I remember the front room
Many years ago, while I was studying in the wonderful city of Montreal, I was engaged in a project to document the residential style of a group of people who had been relocated. As part of their negotiations to get permission for a major corporate headquarters project, the company had agreed to relocate a small community of lower-middle income families from their neighborhood at the eastern edge of downtown. As it happened, not far east of their location, an area previously occupied by an upper-middle class community had just been abandoned, its residents attracted to the newer, more up-scale development on the western side of downtown. The company relocated the families to this abandoned area of walk-up row houses.
Our study was to have compared how these families used their new houses and how they expressed their community in these new circumstances with their previous conditions. The strategy was to document their use of the existing facilities, noting the extent to which it might be different from their previous use, then to observe the attitudes towards the use of the exterior of the new buildings.
On entering the first residence, however, I was surprised to be confronted with a most familiar space. I had stepped back into my childhood. Off the corridor to the left was a front room. I had grown up with this room. Everybody had one. It was a room at the front of the house, usually a little too small for the sofa and two chairs, the coffee table and the end tables filled with photographs of family members. The furniture, with its flowered velvet fabric, was still covered with plastic, and the vases on the end tables filled with plastic flowers. The heavy curtains, in a different flowered pattern, denied the daylight, so the main source of light was the small, glass-drop chandelier in the middle of the ceiling. On the walls there were only two pictures. On one wall, draped with colored fabric, was a framed poster of the Representative. On the other wall was the picture of Jesus (most French Canadians are Catholic), a smiling, young white man with a manicured beard, one wounded hand raised in a “peace” sign, the other pointing to his visible heart.
This scene was other-worldly. Like us, these Canadians kept a space where nobody went except when visited by the priest, the pastor or the politician, or when a young man needed to “meet the parents”. The rest of the house was more an expression of their peculiar lifestyle than ours.
While our sharing of the front room tradition might have been a surprise, it was not the most interesting of our discoveries. Part of our research was to determine the extent to which people adopt the norms of an existing environment or maintain their previous norms. This study was very enlightening, in that we found that they do both.
The row of houses we studied fronted onto a popular, upper-middle income street, and after being occupied by the new tenants, the street frontage looked the same, well maintained and neat. On the other hand, the service alley at the rear had changed completely. Previously used primarily for servicing the houses (garbage collection, heating fuel delivery, etc.) and for private parking, the service road had become the family’s normal access. Here there were now wooden storage sheds, enclosed porches or porches with broken furniture or clotheslines and in almost every case a vehicle being repaired. The scene was to some extent similar to the streetscape in the old neighborhood. The new residences on the one hand respected the new neighborhood enough to maintain the street front appearance, but enjoyed their lifestyle enough to find a way to maintain it by altering the rear facade. They had kept the “front” but maintained their identity.
They even kept the front room.
• Patrick Rahming & Associates is a full-service design firm providing architectural, planning and design services throughout The Bahamas and the northern Caribbean. Visit its website at www.pradesigns.com, design blog at https://rahmblings.wordpress.com and like its Facebook page. The firm can be contacted by phone at 356-9080 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com. The firm’s mission is to help clients turn their design problems into completed projects through a process of guided decision-making, responsible environmental advice and expert project administration.