Home, sweet alternative

Diogenes, according to my 1958 "Encyclopaedia Britannica" (which appears to have inside information on the subject) "inured himself to the vicissitudes of weather by living in a tub belonging to the temple of Cybele."

Was he perhaps the original proponent of a concept which nowadays has become a commonplace of courses on architecture -- the concept of "alternative housing?"

Of course he was a cynical kind of chap, but all the same (when one has penetrated the obfuscation of the E.B.'s language and realized that this old philosopher simply lived in a rain-proof water-butt -- an odd notion certainly) it's difficult to avoid the conclusion that he was, in fact, looking a gift horse straight in the mouth and choosing a gift mouse instead: when you could make yourself comfortable in the Temple of Cybele, no less, why on earth set up home in a barrel?

There isn't much to recommend "alternative housing" if Diogenes is anything to go by. I hear some friends in the States are building a "solar house," This will be good for their dog. A dog will always lie in the sun. But where I live a solar house would be more a case of optimism than practicality: you can't catch something that ain't there. My house is built for a northern climate -- to keep the cold out, not let the sun in. For my dog, I need insulation.

Come to think of it, philosophers have never been the equal of dogs when it comes to alternative housing. I mean, look at Henry David Thoreau. Lived in a makeshift hut of unseasoned wood by a pond. One step up from a tub, I suppose, but still no temple to write home about. He made the best of it, of course -- took it, well, philosophically. But there's no disguising the fact that he soon got fed up. He put a brave face on it, but only stayed a couple of years.

Saints haven't been much better -- standing on columns or living at the bottom of pits. . .!

Why do we hanker for "alternative housing" anyway? What's wrong with a good old-fashioned, time-worn, earth-grown, earthbound cottage? In the cities they are knocking down the high-rise apartment blocks that replaced the old slums. They've become new slums in the air. And instead they are putting up low-rise grid-patterns of little boxes: "high-rises" gone horizontal and become "tight- squeezes." People are still packed like battery-chickens, in undifferentiated rows. At least Henry's pondside hut had what the realestators call an "unrestricted outlook." The next house wasn't his only view. "The value of a man is not in his skin, that we should touch him." (I quote).

Houses of the future? Who wants to live in the future? Give me the present any day. A home is a symbol of permanence: it is being, not becoming. Even snails compensate for the terrible burden of carrying their house everywhere they go by going very slowly.m You won't catch me living in a house-on-wheels, or a floating house, or an orbiting space capsule, or a plug-in module. A mobile home is a contradiction in terms.

Alternative housing is all fantasy and fiction -- or else it's been tried and found wanting like the shoe inhabited by a certain old woman. Her problems were not so much a large family as a fanciful and inadequate residence. But in the end it's impossible to conceive of some form of house that hasn't already been thought of.

We might go geodesic or live in a bubble that rolls or bounces, or in a carriage that runs on rails or flies, or in a maze buried underground. We might set up in a wigwam, tree-house, an igloo, a mud-hut, crawl into a tunnel or under a bridge like an elf. We might inhabit a cloister, a palace, a chateau, we might try a pyramid, a pile, a dome, a tower. We might learn from the robin and live in a kettle; from the martin and hang in a bag from a beam, or from owls and kings and hermits who have lived in hollow oaks. We might live in our dreams and build castles in the air, which according to someone (was it Thoreau?) is just where castles ought to be built.

Everything is an alternative to something. Give me a stone cottage, cosy with roses and honeysuckle and smoke from the chimney and blue-flag floors and whitewashed walls surrounded by green countryside but within easy reach of a city. You can keep you double-glazed bungalows and your heartless modernity: I'll stick to my dream, you stick to yours. But one thing's certain. There is no alternative to a lazy dog toasting by a warm winter fire. "Housing" is one thing. Home is another. The hot dog makes the difference. . .

. . . which fortunately rules out tubs, Diogenes.

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