House Rule 10 – Embrace Inconvenience

“I’d rather live in the nave of Chartres Cathedral and go out of doors to the john,” Philip Johnson told his architecture students.  His sentiment will resonate with anyone who’s ever stood in a meadow, greenhouse, park pavilion, industrial ruin or other non-house and impulsively felt “I want to live here.”  While such fantasies are soon quashed by practical priorities, they offer valid insights.  

Johnson took what he felt under Chartres’ forest of branching columns and put something of it into his Glass House, which is visually contained not by its clear walls but the tree-vaulted outdoors. His house adds indoor plumbing but very little else in the way of conveniences, focusing instead on the undistracted enjoyment of space. This bargain served Johnson well, and the Glass House was a great source of joy for the rest of his long life.

Johnson’s wish to sleep in a cathedral recalls both Holly Golightly’s free-spirited preference for breakfast at Tiffany’s and Frank Lloyd Wright’s heedless call, “Give me the luxuries of life and I will willingly do without the necessities.”  Wright in turn was watering down Dorothy Parker’s version, by which he more closely lived:  “Take care of the luxuries and the necessities will take care of themselves.”  The architectural grandaddy of such quotes belongs to Vitruvius, who said – via Sir Henry Wotton’s translation - ”Well-building hath three conditions: commoditie, firmeness and delight.”  Take away firmness (structural integrity) as a given, and you have commodity (practicality) vying for turf with delight.  Or perhaps more often, responsiveness to practical needs standing in for the rarer resource of vision.

The practicality-vs-pleasure rivalry is certainly about more than just buildings, suggesting as it does the Big Question, “what’s it all about?” Anthony Burgess succinctly took the dichotomy into philosophical territory in his 1960 novel, The Doctor is Sick.  Its hospitalized protagonist quotes a line of verse to an unappreciative radiologist who responds, “I don’t go in much for poetry.”  When he asks whether she thinks it’s better to be a radiologist than a poet, she replies, “Oh yes. . . . After all, we save lives, don’t we?”  He then asks, “What’s the purpose of saving lives?  What do you want people to live for?”

Are we here to perpetuate the human race toward some unknown but presumably significant end?  Or to enjoy it in the here and now, assuming our capacity to do so may just be that end?  Should our houses be machines streamlined for raising the next generation, so it can raise the next, or are we better off seizing the day and building for pleasure?  While Vitruvius’ recipe calls for some of each, you’d never know it from the great majority of today’s houses.  They cram in convenience until there’s no room left for delight.

This can be blamed on the business of housebuilding, or homebuilding as it’s always called by its ever market-vigilant practitioners.  Comfort and convenience are easy to package:  lots of bathrooms, a master bedroom suite with a walk-in closet, wrap-around kitchens entered from multi-car garages, and so on.  Even appliance brands get billing in real estate ads, with marketing analysts advising on their selection.  Alternative qualities that might make a house an exciting place for a particular type of person or a specific site are too hard to define.  There’s no reassuring track record of profits for anything but the equivalent of top-40 radio.  Offering anything else entails the risk of failure to sell, and the developer-built houses occupied by most Americans are nothing if not fearful.  As with people, the fear in such houses can be read in their conformity.

The marketing shorthand of developer houses – “3,000 SF, 4 BR, 2-1/2 BA” – places quantity over quality and creates a self-perpetuating value system. Zoning ordinances then codify conventions, insisting on minimum square footages, attached garages, pitched roofs, front doors, full basements and so on. It’s hard to tell whether these criteria show a greater fear of squatters’ shacks or anything an imaginative architect would design. The canned ingredients left to the cook are like the railroading verbal cliches George Orwell deplored in his essay, “Politics and the English Language,” which he saw as:

rushing in to do the job for you, at the expense of blurring or even changing your meaning.  Probably it is better to put off using words as long as possible and get one’s meaning as clear as one can through pictures or sensations.  Afterwards one can choose – not merely accept - the phrases that will best cover the meaning . . .

Pre-verbal and true to self, this fluid thought process corresponds to the intuitive design phase Louis Kahn championed to his students.  As noted by David B. Brownlee (in Louis I. Kahn:  In the Realm of Architecture, 1991), Kahn was taking a page from his own education:  “His emphasis on what he had come to call ‘form,’ the inherent essence that an architect had to discern in an architectural program before it was contaminated by practical considerations, was related to the Beaux-Arts emphasis on the preliminary, instinctive esquisse [sketch].”  The freedom, unpredictability and potential for wish-fulfillment of this phase is the opposite of the fear-based, known-quantity-clinging DNA of the typical American house.  The best such a house can deliver in the way of fantasy is colonial or tudor dress.

Glenn Murcutt’s 1996-98 Fletcher-Page House has huge sliding glass doors that open to transform its living spaces into a porch. “I have a great desire to make a building which is just a big veranda,” Murcutt has said. Envisioning such a building as his house, he adds: “For myself, for my security at night, I would like to have [just] one room which is like going into a mole hole, where I can go for the security of being in a womb.” (Touch This Earth Lightly, Glenn Murcutt & Philip Drew, 1999.) Rather than beginning his design process from living- or dining- or bed- or bathrooms, Murcutt lets his imagination roam free from veranda to mole hole. The playful self-indulgence of this fantasy phase survives through its practical resolution into a livable house and animates the finished work with joy.

Koh Kitayama’s 1994 F3 House uses a ready-made greenhouse to enclose a garage/party-space and a small elevated box that accommodates private living functions. The transparent greenhouse envelope might be seen as a variation on Glenn Murcutt’s house-as-veranda, while its opaque interior box answers his wish for a secure one-room nocturnal retreat. The F3 House demonstrates what’s possible when sensations replace established room types as generators of a house design.

What Kitayama’s F3 House sacrifices in conventional comfort and convenience, it makes up for in delight.  The particular bargain it strikes may not suit everyone, but the bachelor who commissioned it probably wouldn’t have a hard time finding a like-minded buyer if he chose to sell it.  An interest and cars and parties might not even be required, given the broad appeal of a return to life under the sky’s blue dome.

If design fantasy is to lead to anything more than jacuzzis and home theaters, it has to go beyond comfort. It must trade such “commodity” for the true delight of reconnection with life’s fundamentals and the joy that automatically comes of being reminded we’re alive. As blandest suburbia proves, unchecked convenience chokes out life. It reminds us of Thoreau, turning his back on the comfort of town “to front only the essential facts of life,” and of the ardent hearted Huck Finn’s farewell: “I reckon I got to light out for the territory ahead of the rest, because Aunt Sally she’s going to adopt me and sivilize me, and I can’t stand it. I been there before.” Huck wasn’t going to stand for a life choreographed by room names. He’d take the primal joy of his most basic condition, as a free body in space.

Rule 10 is to embrace inconvenience.

Pay attention to any place that ignites passion and take home its fire.  A house that’s based only on practical decisions and fears of missteps will never be more than sensible and timid.  Too much comfort and convenience insulate people from life and its greatest and simplest pleasures.  Design a house not just to support life, but to make living worthwhile.

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