House Rules – Introduction
No design product is more quintessentially American than a first generation Corvette. Much of its appeal lies in just how little it puts between its occupants and the road and open air. It is as much about the experience it promises (and delivers) as about its material allure. The two-seater’s reductiveness is arguably far more American than the prevailing national tendency toward bigness. Today’s ubiquitous SUVs hold only an empty promise of off-road driving. They are parked outside equally pointless and oversized houses full of formal spaces and bedrooms that are never used, “empty guest chambers for empty guests,” as Thoreau observed of the typical American house over a century and a half ago in Walden.
The American house has doubled in size since the first Corvette was launched in the 1950s, even as households have become smaller. According to the 2000 census, less than a third of American households are families with children under 18 at home, and over a quarter are individuals living alone.
American life needs a new vehicle. American literature offers the introduction to the rules of its design.
A 1919 drawing by Harry Clarke illustrates ”A Descent into the Maelstrom,” first published in 1841.
Edgar Allan Poe’s story “A Descent into the Maelström,” is narrated by a man whose schooner is drawn into the funnel of a giant storm-whipped whirlpool. As his brother clings desperately to the boat’s deck in terror, the narrator accepts the certainty of death:
“Having made up my mind to hope no more, I got rid of a great deal of that terror which unmanned me at first. . . . I began to reflect how magnificent a thing it was to die in such a manner, and how foolish it was in me to think of so paltry a consideration as my own individual life, in view of so wonderful a manifestation of God’s power. . . . After a little while I became possessed with the keenest curiosity about the whirl itself. I positively felt a wish to explore its depths, even at the sacrifice I was about to make; and my principal grief was that I should never be able to tell my old companions on shore about the mysteries I should see.”
His calm allows him to observe how the boat and other large pieces of spinning debris that have been pulled into the whirlpool descend quickly, while smaller objects of specific shapes are drawn downward more slowly. He sees a chance of survival in abandoning the boat. Unable to pry his brother’s attention or hands from the deck bolt to which he clings, the narrator lashes himself to a barrel from the boat and throws himself overboard. The schooner is pulled under while the narrator descends slowly enough for the storm and whirlpool to abate, allowing his survival.
Poe’s story illustrates a basic psychological paradox. As Ekhart Tolle argues in The Power of Now, fear of what might happen in the future robs us of the only place we can ever truly live, the now. As with the doomed brother, fear of death takes our lives. Releasing our death grip on the ego and turning outward to observe the present moment is our only hope of life.
In the course of trading fear for wonder, Poe’s narrator also lightens his physical load, trading boat for barrel. This exchange of material weight for life, and the theme of salvation through in-the-moment atunement to nature, anticipate central themes of Walden, published 13 years later.
The framing of Thoreau’s one-room, 10′ by 15′ cabin at Walden Pond was researched and documented in this drawing by Roland Wells Robbins. As noted by Theodore M. Brown, Thoreau’s construction was needlessly heavy, the balloon frame having been recently developed. Had he been aware of it, Thoreau would certainly have opted for the new, less substantial envelope.
“I went into the woods,” Thoreau explains in Walden, “because I wished to live deliberately, to front only on the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” Thoreau saw possessions and domestic architecture in particular as barriers to true living, not only as physical obstructions between man and nature, but as sources of debt, drudgery and worry about the future inimical to enjoyment of the present: “In any weather, at any hour of the day or night, I have been anxious to improve the nick of time, and notch it on my stick too; to stand on the meeting of two eternities, the past and future, which is precisely the present moment; to toe that line.” After listing the material luxuries of a civilized house, he asks:
“But how happens it that he who is said to enjoy these things is so commonly a poor civilized man, while the savage, who has them not, is rich as a savage? If it is asserted that civilization is a real advance in the condition of man . . . it must be shown that it has produced better dwellings without making them more costly; and the cost of a thing is the amount of what I will call life which is to be exchanged for it, immediately or in the long run.”
