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Playing house

When an Airbnb gives you a new identity

In July, some dozen college friends and I had a reunion. The spot that the group chose for the event was an Airbnb in the Poconos, a Pennsylvania vacation destination since the Quakers first opened health resorts there in 1901. The photos on the listing weren’t much—more Craigslist blur than most on the slick service—but the amenities were appealing: lakefront access, a hot tub, plentiful bedrooms, plus pull-out couches in sunrooms. The kind of place only usable, or affordable, by a large group.

Our arrival presented a shock, however. The house was built in 1983 and it looked like it hadn’t been touched since. Not that it was dusty or decaying; rather, it was so immaculately preserved that I came to think of it more as an interactive diorama of late-1970s living than as someone’s house. The master bathroom was carpeted in purple shag, with a purple Jacuzzi tub. The sinks were ombré lilac porcelain. The dark basement boasted a full poker table, a bar with wicker chairs, and a vintage Miller sign. The aforementioned hot tub was sunken in a glass solarium with wood-paneled walls and a faux-rock tile floor. The kitchen counters were sheathed in pink formica.

When I posted a photo of the house on Instagram, a friend messaged that he had stayed in the same "’70s coke den" the previous year. It represented a kind of era-specific spatial cliche that those of us younger than 40 have only experienced vicariously in movies or on TV: seedy, musty, slightly off-color, and not just for the ill-chosen carpets. Staying in the rental that weekend was an unironic chance to test the (legal) mythologies of the 1970s party house. In fact, the space seemed to prompt it, as a stage set beckons actors. And so we did.

Le Corbusier may have defined houses as "machines for living," but some houses are better machines than others. Better yet, each house is its own machine, conducive to a slightly different mode of living. Whether you’re staying in a family cabin, an old school summer rental, or a frictionless Airbnb, or dwelling in the fictional homes presented in books and movies, houses have a way of shaping what kind of lives feel possible. Each new space presents an opportunity for domestic voyeurism, but the person you’re spying on is yourself. Just pick your personal genre of house roleplay and act it out—a choice made easier and more obvious by platforms like Airbnb.

My idea of a real estate fantasy life was inspired by The Poetics of Space, a meditative book written in 1958 by the French philosopher Gaston Bachelard. Bachelard selects one aspect of a house (not a particular dwelling, but the subconscious human trope of the home), like the roof, corner, window, or door, and thinks his way through it in turn, divining its significance by means of examples presented in poetry, fiction, or his own memories. The results can be pretentious, or just nonsensical; when Bachelard examines his archetypal vision of a lamp lit in a nighttime window, he concludes with the koan, "All that glows sees." But there’s a purpose to all his mental wandering. By inhabiting these "images," as he calls them, we can reconsider our selves in the present. "We could start a new life, a life that would be our own," he writes. "The house remodels man."

According to Bachelard, just imagining your way into a house is as good as living in it. "A house constitutes a body of images that give mankind proofs or illusions of stability," he writes. The latter is what makes fictional houses so potent; we can briefly pretend that we’ve lived in them forever.

Take, for example, the opening of Richard Linklater’s 2013 film Before Midnight, which takes place in an idyllic home sunk in sunlight in the Greek town of Kardamyli, where a group of writers on a residency program argue over their latest projects. Half faux-classical ruin and half modern monument, the home actually belonged to the late British writer and traveler Patrick Leigh Fermor, lending it its literary air. In this house, it seems possible to conduct bohemian conversations late into the night—to survive happily as an artist. "There exist sunny houses in which, at all seasons, it is summer," Bachelard writes.

I also have a complete image in my mind of the Hudson Valley house described in James Salter’s 1975 novel Light Years, though it’s only depicted in broad strokes: "Near the water, a large Victorian, the brick painted white, trees big above it, a walled garden, a decaying greenhouse with ironwork along the roof. A house by the river, too low for the afternoon sun." The fiction is illuminated by impressionistic domestic details, of the kind you notice when alone in a place normally inhabited by others: "In the morning, aroma of coffee, the whiteness of sunlight across the floor."

Salter leaves enough canvas unpainted that the reader can easily imagine herself into the house. It’s not a place you’d want to dwell for long, however. In that house, as well as beach cabins and small apartments, Salter chronicles the gradual dissolution of a marriage, spiraling into affairs and separation and perhaps some final possibility of grace. The house mirrors the decay; when the husband Viri walks through it late in the book, he notices, rather than grandeur or light, "dead flies on the sills of sunny windows, weeds along the pathway, the kitchen empty." While summer light might suggest a life of permanent joy, it also fades.

