Homes & Gardens: Inner Space

A room of one’s own: is there anybody who hasn’t at one time or another wished for such a place, hasn’t turned those soft words over until they’d assumed a habitable shape? In my own case, there came a moment—a few years shy of my 40th birthday—when the notion of a room of my own, and, specifically, of a little wood-frame hut in the woods behind my house, began to occupy my imaginings with a mounting insistence.

This in itself didn’t surprise me particularly. I was in the process of pulling my life up by the roots, all at once becoming a father, leaving the city where I’d lived since college, and setting out on an uncertain new career. Indeed, it would have been strange if I hadn’t entertained fantasies of escape—of reducing so many daunting new complexities to something as stripped-down and uncomplicated as a hut in the woods.

What was surprising, though, and what had no obvious cause or explanation in my life as it had been lived up to then, was a corollary to the dream: I wanted not only a room of my own, but a room of my own making.

I wanted to build this place myself.

It was right around this time that I stumbled upon a French writer named Gaston Bachelard. ‘If I were asked to name the chief benefits of the house,’ Bachelard wrote in The Poetics Of Space, ‘I should say: the house shelters day-dreaming, the house protects the dreamer, the house allows one to dream in peace.’ An obvious idea, perhaps, but in it I recognised at once what it was I’d lost and dreamed of recovering.

Unlike any other form of thought, daydreaming is its own reward. Daydreaming is pleasurable. And, I would guess, is probably a psychological necessity. For isn’t it in our daydreams that we acquire some sense of what we are about? Daydreaming is where we go to cultivate the self, or, more likely, selves, out of the view and earshot of other people. Without its daydreams, the self is apt to shrink to the size and shape of the estimation of others.

To daydream the notion of a room of one’s own—a place of solitude for the individual—is, historically speaking, a fairly recent invention. But then again, so is the self, or at least the self as we’ve come to think of it, an individual with a rich interior life. Dipping recently into a multi-volume history of private life edited by Philippe Aries, I was fascinated to learn how the room of one’s own (specifically, the private study located off the master bedroom) and the modern sense of the individual emerged at more or less the same moment during the Renaissance. Apparently, this is no accident: the new space and the new self actually helped give shape to one another. It appears there is a kind of reciprocity between interiors and interiority.

The room of one’s own that Virginia Woolf and Bachelard and the French historians all talked about as necessary to the interior life was located firmly within the confines of a larger house. But it was a building of my own I wanted, an outpost of solitude pitched somewhere in the landscape rather than in the house. And so I began to wonder where in the world could that part of the dream have come from? The deepest roots of such a dream are invariably obscure, a tangle of memories and circumstances, things read in books and pictures glimpsed in magazines. But the proximate answer is an architect by the name of Charles R Myer.

It was Charlie Myer who’d helped us renovate our tiny bungalow in the north-west corner of Connecticut, where most of this story takes place. On good days that year, my wife Judith and I regarded Charlie with gratitude and even a measure of awe: it was already evident he had succeeded in transforming our humdrum little bungalow into a house of real character and, for us then, what seemed a perfect fit.

One of the aims of Charlie’s design had been to redirect the house’s gaze away from the road in front and back towards the hillside and our gardens.

Charlie seemed pleased with the bedroom that was now taking shape, and the view from its window, but I could tell that something was bugging him. What the garden’s axis needed now, the architect had concluded, was a destination—some sort of distinct object in the distance that would draw your eye out into the land and up the hill, that would somehow tie the cultivated foreground into the larger landscape above.

I could sort of see his point, but it seemed to me that this particular problem belonged down near the very bottom of a to-do list that had grown dauntingly tall. Judith and I were still camped out at my parents’.

‘So, you mean, like a bench or something?’ ‘What I think we need to do is build something out there,’ he began.

Compared with the Ayn Rand stereotype of the architect as a power-mad empire builder, a chilly figure only at home in the realm of his own ideal forms, Charlie has always seemed to me a fairly contented citizen of the real world, somebody with a deep appreciation of life as it is really lived, in all its unplatonic messiness. Yet here he was, actually suggesting that what the view from the window of his new building needed most of all was another Charlie Myer building.