Thoreau notes that “Most men appear never to have considered what a house is, and are actually and needlessly poor all their lives because they think that they must have such a one as their neighbors have.” He charts the path from man’s first shelter-seeking domestic impulse to his final divorce from nature:
“We may imagine a time when, in the infancy of the human race, some enterprising mortal crept into a hollow in a rock for shelter. Every child begins the world again, to some extent, and loves to stay outdoors, even in wet and cold. It plays house, as well as horse, having an instinct for it. Who does not remember the interest with which when young he looked at shelving rocks, or any approach to a cave? It was the natural yearning of that portion of our most primitive ancestor which still survived in us. From the cave we have advanced to roofs of palm leaves, of bark and boughs, of linen woven and stretched, of grass and straw, of boards and shingles, of stones and tiles. At last, we know not what it is in the open air, and our lives are domestic in more senses than we think. From the hearth to the field is a great distance. It would be well perhaps if we were to spend more of our days and nights without any obstruction between us and the celestial bodies, if the poet did not speak so much from under a roof . . . However, if one designs to construct a dwelling house, it behooves him to exercise a little Yankee shrewdness, lest after all he find himself in a workhouse, a labyrinth without a clew, a museum, an almshouse, a prison, or a splendid mausoleum instead. Consider first how slight a shelter is absolutely necessary.”
One of E.W. Kemble’s illustrations for the original 1885 publication of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. ”We said there warn’t no home like a raft, after all. Other places do seem so cramped up and smothery, but a raft don’t. You feel mighty free and easy and comfortable on a raft.”
Early in Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, Huck and the runaway slave Jim encounter each other on an island in the Mississippi to which they have separately fled. Jim soon predicts rain on the evidence of birds flying a yard or two at a time before lighting. He and Huck make camp in the shelter of a riverbank cave. As Huck narrates:
“The door of the cavern was big enough to roll a hogshead in, and on one side of the door the floor stuck out a little bit, and was flat and a good place to build a fire on. So we built it there and cooked dinner. We spread the blankets inside for a carpet, and eat our dinner in there. We put all the other things handy at the back of the cavern. Pretty soon it darkened up, and begun to thunder and lighten; so the birds was right about it. Directly it begunto rain, and it rained like all fury, too, and I never see the wind blow so. It was one of these regular summer storms. It would get so dark that it looked all blue-black outside, and lovely; and the rain would thrash along by so thick that the trees off a little ways looked dim and spider-webby; and here would come a blast of wind that would bend the trees down and turn up the pale underside of the leaves; and then a perfect ripper of a gust would follow along and set the branches to tossing their arms as if they was just wild; and next, when it was just about the bluest and blackest – fst! it was as bright as glory, and you’d have a glimpse of treetops a-plunging about away off yonder in the storm, hundreds of yards further than you could see before; dark as sin again in a second, and now you’d hear the thunder let go with an awful crash, and then go rumbling, grumbling, tumbling, down the sky towards the under side of the world, like rolling empty barrels down-stairs – where it’s long stairs and they bounce a good deal, you know. ‘Jim, this is nice,’ I says. ‘I wouldn’t want to be nowhere else but here.’ “
Huck’s acute observations show him to be intensely in the moment. The birds’ awareness of the oncoming storm and Jim’s reading of their behavior draw a picture of man, creatures and environment as parts of a single nature. Huck and Jim haven’t moved beyond the stage of Thoreau’s cave-fascinated child. The perfection of this condition is endorsed by Huck’s statement of contentment.
A high dynamic range photo by Josh Derr shows color and light in a way that is close to firsthand visual experience. The technique is especially effective at capturing atmospheric effects. Applying it to gritty urban settings, as Derr often does, shows the potential of the everyday to be transformed by the alchemy of light. This too is nature and, if not of the Walden Pond kind, can impart wonder. Our resonance with light reminds us how fundamentally we belong to something larger. It regularly provides opportunities to - like the narrator of “A Descent into the Maelström” – release the weight of the ego and rise to a higher level.
In Anthony Hecht’s childhood-evoking poem, “Apprehensions,” an experience referred to as a “gift” recalls Huck’s ringside seat on a summer storm from an island cave. In Hecht’s version, Manhattan is the island, an apartment window the cave mouth, and he himself the boy watching. Hecht’s polished words contrast with Huck’s rough poetry, but the arresting effect of the storm is the same; the sharpened perception and deep satisfaction of being purely in the moment. The world isn’t the ego’s adversary at such a moment, but rather just as it should be. Hecht may nod to Twain in the shape of his lightning:
“We were living at this time in New York City
On the sixth floor of an apartment house
On Lexington, which still had streetcar tracks.
