Endangered spaces

WE all know that the history of architecture reflects changing attitudes, values, and life styles. Nowhere is this more immediately apparent than in the design of houses. For example, as the function of a room changes over time, so does its importance, to the extent that it may become dominant, like the eat-in kitchen, or disappear completely in deference to rooms that have greater priority. Recently, the playwright A. R. Gurney documented the demise of the dining room in his pungent and often poignant social comedy by that title, and journalist and novelist Nora Ephron chronicled in a satiric essay the moribund status of the living room.

Like period rooms in a museum, today's living rooms and dining rooms seem cordoned off by an invisible rope that reminds members of the household to keep out and not touch. Their only function, insofar as these rooms continue to exist at all, is to accommodate occasional guests and provide a show-case for the family's ``best'' furniture, frangibles, and collectibles. Having fallen into desuetude, many of these rooms project an effete and slightly ridiculous atmosphere. We honor them -- like a waning aristocracy -- for their past glory but no longer know quite what to do with them.

Their decline is largely attributable to the increasing hegemony of the family room, which epitomizes the informal, democratic life style of the American family. Easily the most popular room in the house and the one most populated by parents, children, and even pets, the family room ideally abuts the kitchen, and together they form the domestic epicenter of the household. They contain all the appliances and technology deemed necessary for the maintenance and entertainment of human and animal life in the 20th century -- from the refrigerator to the VCR. They also serve a practical purpose for today's busy two-career family by isolating activity in one end of the house and thereby confining the chaos.

While the living room is a no man's land and the dining room an endangered space, at least they have survived. There are other traditional rooms, however, that have vanished not because their function is entirely obsolete but because the costliness of housing has put such a premium on even essential living space. A perfect illustration of this comparative superfluity is the library. Try to remember the last time you were in a library that was part of a private home. Even in the old Victorian house that once included a library that space now invariably serves a different purpose.

The primary association most of us have with the word library is a place where one goes to borrow books. Outside of the home, it is either a public library or an extension of an institution. Also putting the degree of the home library's datedness in perspective is the game of Clue, in which the library sounds only slightly less contemporary than the billiard room (Mr. Green in the library with the lead pipe.) For most of us, the prospect of entering a library in a private home is as likely as stumbling upon a cache of dinosaur bones or a pharaoh's tomb.

For those of us who do not merely own books but love books the way paleontologists love fossils, who saved books from our childhood, hoarded books from college, and continue to buy books in defiance of all practical considerations, the lapse of the library poses a unique design challenge: Where do we put the books?

We are people who may live in apartments, town houses, or center-hall colonials. We are people whose spouses may be unsympathetic to or downright horrified by the avalanche of books that buries the house. We are people who, when urged gently or otherwise to ``get rid'' of some of the books, panic and are unable to muster more than a few ``trashy'' thrillers we read on last summer's vacation. We are misers and pack rats, petrified that the book we give away today might be the book we ``need'' tomorrow.

But the issue is not only need. We are also romantics who rhapsodize about our books as holy, our best friends, our personal history. We love them individually for what they meant to us when we first read them and collectively for what they represent: civilization as a whole and civilization in ourselves. Prospero understood this in ``The Tempest'' when he valued his library above his dukedom.

So we resort to squirreling away our most precious books in nooks and crannies of our rooms -- a bookcase here, a bookshelf there -- nothing too intrusive. There seem to be unwritten decorating rules that too many books disfigure a wall and that in certain rooms they are simply inappropriate.

It would seem natural for the family room to absorb the function of the library, but a wall of bookshelves cannot compete with the entertainment center that increasingly dominates not only our living space but also our mental space. So the vast remainder of our books we consign to the oblivion of the basement or attic where they molder or desiccate. It is a form of exile, and the feelings associated with it are inevitably painful.

I therefore exhort interior designers to take up the book lover's cause and seize the living room. Infiltrate our books along the walls of that oppressive space in such a way that they will be viewed not as a blight but a delight. Create mosaics, montages, tapestries of books. Arrange them in abstract or representational shapes; in grids or geometrical patterns. Juxtapose them with our windows, photographs, and paintings. Deck the walls with boughs of books.

The 19th-century English theologian Sydney Smith pronounced ``no furniture so charming as books.'' He might also have added, no furniture so revealing. Far more than our colonial or our high-tech furniture, our Oriental or our wall-to-wall carpet, our knickknacks or our objets d'art, our books reveal our true taste. We are what we read and we have read.

So, decorators, use our books to make a statement about who we are. Give us the living library. Diana Loercher Pazicky

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