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Some evening when the house is quiet, after sunset and after the dishes are done, shut off all the lights. Electric light is the rule in virtually all homes today. Steady, bright, safe, and reliable, electric light illuminates our lives. Ironically, though, its very clarity can blind us to seeing what’s around us.
To jar your perceptions a little, try looking at your house using another source of light.
Light a candle. Or use a flashlight. Or both. You may occasionally dine by candlelight, so you know how flattering the light can be: the soft, yellowish glow seems somehow relaxing. But in other rooms, you truly will see things in a new and different light. Shadows appear and colors soften. Shapes can become more dramatic, exaggerated, and fluid thanks to the alternative source of light.
This exercise will not reveal to you a totally different and unfamiliar place. But it may give you an alternate way of looking. Moldings stand out more in shadowy light: electric light makes them seem almost two-dimensional. The nature of candlelight is such that you focus on smaller areas: a candle on a table illuminates it and perhaps the chairs immediately around it. The rest of the room is at best a dim presence at the perimeter. Candlelight can help you see spaces within a space. Have a glass of wine or even have a conversation while you’re going about your candlelight tour of your house. Does anything surprise you about the scale, shape, or relationship of the rooms? Do any objects look different and suddenly out of place—too large and clumsy, so delicate they disappear? Even if you have no immediate revelation, I suspect your perception of your home’s spaces will be subtly altered.
Here’s another exercise that may also be useful. Use a low stool or even an upside-down pail. Plant yourself in places where you would never otherwise be seated: in a corner, at the center of a hall, at the foot of a staircase. Again, as you look around you, perhaps as other people in the house go about their business, you’ll see the place in a new way.
These may seem like bizarre exercises. The goal is to break away from the fixed pictures you have in your mind of your home. Looking at the same old space in the relative darkness or from the perspective of a five-year-old or a person in a wheelchair may help you think anew about solutions. But envisioning changes in a space one knows very well requires getting out of yourself, thinking like someone else in a new place.
At the same time, however, don’t underestimate what the experience of living in a house can offer. Over time you’ve learned the house and established patterns of movement. You’ve positioned furniture in such a way as to minimize traffic lanes through living areas, to take advantage of light at certain times of day, or of cool or warm spots. Think about those changes, too, and about other things you’d like to change.
The process of discovering your house takes time. Weeks or even months may be required for you to see through both the layers of changes made to the house and your own patterns of use. But with a little patience, you will develop a deeper understanding of the place. After months of wondering at some peculiarity of your home, you may realize all in a moment why things look as they do. Give yourself the opportunity to absorb what your examination has revealed to you. When combined with a basic understanding of architectural style, your examination and your intuition will eventually reveal your house to you.