I thanked him for the generous offer and promptly changed the subject to something compelling, like plumbing fixtures.

But I guess the notion had been planted. Rehearsing this scenario in bed late one night, during one of the frequent bouts of sleeplessness I credited to incipient fatherhood, it occurred to me that my image of the building was based, at least partly, on a tree-house I’d had as a child on Long Island—the last time I’d had a room of my own off in the woods.

Even more than adults do, children seem instinctively to grasp the deepest meanings of houseness—the full significance of territory and shelter, the metaphysics of inside and out, the symbolism of doors and windows and roofs.

Bachelard’s The Poetics Of Space is the only book I’ve ever read that takes these sorts of places seriously, analysing them—or at least our memories and dreams of them—as a way to understand our deepest, most subjective experience of place. He suggests that our sense of space is organised around two distinct poles, or tropisms: one attracting us to the vertical (compelling us to seek the power and rationality of the tower view) and the other to the enclosed centre, what he sometimes calls the ‘hut dream’. It is this second, centripetal attractor that inspires the child to build imaginary huts under tabletops and deep inside coat closets, and draws the adult toward the hearth or the kitchen table—places of maximum refuge that hold us in a small, concentrated circle of warmth. These, in Bachelard’s terms, are huts too.

But in addition to the centripetal impulse that Bachelard so tenderly describes—our wish to be ‘enclosed, protected, all warm in the bosom of the house’—isn’t there also a centrifugal impulse at work in our dream of houses, one that is always pushing us outward, flinging open windows and reaching out into the surrounding landscape? It must have been some such sense of space that compelled me to situate my dream of a hut out in the woods, first as a child and then, some 30 years on, as a parent-to-be.

This doesn’t, however, quite explain how my own grown-up dream of a hut expanded to include the improbable idea of building it with my own hands.

A house in the first person did not seem like something a third party could build. I began to see how there might be a connection between the kind of mental life I hoped such a place might house and the kind of work I’d have to learn in order to build it, a connection hinted at in words such as independence, individual, pragmatic, self-made. The meaning of such a place was in its making.

A 20-foot piece of clear Douglas fir is an impressive thing to behold. By virtue of its girth and length, it seems more tree than lumber, though you can easily understand why lumber is what we prefer to call it. Lumber is an abstraction, a euphemism really. Though these logs had been squared up and dressed at the mill, it was impossible not to be conscious of them as trees—and not to feel at least slightly abashed at what had been done to them on my account.

Simply by picking up the phone and placing an order for ‘eight ten-foot pieces of six-by-ten appearance-grade Doug fir’, I’d set in motion a chain of events that was as momentous as it was routine. To fulfill my order, at least two mature fir trees, green spires as old as the century, had been felled in a forest somewhere in Oregon and then trucked, or floated, to a mill in a town called McMinnville.

It’s hard not to feel sentimental about such majestic pieces of wood, especially today, when we can appreciate the preciousness of old trees more than we once did. One measure of that preciousness is price. The four timbers in my barn cost more than pounds 400, a figure that manages to seem both exorbitant and—considering what they are, or were—paltry at the same time.

Charlie had specified large timbers because our original notion of the building, as a kind of primitive hut carved out of the forest, was unthinkable without them. The archetypal hut consists of four substantial corner posts (actual trees in some accounts) surmounted by a gable. A hut’s construction should recall the forest from which it springs. Architecture as we know it is unimaginable without the tree. Frank Lloyd Wright, speaking of the very first structures built by man, once wrote that ‘trees must have awakened his sense of form’. It is the tree that gave us the notion of a column and, in the West at least, everything else rests upon that. Even when the Greeks turned from building in wood to stone (after they’d denuded their land of trees), they shaped and arranged their stones in imitation of trees.

My wife had urged that I look for someone who could help me, someone, as she put it, ‘who at least has a clue’. This was to be Joe, the carpenter.

