Chapter 3. House as a Reflection of Our Selves
The space you choose to inhabit is an expression of your style, values, aspirations, and self-image. Architectural apathy, choosing not to consciously choose the fundamental design of your house, as with every choice, is also a decision. What you wear, what you eat, what you drive, where you vacation express your style and your priorities. To abdicate choice of dress for a uniform, say, or to submit to Thomas More’s or Chairman Mao’s fashion direction is to suppress your self and your soul. Since so many people choose a uniform design, our houses stand out like a Western-dressed woman in Riyadh—the River House is more subtle than the sculptural Creek House, but people still ask if it’s an event center. You have to live somewhere; you have to eat. Careless choices in food can have adverse health consequences; architectural fast food can likewise make people sick.
While our choices will be different, when they are sincere, our lives are mostly in balance.
Personality and style matter, the site and the surroundings matter, but so does the time period. The more personal a design, the less bound it is to the time it was designed. I admire buildings built in every decade, every century, and it’s worth preserving the best examples of all architecture. I often daydreamed in church about converting the old stone and stained glass space in which I worshipped into a house. We have friends in Belgium who converted a stone stable from the 1700s into a modern home. But if I’m building from scratch today in America, I’m building a contemporary American home, not a Tudor. I love to read and teach Shakespeare, but I don’t write in the same English as the Bard (forsooth), nor do I dress in Elizabethan fashion. In the 90s, the Creek House won Sunset’s award for a house ten years old; in its singularity, the design is timeless.
When we choose carefully, we waste less: how many clothes in your closet go unworn? I recently helped a friend move and, after hauling off two truckloads to Goodwill, she asked, “How did I accumulate all this worthless stuff?” Because a home is not an impulse buy, but an infrequent and major investment for most people, the choice of habitat is critical, second only to choice of life partner. In this day and age, it’s almost easier to divorce than to buy or sell a home.
I think people are afraid to authentically express themselves with architecture because it is such a major expense, and realtors warn about resale value to a generic buyer, who is imagined lacking any personality or style. It’s as if they all got together and said, “if we make them all the same, they can just exchange the old shelter for a new shelter that fits better. Or, now they have more money so they can have the same house, only larger.” It would be like saying, “now you can afford more food, so just eat more of it,” which unfortunately also happens.
The River House especially, with its high windows, high ceilings, and glass above the interior walls, reflects our generally open, guileless, welcoming personalities. We want to live outside or close to it, so the indoors and outdoors bleed into one another, and the illusion keeps us from feeling hemmed in. Built-in furniture and storage means there’s minimal clutter; besides books, everything can be put away. The windows are canvases framing color and movement. Guests (and the styles they bring with them) contribute to the color and ornamentation of the moment. Our style is sleek and spare, a blank canvas for nature and new ideas. Your style will reflect your personality.
A house reflects the occupants’ aspirations, and we have aspired to bring culture to country living (think Middlemarch or Far from the Madding Crowd) and draw family and friends to our remote location. To that end, we offer hospitality, the view, and a relaxing, pleasing, even inspirational style. I do think it’s a community service to build beautiful architecture, but we don’t aspire to vapid grandeur. Reflecting the Sierra foothills as the River House does and hugging the hillside and flowing like the river beside it, the home harmonizes with the landscape. Harmony—we aspire to harmony.
Expression of style is critical for identity, and architecture is arguably the most omnipresent and permanent opportunity to express yourself. I remember when my children were teenagers developing their personal style. It amused me how opposite two close siblings could be. I won’t go into hairstyles and fashion choices of my own kids. Think of yours instead, or of yourself as you were developing your image. Some people are authentically drawn to muted colors (in fashion or home), but some choose beige and understated design so as not to stand out or to avoid expression. Sanghita, who is from southern India was dressing me for a Bollywood party from her three color-crowded closets of traditional dresses. We chose a bright pink sari with green accents and lots of silver and bangles and bindi. She said one adjustment of living in this country has been having to suppress her color preferences when she’s in mixed company. Her home is very nice, but similarly muted. I’d love to see Sanghita express her love of color; it’s integral to her personality and style. In contrast, of course, is an in-your-face garish style in fashion or architecture. I never know if I’m supposed to look away from complicated piercings or tattoos or revealing styles of my students or people on the street or if they are daring me to stare. Some architecture is unpleasantly and randomly weird.
