Two of everything. As if everybody were moving into a modern, utilitarian satire of Noah’s ark crossed with an IKEA stuck on a penchant for faux-wood exteriors. College begins and ends with a vacant room.
Two desk chairs.
And then, suddenly, two people. Famous Swiss architect Le Corbusier said, “The home should be the treasure chest of living,” and, “A house is a machine for living in.” In this case, the dorm room becomes the machine and, temporarily, the treasure chest. Residents make the machine work and come alive in the frighteningly unique way living on one’s own makes it possible to finally assert dominance over a space.
David C, a junior physics major at T. University, who probably has never heard of Le Corbusier or the indirectly related concept of feng shui, and probably shares more in common with Planck’s constant than an ergonomic desk chair, nonetheless employs something he calls “room economy.” For the sake of himself and his begrudging roommate.
Probably everyone does this, either consciously or unconsciously. When people enter a space, they go about making it habitable, arranging its physicality in such a way as to produce comfort and safety. Everybody engages the process of making his “house” a home. The two concepts, though relatable, remain quite separable. Biffy Clyro, a popular Scottish band, quip in one of their songs that, “This is your house, this is not your home / I don’t know if we’re ever gonna belong.” Valleys exist between humans treating their living space as a house or a home. Many variables go into creating one over the other, temporality being an obvious one.
When walking into a room, C sees the empty space as potential, much like an architect or a graphic designer, using implicit tools and constructs, his eyes the only betrayal that he believes in the more lurking behind the veneer of an average dorm room, his posture akin to that of a place kicker in American football, poised for the three seconds of action his hours of training prepared him for.
Frank Lloyd Wright said, “A building is not just a place to be but a way to be.” Physical spaces, for C and others, are metaphysical. For C, move-in day means careful consideration of what furniture to stack, where to place the desks for maximum functionality, how to arrange the furniture in such a way as to create symmetry, form, floor space, etc. The process almost obsessive, the room design morphing into three unique shapes within the first week of residence, much to the aggravation of C’s roommate.
But the struggle had purpose behind it, C repeatedly claiming, “it’ll be better this way,” as his bushy thicket of hair framed a smug expression. Moving a bed across the room. Swiveling a desk. Geographically transferring a coffee table to make a more productive landscape. Every time, C was right. Practicing what might be termed a “layman’s feng shui.”
Feng shui finds its roots in China and is closely tied to the idea of a living world containing natural objects imbued with Chi, a type of spiritual energy. While actual practice of feng shui involves tools such as a bagua (energy map of a living space) and a compass (not the magnetic, get-unlost-from-the-woods type compass employed by boyscouts), C inherently implies personal principles to much the same effect. “See, doesn’t that feel better?” he asks. Somehow, surprisingly, it just does.
Feng shui indicates the importance of quality air and light along with clutter reduction. C maintains an orderly environment, the room setup maximizes natural light, and the window stays open as often as possible. Gottfried Leibniz, a famous natural philosopher, believed space was about the relations between objects. His mentality distilled precludes the idea of relationship as vital to a living space.
Why this matters, perhaps, is the mental/emotional palliative certain physical spaces can induce. From color scheme to closet organization to conscious mood, where a person is plays into how a person is. While a homey room isn’t a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (used to treat mental/emotional illness), it certainly has an aesthetic quality. “Happiness is a part of life. We live in rooms. Room setups are always with us,” C says, talking in a way that goes beyond dorm rooms into as-yet unrealized homes he blindly plans to live in. Then, pausing from riffing in pseudo-random organization on his acoustic guitar, he grins and adds, “except for when we’re outside.”
C peers at the walls, then at a poster in his roommate’s hands, then back at the walls. He has the final say in what wall the poster goes on because, “it needs to match the color scheme.” Brown predominates one corner, while the roommate’s corner displays a peaceful grayscaling. Doubtfully by chance, the poster above C’s bed matches his sheets and comforter.
Feng shui believes color is an expression of light and that color relates to the five elements, each with a specific determinant quadrant. Improper color mixing in certain geographical areas of the room leads to destructive cycles.
Somehow, C’s room just works. The Getty Museum has a pamphlet listing design principles. “Is space one of them?” C wonders in response to what recognized design principles there are. According to the Getty, they include: movement, balance, variety, unity, and pattern, among others. While the Getty lists these when referencing what makes good art, C, after knotting his forehead in a way that might cause a dissident to say truth is really threads needing the right hands, says, “Art is you. Where you live is a part
of you. Objectively, homes are art.”
The way a home invites a person just by being because the feeling of life pervades the area may in some ways parallel what makes people gape at good art. In contrast, abandoned or derelict buildings hold appeal for almost exact opposite reasons, i.e. the mystery of ghosts and the intrigue of the forsaken. Inviting spaces create harmony. They contain elegance for their disenfranchisement from humanity combined with their very made-ness in humanity’s image.
“Earl grey makes the best,” he says, referencing how he has recently begun
making tea with unsweetened almond milk as creamer in what he calls, offhandedly, “tea lattes.” A candle burns on a small white coffee table in the western corner of the room and strategically placed lamps obfuscate the need for the harsh dorm fluorescence. Modern feng shui practice advocates mindfulness for the feel of a home.
“Feng shui? Nope. I just use instinct,” C says.
Humans crave places that let them be. And while people often vacation in wild locales and hop on planes to discover that feeling of life, C seems to display the idea that life is what you make of what is around you.
“We ought to adopt environmental flexibility, at home and abroad, seeing our physical spaces as places from which to create absolution from distress.” Humans shape their environment and by doing so, they create it in their image, much the way mythological deities created and shaped their worlds. By formatting physicality to something relatable, humans create comfort.
“If we don’t feel comfortable in our own homes, then there’s a problem.” To
emphasize his point, he eats a handful of whole grain Goldfish. Then, dually ominous yet characteristically poignant, like the way his nose resembles an escalator to the gap between his piercing eyes, “whether or not solving that problem remains easy is another thing.”
In Maslow’s psychological hierarchy of needs, safety and security closely follow physical needs such as warmth, sleep, food, and water. Physical spaces arguably, through proper establishment, provide over half of humans’ most basic needs. In the end, whatever anybody calls it: feng shui, room economy, or something different, everyone is chasing down comfort.
“I just want to live in a home,” C says.