It was an afternoon in the late summer;
The windows open; wrought-iron window guards
Meant to keep pets and children from falling out.
I, at the window, studiously watching
A marvelous transformation of the sky;
A storm was coming up by dark gradations.
But what was curious about this was
That as the sky seemed to be taking on
An ashy blankness, behind which there lay
Tonalities of lilac and dusty rose
Tarnishing now to something more than dusk,
Crepuscular and funerary greys,
The streets became more luminous, the world
Glinted and shone with an uncanny freshness.
The brickwork of the house across the street
(A grim, run-down Victorian chateau)
Became distinct and legible; the air,
Full of excited imminence, stood still.
The streetcar tracks gleamed like the path of snails.
And all of this made me superbly happy,
But most of all a yellow Checker Cab
Parked at the corner. Something in the light
Was making this the yellowest thing on earth.
It was as if Adam, having completed
Naming the animals, had started in
On colors, and had found his primary pigment
Here, in a taxi cab, on Eighty-ninth Street.
It was the absolute, parental yellow.
Trash littered the gutter, the chipped paint
Of the lamppost was still chipped, but everything
Seemed meant to be as it was, seemed so designed,
As if the world had just then been created,
Not as a garden, but as a rather soiled,
Loud, urban intersection, by God’s will.
And then a chart of the Mississippi River,
With all her tributaries, flashed in the sky.
Thunder, beginning softly and far away,
Rolled down our avenue toward an explosion
That started with the sound of ripping cloth
And ended with a crash that made all crashes
Feeble, inadequate preliminaries.
And it began to rain. Someone or other
Called me away from there, and closed the window.”
Hecht’s light-induced awakening is echoed in Eckhart Tolle’s spiritual rebirth as described in The Power of Now: ”The first light of dawn was filtering through the curtains. Without any thought, I felt, I knew, that there is infinitely more to light than we realize. That soft luminosity filtering through the curtains was love itself. Tears came into my eyes. I got up and walked around the room. I recognized the room, and yet I knew that I had never truly seen it before. Everything was fresh and pristine, as if it had just come into existence.” In “Apprehensions,” Hecht bypasses the woods and waters of garden variety nature, and relies instead on that most fundamental fact of nature, light. ”Something in the light” is enough to spark transcendence. Shelter in the poem is just a viewing platform on the outside world. The best it can do is stay out of the way. Barbara Lamprecht’s monograph on Richard Neutra quotes his client for Case Study House #20: “The thing I like about this house,” said Dr. Bailey recently, nodding to the trees beyond the glass walls, “is that there is no house.”
The All American Un-house
Reyner Banham (multiplied and, yes, naked) occupies an un-house. This illustration by Francois Dallegret show’s Banham’s Environment Bubble, a “transparent plastic bubble dome inflated by air-conditioning output.” At its center is a Transportable Standard of Living Package that provides all mechanical services, entertainment, etc. The drawing accompanies Banham’s 1965 essay, “A Home is not a House,” which begins, “When your house contains such a complex of piping, flues, ducts, wires, lights, inlets, outlets, ovens, sinks, refuse disposers, hi-fi reverberators, antennae, conduits, freezers, heaters – when it contains so many services that the hardware could stand up by itself without any assistance from the house, why have a house to hold it up?”
“Left to their own devices,” Reyner Banham wrote in the 1965 essay, A Home is not a House, “Americans do not monumentalize or make architecture. . . . America’s monumental space is, I suppose, the great outdoors – the porch, the terrace, Whitman’s rail-traced plains, Kerouac’s infinite road . . .” He goes on to distinguish American architecture from European, citing the former’s relatively thin shells, less compartmentalized interiors, emphasis on hygiene, and more advanced plumbing and environmental controls. These distinctions lead to an epiphany:
“Somewhere among these clustering concepts – cleanliness, the lightweight shell, the mechanical services, the informality and indifference to monumental architectural values, the passion for the outdoors – there always seemed to me to lurk some elusive master concept that would never quite come into focus. It finally became clear and legible to me in June 1964, in the most highly appropriate and circumstantial circumstances.