Impression is important—curb appeal—and we all appreciate beautiful architecture that represents the style of the inhabitants. We pick up cues about people’s values and their personalities from the house they live in. When people choose a uniform house, they unintentionally project a lack of personality; they have given up the opportunity to express themselves. I have participated in writing workshops where the writer is “gagged” while the group discusses his or her story. It’s the most uncomfortable feeling; I can’t imagine self-imposed silence.
When people choose architecture simply to impress, disjointed from their personality or culture, or even era, everything seems out of balance. Reacting to a style of false fronts and displays of grandeur, Frank Lloyd Wright developed the Usonian plan to authentically represent the people inside.
Sometimes the choice is to downplay the public view—I choose an understated car since I work at a rural college and don’t want to call attention to it. My parents designed a lovely home in Pasadena with a purposely quiet façade; all its style is interior and directed onto a center courtyard.
So, architecture produces our environment, our human habitat, and many people (not just the uber-wealthy) can choose to create a space that is stimulating or soothing. “One of the great, but often unmentioned, causes of both happiness and misery,” writes philosopher Alain de Botton, “is the quality of our environment: the kind of walls, chairs, buildings and streets we’re surrounded by. And yet a concern for architecture and design is too often described as frivolous, even self-indulgent.” In The Architecture of Happiness, De Botton suggests “where we are heavily influences what we can be…it is architecture’s task to stand as an eloquent reminder of our full potential.” Writer Mark Hammons says architecture has the potential to wake us from our persistent torpor. “People need to wake up,” he insists. “And the single most profoundly powerful force that governs your waking, sleeping, and every moment in between is architecture. The choices that you make versus the choices that you allow other people to make–or which you must endure—are entirely up to you.” He sets his hands on the table in his Los Angeles garden apartment and leans forward. “You can resign yourself to a strip mall existence if you want.” He points to the shops at the end of his street. “You can pretend to be Lord or Lady Whatever if you want. But if instead you wish to encounter the substance of life, if you wish to engage your spiritual evolution as a human being in the here and now, this [the design of your surroundings] is something you need to consider.”
When considering a design that’s authentically their own, people sometimes counter: for the same money they could have twice the square feet. I ask what they would do with all those square feet? Too much space in a house is like too many words in a story or a song that has too many verses. Does that McMansion house a family with 12 children and servants? In The Not So Big House, Sarah Susanka coins the “‘starter castle’ complex—the notion that houses should be designed to impress rather than nurture.”
For us, our values in every case have featured conservation of resources, and we’ve implemented every reasonable green innovation possible. “Innovation” implies new technology, but some of the innovations are prehistoric. The Creek House is based on the same passive solar principles employed by the Anazazi Indians. With relatives in southern Colorado, I’ve visited Mesa Verde more than once—in a photo from 1990, Dennis stands with Nico in front of the cliff dwellings and Dani, the papoose strapped to his back. The massive overhangs of the Cliff Palace protect the dug-out rooms from the summer sun when its high and allow the lower winter sun to enter. In the winter the south-facing windows of the Creek House let in the sun for light and warmth, and in the summer, a canvas drapes over beams that extend over the deck to shade the living area. Art wanted us to grow wisteria on both the front and back side of the house. The purple flowers adorn the front, but he never agreed to come clean up the leaves or prune the wisteria in the back, so we went with canvas. We read Mother Earth News, Utne Reader, and Living on the Earth by Alicia Bay Laurel and intended to live mainly off the grid. It’s a tight little cocoon; the electric bills at that house are still in 2 digits, as in $68/month. We pay more for satellite Internet.
Conserving fiscal resources reflected both our values and necessity. We began the Creek House with a budget of $80,000. Really. Dennis was self-employed and I was teaching high school English when we built it. We were young and had no concept of our future earnings. We wanted to build a house we could afford to pay cash for as we went. Our contract for $100,000 with Greg Potter stretched to $120,000 with an additional bathroom and some things we did ourselves. There are economies I’ve had to compensate for over the years—a new roof, some upgrades in the decks, appliances and fixtures, but that would happen with any aging house. As we built the River House, I knew enough to reduce our “budget” by 50 percent when I approached contractors, subcontractors, even my dear architect. Just as $80K became $120K, our professed budget for the River House increased 50 percent. In both cases, the cost was worth it. I don’t feel uncomfortable revealing this to the architecture world since my research confirms that even (or especially) the architects with the deepest aesthetic integrity have a vague concept of the actual cost of building, and the ones who focus on cost don’t always challenge their clients to expand their willingness to engage their home’s potential.
