All Things Considered (NPR), April 19, 1997
Daniel talks to Michael Pollan, author of “A Place of My Own: The Education of an Amateur Builder.” Pollan tells what he discovered about the relationship between people and architecture while he was building his own ‘workhut.’ He and Daniel tour the workspace at National Public Radio.
DANIEL ZWERDLING, HOST: When writer Michael Pollan left a job with a magazine in New York City and set off on his own, he needed a new workspace, a new office. So, he decided to build a tiny one from scratch under the trees near his home.
And, as Pollan studied carpentry and roof lines and the philosophy of architecture, he began to think in a new way about how humans interact with buildings.
We invited Pollan to analyze our relationship with a typical office building in downtown Washington: NPR’s headquarters. We begin outside on the sidewalk.
SOUND OF MASSACHUSETTS AVENUE
MICHAEL POLLAN, AUTHOR, “A PLACE OF MY OWN: THE EDUCATION OF AN AMATEUR BUILDER”: Well, when I pulled up to this NPR headquarters today, I looked around me and I thought, “where’s the””how do you get in?”
And, as my cab drove up””and this is a sort of standard-issue corporate cube, probably built in the ’60s or ’70s. And it doesn’t have a face.
ZWERDLING: A face. What do you mean a face?
POLLAN: Well, buildings are expressions of humans, of us. And we think of them in very figurative terms. I mean, they have eyes, windows are eyes on a building. And the door is the mouth or the opening through which things pass.
And, you know, a face on a building tells us we’re welcome. And this building doesn’t really send out those signals of hospitality.
ZWERDLING: We should have a disclaimer here that none of the views expressed by this man are those of NPR employees””just in case you criticize the building too harshly.
In your book, you write that as you began designing and building your work space, your workhut, you read the work of archaeological philosophers who talk about spatial experience””that the way a particular architectural feature, like a front door, is designed is not as important as the experience you have using that feature.
Why don’t we enter the NPR glass doors, the front entrance. And tell us about our spatial experience.
POLLAN: Well, I’m passing through a double-set of doors. The first thing I notice is that the ceiling height is consistent””from the canopy outside right through here.
There’s no sense of a great transition, when you enter a place like Grand Central Station, which has got one of the great entrances in all of Western architecture I think””all of a sudden you’re in a low space and the ceiling just flies off your shoulders.
It’s like taking off a winter coat. You feel lighter; you feel more erect in your posture; and you have a””a physical transformation actually happens to your body and your mood. Sorry, but it’s not happening here.
ZWERDLING: Well, listen, why don’t we move up now to the space where most of the reporters work, the newsroom on the third floor. To the elevator.
SOUND OF AN ELEVATOR
OK, here’s the elevator. As we go up to the third floor to the newsroom””what does this awaken within you?
POLLAN: The experience of rising through a building, whether you’re ascending a staircase or an elevator, is a very satisfying thing. Gaston Bachelard (ph), the French architectural theorist, said that there are two””we have sort of two poles, two attractions when we enter space. One is to ascend to get the tower view. And this is the view that gives us a sense of control and power. And we understand.
So, the tower view is something that we’re all attracted to. And, you know, children have their tree houses. I think that’s where””children are particularly attracted to that because they’re so small. And they don’t get the big picture. And they’re always looking up at us.
ZWERDLING: Third floor. You said, “according to this theorist, there are two drives.”
ZWERDLING: And the second?
POLLAN: The second is what Bachelard calls the “hut dream.” And it’s a wonderful idea. It’s a very poetic idea: that we’re drawn toward it. We have a dream of huts. And you see it in children who will make a hut out a blanket and two chairs, or even just underneath a table.
You know, I built a literal hut. But even in a modern office building, where everybody has these little cubicles made out of God knows what. People turn those into huts.
ZWERDLING: Speaking of cubicles, if we turn the corner and go into our newsroom, you’ll see that we, like, you know, many office buildings, have our big spaces filled with cubicles. This is the NPR newsroom, where most of the reporters work.
POLLAN: Well, I look at this room and it’s a standard newsroom, and I see…
ZWERDLING: Describe it to our listeners.
POLLAN: I see a city of huts. There is a five-and-a-half foot tall greenish-blue dividers. And it’s this honeycomb of spaces. You can look over them. But when you’re seated down, you have a sense that you’re in an enclosure.
ZWERDLING: Do these qualify as nice little huts?
POLLAN: Well, I wouldn’t exactly say they were nice little huts yet.
I think if…
ZWERDLING: But they’re huts.
POLLAN: … they are huts.
ZWERDLING: Now, let’s walk over by the windows, because that is one thing this building does have””say what you will about it. On every side windows, windows, windows.
SOUND OF BLINDS BEING OPENED
And you write in your book that somewhere in the 1600s, people’s view of outside spaces and interior spaces changed dramatically. Right?
POLLAN: Our view of the window has undergone a transformation. You know, we always used to think of buildings as enclosures””protect us from an outdoors that we regarded as hostile.
Nature was not a positive thing or a romantic thing until very recently historically. And buildings protected you. There were real threats out there.
ZWERDLING: And I notice when you go through a castle in Europe, for instance, they have tiny weeny windows””hardly any at all.
POLLAN: There are a lot of reasons for that. One is people didn’t really like what was outside. They were big enough to spy a threat and aim a weapon essentially.
But as time goes on, we develop a somewhat more positive attitude toward outside and a real interest in the whole concept of transparency””that the relationship between inside and outside gets a little more friendly.
Now, there are structural reasons for this, too, you know. When buildings were made out of stone, the walls were holding up the building. So that, walls did not have the freedom to become windows.
ZWERDLING: Why don’t we finish our conversation on the top floor of the building, speaking of vertical spaces, which we talked about a few minutes ago.
POLLAN: The tower view.
ZWERDLING: Our lunchroom.
SOUND OF AN ELEVATOR
So, welcome to the NPR lunchroom.
POLLAN: Here is the tower view that I was talking about, which says””I feel more oriented than I have through this whole thing. Now, I know where we are.
ZWERDLING: Say whatever you want to say about this building, for better or worse, this is a pretty wonderful view of Washington.
POLLAN: You do have this commanding view of Washington. I guess we’re looking north. And this is a very nice north light in this room. And, you know, the light preferred by painters””it’s a very soft kind of light.
ZWERDLING: So listen””so briefly, for all of the people listening who are thinking, “I want to improve my work space, but I don’t have the money to build my own workhut in the woods as you did”””our employer has told us they don’t have money to totally redesign the whole building””what tiny little things can each of us do to make our daily workspace better?
POLLAN: One concrete example: bring in your own lamp. Bring in a lamp””secede from the sort of corporate light that you’ve inherited as a worker in this place and buy a standing lamp that might have a slightly more yellow light than the whitish blue light that’s here.
And that light, by itself, will create a tint over your head and around you. And this””and it’ll create this circle of warmth. And you’ll see that that will become your hut. That will be your space. And it’ll be a secession from the bigger space, but not in a hostile way or anything like that.
But it will make that circle on the ground, that beam of light defines yours.
ZWERDLING: Michael Pollan, author of “A Place of My Own”
Thanks. And listen: would you like a double skim late with two percent foam? We have a cappuccino machine over here”
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