Truth ‘at home’ —Walter Burley Griffin’s Winter House

To feel ‘at home’ somewhere suggests one feels comfortable in a strange place. To be ‘at home’ with oneself suggests one is not at odds or out of kilter with oneself, not estranged from one’s truth but accepting of it. Compared to its opposite—not to be ‘at home’ suggests one is outside oneself, foreign to oneself. Whether at home or not at home, the idiom carves a strong distinction between oneself on one side and the world outside oneself on the other.

It is hardly a phrase to think twice about. Yet, it is a phrase I found myself thinking when fortunate enough to visit a house by the architect Walter Burley Griffin known as Redstone or, more readily, the Winter House. Constructed between March and December 1935 on a 2.5 acre block of land that had been a plum tree orchard with distant views of Parramatta River, it was the last residence Walter Burley Griffin designed before departing for India in October 1935, where he lived and worked for two years before succumbing to illness in 1937.  These many years later finds the residence the most intact by Walter Burley Griffin in New South Wales.

Yet, what has being ‘at home’ to do with it? It is a phrase the nineteenth-century German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel often uses to punctuate his philosophy. In our striving, he tells us, ‘to obtain satisfaction and freedom in knowing and willing, in learning and actions’, it is the opposite that makes us ‘at home’—when we wall ourselves in behind an ignorance that finds the outside world alien and confronting.(1)G.W.F. Hegel, Aesthetics: lectures on fine art, Volume 1, translated by T.M. Knox, Clarendon Press, Oxford , 1975, p. 98.

Yet for Hegel, to truly be ‘at home’ has nothing to do with retreating from what is foreign to be safe within an interior space. To be at home is to be at one with what is foreign, to be free. Freedom, mind you, is not without barriers. Freedom without boundaries is, according to Hegel, ignorance. Freedom is, instead, truth that has barriers a plenty, without which it would be barren. The most immediate barrier is that between oneself and the world outside, where one comes ‘into an opposition with an environment of inorganic nature’. (2)Ibid., p. 100.

Truth, therefore, is not without struggle. The differentiations struggle creates are the walls we find ourselves on either one side or the other. Yet, for Hegel, one’s truth does not reside on one’s side of the wall as most would like to think, but in a reconciliation beyond one’s wall: a point of unity where, as Hegel writes, ‘in this sphere, in this enjoyment of truth, life as feeling is bliss, as thinking is knowledge’. (3)Ibid.

Where, then, does this truth reside in the Winter House?

Winter-House-Walter-Burely-Griffin-corner-detailWith internal walls that gracefully curve into the ceiling rather than meet at a perpendicular, there is a sense of deep internal space here; as though one is within the midst of a cave, protected from a harsh outside. This degree of distance between the inside and outside is enhanced by sandstone walls that appear half-a-metre deep when one looks from inside, out the windows.(4)This is an effect created by U shaped outward jutting recesses on either side of the windows, recesses generally utilised as either storage cupboards or wardrobes.

Securely secluded, then, from the outside world, behind thickly fortified barriers not unlike those many a nation-state tries to erect to defend against perceived threats from outside, does this not suggest the contrary to Hegel’s notion of freedom? Left at that, as the ordinary house is, one would have to say ‘yes’. Instead, it seems to me, a specific relation between the outside and inside of the Winter House actually makes truth and its accompanying freedom, built-in.

By this I am not referring to Walter Burley Griffin’s Prairie school background. Nor to the fact Walter Burley Griffin used to build directly on the ground, rather than on a level raised above as required by council stipulations. (5)As described to us by Ian Stapleton during ‘High Tea’

Instead, this specific truth-relation begins its play from outside when one looks at the west face of the house. Here, we see a central geometric stone mass evenly flanked on either side by windows where, on the left, the windows are recessed by a patio. Central to this symmetry is a window in the middle, a window (a void) encased by stone.

P1010825.JPGWhen we then look at this same wall from the opposite side inside the living room—where, outside, there was a central void (a window) flanked by stone, inside we see the reverse: a central stone mass (housing the fireplace), flanked by voids (windows). The power of the outside symmetry asserts itself in reverse inside; until, that is, truth kicks in.

By carrying the symmetry outside to inside, one simultaneously aligns the centre of both as the same physical point—without thinking. Not until one reads one’s position inside through the opposite outside, does one realise that a void space, a window, on one side of the wall cannot become its opposite, a stone mass, on the other side of the wall.  Given the patio that is now, from inside, on the righthand side, the central point of symmetry has shifted. Yet, rather than see this misalignment as an indication that one is out of kilter with the outside world, recognition of it instead calls upon our ability to transcend, through thought, our most immediate of barriers (the wall in front) to see the situation from a point of unity. Only then can we see our true location. To be ‘at home’, then, is to be within this sphere of truth where ‘life as feeling is bliss, as thinking is knowledge …’.(6)G.W.F. Hegel, Aesthetics: lectures on fine art, Volume 1, translated by T.M. Knox, Clarendon Press, Oxford , 1975, p. 100.

Whether or not one consciously recognises this relationship between the inside and outside of Walter Burley Griffin’s Winter House, one nevertheless resides within its sphere of bliss.

Gail Hastings, 21 December 2010