Economy of scale is as important as economy of resources. I visited friends with four children in Charlottesville, Virginia, who lived in a two-story, three-bedroom 2,000 square foot house. The six of them used their space well, and the only change they were contemplating was an expanded kitchen table area with a window that would welcome more light into the whole kitchen area. What impressed me was that their house, and all the houses in the neighborhood, occupied about one-fifth of the plot or less. The houses are all situated in the middle of lots with lawns and trees; gardens and garages are in back out of sight. In suburban California, I see a two-car garage, packed to the gills with stuff, so the cars rest in the short plug of a driveway or out on the street. Looking town the street, you see a whole row of houses sticking out their automotive tongues. The front door is recessed with some token color spot flowers or a flag that might change with the season. The houses fill the lot width-wise, the minimum distance allowed by code from the neighbors, so the side windows are usually covered for privacy. The back yard might have a little oasis of a pool and a patio, and a high fence on three sides. As close as these suburban dwellers are to their neighbors, few know the neighbors next door or even those on their cozy street.
While I do admit I am a space junkie and prefer natural to human-built vistas, I don’t want to separate us from our community. We have this space, and we want to share it. It’s a rare weekend when we aren’t hosting a benefit or a dinner or lunch. A good friend born in Paris grew up with a house in the city and a country house. We are happy to be their country house, and we sleep in their guest bedroom if we are out late in town.
Built space is not simply shelter. Most people live indoors and take for granted the form of those doors and walls and windows. They fill a house with things they find beautiful, hang beautiful art on the walls, but sometimes overlook the way we move in a space and the way space moves us. Sometimes decoration compensates effectively for pedestrian or stifling architecture, but it’s a slide show compared to a movie or a movie compared to a living, breathing experience.
(the following reprint from TFJ is posted elsewhere on orgatecture.com, but I think it goes here in the book–between the River House chapter and the Creek House chapter)
I had begun writing my architectural apologia when we lived in the Creek House. For Journal of the Taliesin Fellows, edited by Michael Hawker, I wrote “Surrounded by Sculpture: The Joy and Value of Organic Architecture” (October 2011):
I just turned off the lights in the house to let the moon in. While I type at the kitchen bar, the half moon shines insistently through the highest windows at the top of the arched ceiling. Even as October clouds veil its intensity, that moon shines a path across the living room table, and the cool night air settles like a clean sheet.
I built this small sculptural home 25 years ago, when my late husband and I were in our 20s and our photographer friend Scot Zimmerman introduced us to his architect friend Arthur Dyson. I had drawn a floor plan we liked, but I couldn’t imagine the elevation; I couldn’t begin to foresee the possibilities that Dyson would introduce—the glass and light and curve and shadow that would tickle my brain when I lived in the space.
On a summer morning, I lie in bed watching a half-circle of sun stretch invitingly across the curved ceiling. The sun shines in, hits glass below and repeats overhead. The trees outside shimmer. It’s going to be a hot day—time to close in the cool and get to work. Dyson, reflecting Wright’s philosophy, says architecture shouldn’t separate people from their environments, especially at home, but I’m glad the double-paned windows protect us from the heat. It’s a small space, just 1800 square feet, but every inch is as alive as the forest that surrounds it. The living room spills onto the deck. A deep canvas overhang shades the table and chairs. We have an air conditioner, but rarely turn it on.
My grandmother gave us the riverbottom land for a wedding present. A tangle of blackberries and willows covered the creek and cloaked the forest as in a fairy tale, and it took more than magic or love to clear a path to the center where we correctly predicted we’d find high ground. But it’s not that high–perched in a flood plain, we learned we’d have to build up three and a half feet. So the house is propped up because of zoning, and Dyson formed that sculpture of a house you see to make sense of the interior shape—the interior informs the exterior. The shingled front of the home offers privacy and allows for the south-facing two-story wall of windows in the back.
Surrounded by forest and water on both sides, we have no visible neighbors, so we have nothing covering the massive south-facing windows. In winter, the house is warm and embracing—really, a sensual home. As the sun shifts, we remove the summer awning. There’s a wood stove, but usually, to avoid the smoke, we use the heater. Our power bills are slim. We who live here, live intimately; we breathe in unison. There are few interior walls; only the bathrooms, office, and laundry room are completely closed, so when my daughter is home, she and I can talk sotto voce from her room to mine (although we can’t see each other). When her boyfriend calls, she ducks into the bathroom to Skype out of earshot. My son, more private, sleeps in the office/guest room when he visits. My husband writes music; to sequester himself, he writes in that room. But when work is done and it’s just the two of us, we drift from activity to activity, apart or together, in a mostly shared but compartmentalized space.