Our first day of wood work, Joe showed up with an incongruous pair of tools: a set of fine chisels with ash handles and a fairly beaten-up looking chainsaw. The chainsaw was to cut our posts roughly to length; this would constitute the first cut made in our fir and—as I was afraid he might—Joe insisted that I make it.

I am petrified by chainsaws, a phobia I don’t regard as irrational or neurotic in the least. Yet there was no way to decline the chainsaw Joe held out to me without suffering a loss of face. So, striving manfully for nonchalance, I took the chainsaw from him, gave its starting cord a yank, and held on tight as the machine leapt menacingly to life.

Cutting the fir timbers proved unexpectedly easy, probably because there were no imperfections in the wood, no knots or bark to frustrate the blade and provoke its wilfulness. For the first time, I noticed the sweet, elusive aroma of fresh-cut Douglas fir, an oddly familiar perfume that nevertheless took me the longest time to place. Then there it was: roasted peanuts.

To trade a chainsaw for a chisel is to trade one way of knowing a piece of wood for another. Though the chainsaw acquaints you with certain general properties—a wood’s hardness and uniformity, its aroma—the chisel discloses much finer information. Something as subtle as the variation in the relative density of two growth rings—the sort of data any machine would overwhelm—the bevelled tip of the chisel’s steel blade will accurately transmit to its ash handle and, through that, to your hand.

After Joe and I had raised the front corner posts on to their rock feet and then fitted our floor beams into their notches, we traded our chisels for hammers and nails.

Our task had been to raise the rear posts and then run the floor beams from the centre knee wall on which they sat to the notches in the rear posts we’d cut for them. It quickly became clear that something was terribly wrong: neither beam met its post at anything remotely resembling a right angle. One of them missed its mortise by a full two inches—which, in an 8ft-by-13ft structure, is to say by a mile. The building had fallen seriously, inexplicably, out of square.

A few steps from the building sits a large, low boulder Joe often repaired to when he needed to study the plans closely or work through a geometry problem, and now he invited me to join him on his rock for a serious head-scratch. ‘Didn’t I say we’d used up too much plumb and level on those front posts?’ Joe said, straining to lighten a situation he clearly regarded as grim.

Joe would often talk about plumb and level and square—trueness—as if they were mysterious properties of the universe, something like luck, or karma, and always in short and unpredictable supply. A surplus one week was liable to lead to a shortfall the next. ‘We were bound to run out sooner or later, but this, Mike, is grave.’ I knew, at least in an intellectual way, that squareness was an important desideratum in a building, but part of me still wasn’t sure why it was such a big deal. If the problem wasn’t evident to the eye, then how much could a few degrees off 90 really matter? Why should builders make such a fetish of right angles? I mentioned to Joe that there were architects around, called deconstructivists, who maintained that Euclidean geometry was obsolete. They designed spaces that were deliberately out of plumb, square, and sometimes even level, spaces that set out purposefully to confound the level’s little bubble and, in turn, our conventional notions of comfort. So why couldn’t our building afford an acute angle or two? Joe cocked one eye and looked at me darkly. ‘Mike, you don’t even want to know all the problems that a building this far out of square is going to have. Trust me: it is your worst nightmare.’ We were never able to entirely rectify the problem—and therefore, the building, which we estimate to be approximately two degrees out of square. As a result, the front wall is slightly more than an inch wider than the back.

At the casual phenomenological level of everyday life, a building a couple degrees out of square is no big deal. Unfortunately for me, that is not the level at which I elected to have this experience. And at the considerably less forgiving level of experience, where rafters have to get cut and desktops scribed, it’s been exactly as Joe promised it would be: a nightmare. Even now, years later, consequences rear up in reminder. When I want to add another shelf for my books, I must lay out and cut, then sand and finish and dismayingly behold, the subtlest of trapezoids, a precise off-key echo of the building as a whole. It has been a most exquisite form of penance.

We were now on to the finish work, but for very good reasons, Joe and Charlie both seemed to feel more proprietary about the building than I did. There was some sort of key to it that was still missing, I felt, something that was needed in order to make it truly mine, and I began to wonder if this key might not have to do with time.

