Summerson: The Little House

By John Summerson

Eugène Viollet-le-Duc (1814–1879), Record drawings, Capital sculpture, Saint-Sauveur de Nevers, 1841–1848. Pencil on paper. DMC .

There is a kind of play common to nearly every child; it is to get under a piece of furniture or some extemporised shelter of his own and to exclaim that he is in a ‘house’. Psychoanalysis interprets this kind of play in various ways. I am not, however, concerned with such interpretations except in so far as they show that this particular form of fantasy cannot be dismissed merely as a mimicry of the widespread adult practice of living in houses. It is symbolism – of a fundamental kind, expressed in terms of play. This kind of play has much to do with the aesthetics of architecture.

At a later stage, the child’s conduct of the game is transferred to a new plane of realism; he constructs or uses dolls’ houses and insists on a strict analogy between his own practices and those of adult life – the doll’s house must be an epitome of an adult’s home. But whether the child is playing under the table or handling a doll’s house, his imagination is working in the same way. He is placing either himself or the doll (a projection of himself) in a sheltered setting. The pleasure he derives from it is a pleasure in the relationship between himself (or the doll) and the setting.

None of us ever entirely outgrows the love of the doll’s house or, usually in a vicarious form, the love of squatting under the table. Camping and sailing are two adult forms of play analogous to the ‘my house’ pretenses of a child. In both, there is the fascination of the miniature shelter which excludes the elements by only a narrow margin and intensifies the sense of security in a hostile world. Less direct but even more common is the liking for models and houses in miniature. Many of us remember the enormous popularity of the Queen’s Doll’s House, shown for charitable purposes between the wars. The tiny cottage presented by the people of Wales to Princess Elizabeth exercised a similar appeal. The concept of the diminutive in building exercises a most powerful fascination. The ‘little house’ is a phrase which goes straight to the heart, whereas ‘the big house’ is reserved for the prison and the public assistance institution. Pleasure-houses of any kind often take their names from diminutives. ‘Casino’, ‘bagatelle’, ‘brothel’, are all diminutive words. The ‘love-nest’, ‘love in a cottage’, the ‘little grey home in the west’, the ‘bijou residence’ – all such hackneyed phrases serve to remind us how deep is the appeal of ‘the little house’.

But we must be carely to keep separate two manifestations of this appeal. There is the ‘cosiness’ of the little house; but also its ceremony. It is the ‘cosiness’ which psychologists underline in their interpretation of its symbolism. But for us the ceremonial idea is more important – the idea of neatness and serenity within, contrasting with wildness and confusion without. The ceremony of the child’s house, like its cosiness, is found again in adult play – that grave form of play which is intertwined with religious and social customs. The baldacchino, the canopy over the throne, the catafalque over a tomb, the ceremonial shelter carried over a pope or bishop in procession – these are not empirical devices to exclude dust or rain but vestiges of infantile regression such as we have just observed.

It is precisely this feeling for the ceremony of the little house which links all that I have been saying with the development of architecture. The Latin word for a building is aedes; the word for a little building is aedicula and this word was applied in classical times more particularly to little buildings whose function was symbolic – ceremonial. It was applied to a shrine placed at the far end, from the entrance, of a temple to receive the statue of a deity – a sort of architectural canopy in the form of a rudimentary temple, complete with gable – or to use the classical word, pediment. It was also used for the shrines – again miniature temples – in which the lares or titular deities of a house or street were preserved.

The drawings selected to illustrate this text are mounted in an album of record drawings by Eugène Viollet-le-Duc, now in the Drawing Matter Collection. Many of them were published in his Dictionnaire raisonné de l’architecture française du XIe au XVIe siècle (1854).

Eugène Viollet-le-Duc (1814–1879), Record drawing, Capital sculpture, Vézelay Abbey, 1841–1848. Pencil on paper.
Eugène Viollet-le-Duc (1814–1879), Record drawing, The ‘Pillar of Angels’, Strasbourg Cathedral, 1841–1848. Pencil on paper.
Eugène Viollet-le-Duc (1814–1879), Record drawing, Gargoyles and exterior detail, Synodal Palace of Sens, 1841–1848. Pencil on paper.