I was standing up to my chest-hair in water, making home movies at the campus beach at Southern Illinois. This beach combines the outdoor and the clean in a highly American manner – scenically, it is the ole swimmin’ hole of Huckleberry Finn tradition, but it is properly policed (by sophomore lifeguards sitting on Eames chairs on poles in the water) and it’s chlorinated too. From where I stood, I could see not only immensely elaborate family barbecues and picnics in progress on the sterilized sand, but also, through and above the trees, the basketry interlaces of one of Buckminster Fuller’s experimental domes. And it hit me then, that if dirty old Nature could be kept under the proper degree of control (sex left in, streptococci taken out) by other means, the United States would be happy to dispense with architecture and buildings altogether.
Bucky Fuller, of course, is very big on this proposition: his famous non-rhetorical question, ‘Madam, do you know what your house weighs?’ articulates a subversive suspicion of the monumental. This suspicion is inadvertently shared by the untold thousands of Americans who have already shed the deadweight of domestic architecture and live in mobile homes which, though they may never actually be moved, still deliver rather better performance as shelter than do ground-anchored structures costing at least three times more.”
Banham’s essay carries these observations into visionary territory. He caricatures the American emphasis on service machinery and disregard for permanent structure into what he calls the “un-house,” which might be a mere inflated plastic bag containing a centralized package of mechanical systems. As he explains:
“Man started with two basic ways of controlling environment: one by avoiding the issue and and hiding under a rock, tree, tent or roof (this led ultimately to architecture as we know it) and the other by actually interfering with the local meteorology, usually by means of a camp-fire, which, in more polished form, might lead to the kind of situation now under discussion. Unlike the living space trapped with our forebears under a rock or roof, the space around a camp-fire has many unique qualities which architecture cannot hope to equal, above all, its freedom and variability.”
Just when he seems least serious, Banham points to an actual example of an American un-house; Philip Johnson’s Glass House. Recalling “the visual image of a burned-out New England township, the insubstantial shells of the houses consumed by the fire, leaving the brick floor slabs and standing chimneys,” Johnson’s house ”consists essentially of just these two elements, a heated brick floor slab, and a standing unit which is a chimney/fireplace on one side and a bathroom on the other.” Describing its glazed “insubstantial shell,” Banham notes that “the house does not stop at the glass, and the terrace, and even the trees beyond, are visually part of the living space in winter physically and operationally so in summer when when the four doors are open. The ‘house’ is little more than a service core set in infinite space, or alternatively, a detached porch looking out in all directions at the Great Out There.”
Philip Johnson’s Glass House was completed in 1949, two years ahead of the Farnsworth House, but influenced by the Farnsworth’s earlier conception. Johnson called his house a “pavilion for viewing nature.” Proclaiming it an un-house, Reyner Banham saw it as the answer to America’s deepest domestic impulse, to get rid of the house altogether.
Much of Huckleberry Finn was written while Mark Twain and his family summered on his wife Olivia’s family farm outside Elmira, New York. His in-laws built him a detached studio in which to write, their generosity tempered by a distaste for his cigar smoke. Twain wrote to William Dean Howells that it was “octagonal with a peaked roof, each face filled with a spacious window, . . . perched in complete isolation on the top of an elevation that commands leagues of valley and city and retreating ranges of distant blue hills. It is a cozy nest and just room in it for a sofa, table, and three or four chairs, and when the storms sweep down the remote valley and the lightning flashes behind the hills beyond and the rain beats upon the roof over my head – imagine the luxury of it.” Comprised of a fireplace and a largely transparent shell, it is the ur-un-house, perfectly matching Banham’s description of Philip Johnson’s Glass House as ”a detached porch looking out in all directions at the Great Out There.”
