mine about creating new “castles” or anything that would drive tourists to visit them – anticipating that countries like France may actually need to invest more on tourism infrastructure and attractions to better prepare for the inevitable demise of traditional powers in favour of the emerging ones. Anyway, it’s part of my political programme that will probably never come to light, another one of those buried projects that come back up to the surface every now and then, never wanting to completely die.

Casa Batlló, Barcelona

From Paris to Barcelona, from New York to Ubud, from Zürich to London, home to me feels nowhere and everywhere at the same time. It perhaps depends on whether that home is shared with someone special, I don’t know anymore. Or maybe it is that “one never reaches home, but wherever friendly paths intersect the whole world looks like home for a time” (Frau Eva in Herman Hesse’s Demian, chapter 7 – in German, in English).

Chimney pipes at the Casa Batlló, Barcelona