Time is not something architects talk about much, except in the negative. The common view seems to be that mortal time is what buildings exist to transcend; being immortal (at least compared with their builders), buildings give us a way to leave a lasting mark, to conduct a conversation across the generations, in Vincent Scully’s memorable formulation. I doubt there are many builders or architects in history who would dispute Le Corbusier’s dictum that the first aim of architecture is to defy time and decay—to make something in space that time’s arrow cannot pierce.

Or even scuff, in the case of Le Corbusier and many of his contemporaries. The modernists were avid about making buildings that had as little to do with time as possible, time future as much as time past. Defying the time of nature meant rejecting stone and wood, those symbols of the architectural past that have traditionally been prized for the graceful way they weather and show their age. Modernists preferred to clad their buildings in a seamless, white and, very often, machined surface that was intended to look new forever. What this meant in practice, however, was an exterior that didn’t so much weather as deteriorate, so that today the white building stained brown, by rust or air pollution, stands in most of the world’s cities as a melancholy symbol of modernist folly.

Inside, too, modernists employed all sorts of novel, untested materials to which time has been unkind. But the important modernist attack on time indoors was less direct, and this had to do with human time, which in buildings takes the form of inhabitation. The modernists were the first architects in history to insist that they design the interiors of their houses. Everything that was conceivably designable, the architect now wanted to design, the better to realise his building’s Gestalt, a German word for totality much bandied about in the Bauhaus. Had there been a way to somehow redesign the bodies of the inhabitants to fit in better with the Gestalt of their new house, no doubt these architects would have given it a try.

As it was, the architects fretted over what the owners would do to their works of art which, most of them agreed, would never again be as perfect as the day before move-in day. This is one legacy of modernism that we have yet to overcome: our stuff and, in turn, our selves still very often have trouble gaining a comfortable foothold in a modern interior.

Certainly when I think about spaces that I remember as having a strong sense of place, it isn’t the ‘architecture’ that I picture—the geometrical arrangements of wood and stone and glass—but such things as watching the world go by from the front porch of the general shop in town, or the scuffle of 10,000 shoes making their way to work beneath Grand Central Station’s soaring vault. The ‘design’ of these places and the recurring events that give them their qualities—the spaces and the times—have grown together in such a way that it is impossible to bring one to mind without the other.

No single individual can possibly know enough to make from scratch something as complex and layered and thick as a great place; for the necessary help, he will need to invoke the past and also the future.

The first move is obvious enough: the architect borrows from the past by adapting successful patterns, the ones that have been proven to support the kind of life the place hopes to house—porches and watching the world go by, for example. But what about the time to come? There is, of course, the time of weathering: age seems to endear a building to people, to strengthen its sense of place, and the choice of materials can give an architect a way either to flout or to abet this process. But it seems to me that there is another, more profound way an architect can open a building to the impress of its future. Forswearing a totalitarian approach to its details, the architect can instead leave just enough play in his design for others to ‘finish it’—first, the craftsmen, with their particular knowledge and sense of the place, and then the inhabitants, with their stuff and with the incremental changes that, over time, the distinctive grooves of their lives will wear into its surfaces and spaces.

It may be that making a great place, as opposed to a mere building or work of architectural art, requires a collaboration not so much in space as over time.

For a long time after our house was finished, whenever Charlie came to visit, he had a disconcerting habit of staring absently at the wall. ‘What are you looking at?’ I would ask, worried he had spotted some grave flaw in construction. ‘Oh, nothing, nothing,’ he’d blandly insist. We eventually realised that it was our stuff he was staring at, and we began to kid him about it. Only with the greatest reluctance did he finally admit that the way we’d arranged our books and things, was, well, not quite how he’d imagined it.

It seems we hadn’t adjusted quite enough of the adjustable shelves. Charlie had given us the freedom to complete the design; now that we had, it was all he could do not to get up and re-do it himself. I told him I’d always thought the nice thing about liberty was that nobody could tell you what to do with it.

 
 
Michael Pollan