Such is the danger of summer houses: their illusion of stability is too brief. In the recent film A Bigger Splash, Tilda Swinton and Matthias Schoenaerts are interrupted on their lovers’ vacation at an austerely luxurious modernist villa on the Italian island of Pantelleria by Swinton’s character’s ex, Ralph Fiennes, whose intrusions brighten the house—he dances on the cliffside veranda, dives into the outdoor pool—even as he disrupts the couple’s relationship, leading to the film’s brooding, tumultuous end. Sometimes, the sunlight can be too bright, a house’s windows too transparent, making details clear you might rather not see.

In fictional houses, it’s possible to imagine yourself in place of the characters, to wander the hallways without being noticed and take a seat at their dinner parties, whether for one of Salter’s nostalgic-melancholic evenings or the frenetic repression of the suburban Connecticut dwellings in Rick Moody’s Ice Storm (depicted on film by Ang Lee). What about a real house, like La Cupola, the dome built for director Michael Antonioni and the actress Monica Vitti, which also acted as a surreal stage?

As I read Bachelard in the vintage Poconos Airbnb, I thought about how the house might be remodeling us, or what stories we might be telling about ourselves within it.

The social interactions were different, for one thing. An intercom system of speakers embedded in the walls spoke to a time before smartphones, when it wasn’t possible to just text someone in the next room over to get their attention. Discrete social areas replaced a central TV room. So we congregated in small groups, each to a separate activity, grilling on the deck, mixing drinks in the Pepto-pink kitchen, or reading on couches, but never alone. It was a communal house, a space conducive to friendships.

Rather than the current fad for open plan, the segmented spaces also made it possible to spot what everyone else was doing without an overwhelming awareness of being watched yourself. Rather than promoting performance, the way social media might, with an Instagram posted for the sake of followers rather than the friends you’re with, the house prompted not spying but joining in, moving from space to space the way one enters and leaves conversations at a cocktail party, stretching out for days on end.

All of this created a sudden euphoria, especially for those of us normally stuck in city apartments, for whom in-home staircases alone are a relative novelty. The space was its own stimulant. It brought to mind another semi-fictional house I had experienced: a 2012 installation called "The House Party" by the artist Andrew Ohanesian. Ohanesian installed an immaculate facsimile of a kitschy suburban home, down to the vinyl siding, pilling carpet, and overstuffed couches, in an empty warehouse in Williamsburg.

The party of the title spiraled completely out of control the night of the piece’s debut as an art world crowd acted out all its subterranean hostility toward the domestic environment, or a facsimile thereof, that so many artists rebel against. Partygoers graffitied the immaculate walls, pulled down curtains, canoodled in mirrored closets. The house presented a chance to relive youth but with the benefit of adult perspective, and no consequences for a few hours.

We look to these temporary homes in search of the fictions we want to live, and we consume them one by one, discarding each in turn (Ohanesian was upset that partygoers didn’t clean up after themselves). The impulse is made clear on Good Finds, a site recently launched to curate Airbnb listings. One selection around New York state highlights possible rentals not by their number of bedrooms or bathrooms but by their myths, or images, as Bachelard might say: they sport titles like "the modernist pool spot," "the bougie mountain spot," "the artist estate," prompting a vision of who a guest might become in each.

We turn to a rented house or a book or movie for these escapist opportunities. But narratives are by definition narrow. It’s easy to pretend that by living in a house we understand the life that once passed through it—the way my friends and I could roleplay whatever we thought of the late ’70s, smoking in the hot tub, listening to late-night classic rock through radio static. Yet in all our exotic surroundings, real or imagined, we remain limited to ourselves: I doubt I’d want to stay full-time in a house untouched since 1983. In a rented house, it’s all too easy to forget who actually lives or lived there.

The Poetics of Space likewise suffers from too narrow a narrative. When Bachelard investigates his house-images, he has a particular protagonist in mind, the same mostly male, European artists who created them in the first place. When he thinks to consider domestic labor, cleaning or polishing furniture, he poeticizes it, quoting his writers rather than assigning agency to the women he notices performing the same tasks. The same is true with Salter: the maintenance of a house belongs to wives, its consumption, connoisseurship, to men.

Playing house has a way of eliding more difficult facts—particularly in the case of Airbnb, which has turned so many houses into less homes than commodities. Still, I think it has a value. Each house is a trial life, and the dream of living there always ends. The weekend is over. We fold up the sheets, clean the kitchen, return to our usual homes, families, reality. But take solace in The Poetics of Space that memory persists: "The houses that were lost forever continue to live on in us."

Editor: Sara Polsky


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