My children were born here, so this is their gestalt memory of a house. Al Struckus of Bruce Goff’s Struckus Residence asked me, “Do you feel your children are more creative growing up in a house like this?” I accede that they are creative, but I think all children are creative; perhaps an organic home prevents the stifling of childhood imagination.
I have sat on the porch of this house during the Pleiades and watched shooting star after shooting star. It’s true–I could sit on the porch of a mobile home to watch natural phenomena, but from this porch the full moon or the evening sun casts a voluptuous light on the curves and lines, and then we climb up to a bedroom whose ceiling slopes down to meet the floor and catches the shadow side of that sheen.
Spring is the season my family visits. Honeysuckle scents the yard and seeps into the house; adults drink coffee on the deck while the children hunt for Easter eggs. With the kitchen in the center of the house, the smell of roasting lamb and rosemary wafts into every room. Open windows admit the sounds of the forest—hawks and owls, trees shifting in the breeze.
In any season, the details of the house enliven us: the graceful kitchen window fringed with wysteria, the chevron stair railing, which my late husband, a blacksmith, lovingly named the Berthas for their heft. The front door is round and not unlike a peace symbol. (When we said as much to Art, he shrugged and said he could design something more militaristic if we preferred). A sweeping curve visually unites the interior.
In a new season of my life, I have married Greg Lapp, a musician. I had agreed, in theory, that we should have our own home; but, having lived in this space, I couldn’t blithely revert to right angles, so we are building a Dyson home 12 miles upriver.
Even before it’s finished, the Lapp River House is joyful. The builders laugh constantly. The subs take extra care and brag about their work. Both teachers, we are on a strict budget, so we’ve had to make some judicious choices. But when we told the cabinetmakers we couldn’t afford to curve the kitchen island, they volunteered to curve it anyhow and use it for their portfolio. Similarly, the drywall is smooth for the price of texture because the guys agreed it would show off their skill. The first house took 18 months to build; this one will be two years by the time we move in. I figure there are three variables in the home construction equation: quality, cost, and time; we’ll sacrifice time. Sidney Mukai, our contractor, has been on the job every day, usually armed with a laser-level. Having apprenticed under Dyson as an architect, he’s loyal to the design. Sid’s perfectionist tendencies may have cost us time, but we will likely stay within budget–more than a tract home, but affordable. In the end, the first house went over-budget by 20 percent, but it’s utterly worth it. It’s my patronage of the art of organic architecture.
The RiverHouse is just 2,000 square feet, but over half is one room with the grand piano at one end, where the ceiling curves down to 8 feet. It curves up to 18 feet at the highest point; the elevation resembles the Sierra Nevada foothills that flank it. The north wall, which faces the Kings River, is all storefront glass. It was a little battle passing that by the county building department, but the inspector was happy when he saw it. Likewise, the County balked at the 15-foot minimally-supported overhang that shades the terrace and porch, but, with hidden buttressing fit for a hurricane, they relented. The great room includes space for a 60-guest concert; the chairs are housed in a cabinet built-in for that purpose. There’s also an alcove with a windowseat that faces the river where I read and write. The kitchen with the curved bar is at the other end of the great room, and the dining table can settle in a different place every day as bamboo covers the whole floor. The master bedroom is tucked in the back of the house with its own private terrace overlooking the river.
With the constant breeze off the water and deep overhangs, cool roof, ceiling fans and a whole house fan, we chose not to put in AC (although we plumbed for it). Since we have radiant floor heating as well, there is no ducting, so the arc of the ceiling is completely revealed, especially since, above 8 feet, most of the interior walls are glass. The curve is accentuated by a massive glu-lam beam on both sides, inside and out. The colors and textures flow from outside to inside, so there’s always the illusion of being part of the river landscape. Dyson conceives designs based on the personalities of the owners. For instance, I know I crave space and light, even in a small house. The curves calm me, and the way the light plays off the ingenious geometry stimulates our minds. We recognize that hours and seasons alter the house; and, while protected from the elements, we are intimately in touch with them.
A hawk coasts by, riding a gust of wind that shifts and passes through the screen of the sliding door. Purple-flowered sage rustles beyond the terrace. A fish jumps. The sun slides along the hills to the west, and the sideways light catches the curve of the window wall. The dog sighs, contented. So do I.