Johnson’s House may have seemed a better example of an un-house to Banham than its comparable precedent, Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House, because it has no exterior porch, isn’t lifted off the ground, and has a smaller service core that does a better job of passing for a chimney. Or maybe just because Johnson was easier to talk to than Mies, and Banham could have fun kicking the idea around with him. (Johnson didn’t buy it, having already endured from a visiting Frank Lloyd Wright: “Philip, should I take my hat off or leave it on? Am I indoors or am I out?”) The fine points of Banham’s un-house notwithstanding, it’s the Farnsworth House that really gave form to the distinctly American impulse Banham puts his finger on. As Arthur Drexler noted in his 1960 monograph on Mies, ”It is often said that Mies could have realized his ideas only in the United States, and that only Europe could have produced him. But Mies has seemed more American than the Americans: the Puritan tradition and the transcendental philosophers of nineteenth century New England must seem sentimental beside Mies himself . . .”
American literature, and much of American cultural history, supports Banham’s view of the way Americans would live, ”left to their own devices.” A strong case can be made that only market forces and limited choices prevent them from living this way. When he published “A House Is Not a House” in 1965, it must have seemed perverse to suggest the country house of a gay connoisseur as a model for the middle-American home. Even Mies’s glass house was built for a then-exceptional client, a wealthy, single, female doctor. Just after the completion of the Farnsworth House in 1951, though, Mies designed a prototype glass house meant for a family that might have children. Despite this major distinction, it is - like the Farnsworth House and Johnson’s Glass House – a one-room building. Its substantial 50-foot square plan would in theory allow for distance between the occupants and flexible layouts by means of screening elements. For Mies, the interior spatial potential of an undivided container trumped practical considerations. Maximizing interior space was an invaluable way of simulating outdoor space.
Mies van der Rohe’s 50 x 50 House Project proposed a glass-walled one-room house for mass production. In his 1960 monograph on Mies, Arthur Drexler wrote that his “most original buildings are one-story structures, and the greatest of these consist of one room.”
The 50 x 50 House was designed as a prototype for industrial production. “Designing and building houses individually is an old fashioned idea . . . much too expensive and time-consuming in the age of the assembly line,” Mies said. The concept prefigured today’s obsession with prefabricated houses, many of which also take Mies’s spatial priorities to heart. Resting on the ground and without a porch, 50 x 50 takes the Farnsworth House two steps closer to Philip Johnson’s Glass House, and Banham’s un-house.
The 50 x 50 House embodies both the appeal of undivided interior space together with minimized separation from nature. It is more pertinent than ever. At 2500 square feet, it would have been gigantic in its day, but the size of the average American House now stands at 2349. Meanwhile, the American household has shrunk and is typically without children at home, making the one-room model more practical, even at a much smaller scale. Gay sophisticates and single professional women are now everyday Americans. The last decade has seen a burgeoning response, in modular and prefab concepts, to Mies’s call for an industrialized house. Following his lead, these typically have a single open living space with extensive glazing. It’s tempting to see their popularity mainly as a result of these characteristics rather than prefabrication. It’s also tempting to set aside the concerns of industrialization and focus on these design qualities and how they can be applied to affordable, practical houses.
In each of ten posts, ArchiTakes will present a new rule for the design of a house that honors the truest American instincts, favoring quality of experience over quantity or richness of material. When this is done, a new site will be launched, providing dimensioned plans and 3D computer models of prototype houses designed by these rules. Intended as points of departure, they will be free to download.
Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House is elevated in response to its location within the flood plane of the nearby Fox River. With its open plan and 360 degree views, the house has very much the character of a raft even when its site isn’t flooded. Huck Finn would approve. So would Thoreau, according to Theodore M. Brown’s 1965 essay, Thoreau’s Prophetic Architectural Program: “Mies van der Rohe’s dictum, ‘Less is More,’ is a capsule formulation of Thoreau’s position and a cornerstone of contemporary architecture.” Lord Peter Palumbo, the second owner of the Faarnsworth House, wrote that “the man-made environment and the natural environment are here permitted to respond to, and to interact with each other. While this may derive from the dogma of Rousseau or the writings of Thoreau, the effect is essentially the same: that of being at one with Nature, in its broadest sense, and with oneself.”
The ZenKaya is one of many current prefabricated houses clearly inspired by Mies.
“What is a house but a sedes, a seat?” Thoreau asked in Walden. ZenKaya seems to have learned its Zen from him. Beyond its promise of technological advantage, much of prefab housing answers his complaint that “We no longer camp as for a night, but have settled down on earth and forgotten heaven.”