Villa Mona: A Proper Kind of House - Marjolaine Ryley

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"Such a family home is a specific space which takes little account of any objective decorative requirements, because the primary function of furniture and objects here is to personify human relationships, to fill the space that they share between them, and to be inhabited by a soul. The real dimension they occupy is captive to the moral dimension which it is their job to signify. They have as little autonomy in this space as the various family members enjoy in society. Human beings and objects are indeed bound together in a collusion in which the object takes on a certain density, an emotional value - what we might call a 'presence '. What gives the houses of our childhood such depth and resonance in memory is clearly this complex structure of interiority, and the objects within it serve for us as boundary markers of the symbolic configuration known as home. The caesura between inside and outside, and their formal opposition, which falls under the social sign of property and the psychological sign of the immanence of the family, make this traditional space into a closed transcendence. In their anthropomorphism the objects that furnish it become household gods, spatial incarnations of the emotional bonds and permanence of the family group." - Jean Baudrillard, 'The System of Objects'

As a child of divorced parents, nothing about the houses I lived in throughout my childhood was normal. The spaces I grew up in reflected the disintegration of my family unit and even this took a strange route, my parents had separate rooms but lived together in communal houses until I was nine. Born in Thicket Road, a communal squat, my first home was neither conventional nor stable. But a community of people lived there and in this at least, my mother, newly arrived in England from Belgium, had some support. My earliest memories are of our next home, another squat in Laurie Park Road, Sydenham: an enormous, decrepit Victorian villa with weed-ridden gardens, a huge wooden staircase, large rooms and a rambling summerhouse. This environment was nevertheless a happy one for children. Space, expansiveness and community existed here. Children are mercifully spared from the burden of interior decorations aesthetic values, and we were free to enjoy a large yet shabby domain.

Yet these spaces did reflect the values of a generation that rejected their parents' world: steady jobs, two children and a respectable home were not for them. Years later my mother, now the inhabitant of a housing association property, feels she is paying for that lifestyle choice. The stigma attached to not owning your own home and the lack of choice it affords you is a high price to pay. Her middle class relatives in Belgium are a constant reminder of the choices she made: dropping out of university, getting pregnant and living in communes. Grape picking for money, hitchhiking, giving birth in a squat, all of these exist in stark contrast to the perfectly defined roles expected of a middle class girl living in a perfect interior with furniture. Designated spaces for a designated function. Eating, sleeping, sitting, reading, washing. The formal structure of an interior defines how you behave in a given space.

After our communal living came to an end I lived in a small flat with my mother. This interior 'failed' because it had no furniture. Scattered futons, sleeping in the living room, eating on your lap, working from home, broken lamps, peeling wallpaper, piles of clothes and papers: all of these signify a fundamental failure to be decent in society's eyes. In stark contrast my grandmother's apartment is structured, functional, disciplined, owned.

Society values objects and wealth as much today as it ever has. The interiors we inhabit and the pride we take in our homes must surely reflect our status in society, define us as successes or as failures. From the awe inspiring glamour of the houses of the aristocracy and the upper classes, to the aspirational interiors of the middle classes with their silverware, crystal and fake antiques, to the bohemian interiors made 'nice' by artists and students with decorative flair, and bottom of the pile are people like my mother who during my childhood, was incapable of changing the chaos surrounding us even if she had wanted to. Surroundings are important to the way we see the world, our formative experiences are as much defined by the spaces we inhabit as the people who raise and who care for us.

During the summers of my childhood I spent time at the Villa Mona. This 'proper' kind of house on the Belgian coast had an important impact on me. My experience of visiting this house showed me that there was another way to live, a place where a house could contain the dreams, stories and histories of a family. Yet I was also aware that human relations between people in the Villa Mona were different to those in my community at home. Although I experienced my grandmother's affection, generally relations between adults were distant, uncomfortable. The space made us behave in certain ways and encouraged certain rituals and procedures. I noticed also how space became gendered in the Villa Mona, women cooking in the kitchen, men reading in the salon. The villa could be stern but also, often unexpectedly, laughter, fun, childlike behaviour would emerge; the older inhabitants of the villa were reminded of their own childhoods when they were freer, more joyful and above all grateful to be there in the house by the sea. The villa could be sad and melancholy but also beautiful and wondrous as it revealed how much time had passed in people's lives. Like little time capsules, stored as if they were to be the prizes of a treasure hunt, exploring the villa could lead one to uncover a reassuring memory or lead to a new and precious experience, soon to join the plethora of other memories.

(Originally published in n.paradoxa issue 13 accompanied with a series of images from 'Villa Mona' and 'Noon')