Home as Avatar — and Other Movie Musings

Machines in the Garden

On the surface, Avatar, the blockbuster bailout of a movie by James Cameron, has nothing to do with home design but everything to do with a fevered and fertile visual imagination.

You probably know the sci-fi plot (see the excellent Wikipedia summation) about colonists mining “unobtanium,” an elusive rock to be sure, on the planet Pandora (diagram of the miners’ control room above), who have created avatars that let them mingle with the indigenous Na ‘ve population in order to get them out of the way.  It’s not so much a movie as a fabulous computerized “dark ride” through a lush jungle world

where nature is nurtured into a frenzied confrontation (image courtesy avatarplanet)

between Pocahontas and the Air Force (image courtesy Wired).

When I saw it with my younger daughter, who contributed the Pocohontas analogy, we could only get seats in the second  row and thanks to our 3-D glasses I kept swatting at or dodging the ferns, branches, flying beasts, and other hyper-realistic computer-captured characters that whipped or whizzed past. Exhausting but fun. 

So my point is? Home is the ultimate avatar, whether machine or forest. It represents us to the world and is our refuge and second skin. Architectural sociologist Clare Cooper-Marcus’ groundbreaking book House As A Mirror of Self (Nicolas-Hays, 2006) details this phenomenon through her case study research with more than 60 individuals. As she states: “At the base of this study is a very simple yet frequently overlooked premise. As we change and grow throughout our lives, our psychological development is punctuated not only by meaningful emotional relationships with people, but also by close, affective ties with a number of physical environments, beginning in childhood.”

This is true in my own experience: when I was teaching architectural history at Carnegie-Mellon University, I asked my students to write a short essay about their college living environments. Some described their dorm rooms as a kind of refuge; others as a public meeting place. In effect, each room became a reflection of psychological need, an avatar if you will. The trick is to understand your “inner home” (the Na ‘ve people’s Hometree and Tree of Souls? Unobtainium?) without launching rockets at it — or getting a divorce.

Associations Are Important

Another film actually uses a house to tell part of the story. In Nancy Myers’ It’s Complicated the home of amicably divorced baker and restaurant owner Jane Adler, played by Meryl Steep, is a beautiful tile-roofed adobe, supposedly in Santa Barbara

It's Complicated house via Traditional Home

though actually in Thousand Oaks (photo courtesy Traditional Home) a spiffed up version of classic adobe style houses

from the 1920s and early 1930s, like the Donald Dickey guest house in Ojai by architect Palmer Sabin, or

the E. L. Doheny Ranch at Santa Paula Canyon by architect Wallace Neff. And because the owner is a chef

It's complicated kitchen set via Trad Home

it has a great kitchen with dazzling light and a seductive Carrara marble-topped island (photo courtesy Traditional Home). The house as presented by set decorator Beth Rubino is warm, comfortably contemporary, and richly historical all at the same time. In other words, it’s a house with a past and an air of contentment about the present. And it represents an ideal of modern-day, food-and-garden-centric Southern California. It’s like living inside a large tile-roofed croissant. Adobe bricks and terra cotta tiles, are, after all — baked.

The Adler character’s momentary fling with her ex-husband drives the movie but in the end doesn’t affect the character of the home. In fact, it seems fitting that she ultimately falls in love with the architect who is designing her new kitchen addition. The home and the character are “moving on” to the next stage of their lives. For more on the rationale behind the set design see the film’s Production Notes and a brief interview with the director at Santa Barbara Visitors Bureau. Our homes — whether sci-fi trees or adobe ranch houses — are yeasty metaphors indeed.

9 responses to “Home as Avatar — and Other Movie Musings

  1. great piece dan.. i searched for that house.
    perfect. the bakery also perfect.. and certainly in Montecito…actually in a sound stage in Long Island City.. and the architect’s office??
    it was shot in my office during a 5 day shoot.
    i will tell you more about it the next time we see each other.
    best, chip

    • Hey I knew the architect’s office had familiar images on the wall!! I want to know more! I understand from my spies (Diana Ketcham) that you were just here. Mary and I go to Melbourne February 15, back February 27. Maybe we can catch up in March sometime. Hope all is well in Levi Land, and in the “stoked” tulip fields as well.

      All best,


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