I recently paid a visit to the smallest office I have ever set foot in. It was actually a tiny one-bedroom apartment overlooking a pool. Its location, and the maneuvers I had to make to gain access, gave it the ambiance of secrecy. This must be what it feels like to visit a safe house, I thought.
Significant things are going on here. You may learn of them soon enough so, excepting one thing, I will not break the mystery. On one wall, in the very center of the wall, there hangs a small oil painting. The subject: a shipwreck in turbulent seas. It was done in blues with a very purposeful, skilled hand. It is not famous but could have been had it gotten into the right hands. It reminded me of Fitz Henry Lane’s “A Smart Blow (Rough Sea, Schooners),” 1856.
I asked the architect if he had done this. No, he said. He then told me the story of how this painting was the first beautiful thing that had ever transfixed him. When he was five or six, he used to sit and stare at it endlessly. This reminded me of how I used to stare out at the thunderstorms from my grandmother’s window, feeling like I was in the midst of them. As a child, he must have felt transported by this painting the way I was by that surrounding sky.
It is obvious he is still transported by it now. He was calm and relaxed talking architecture. But the moment he started talking about the painting he opened up and began smiling and gesturing wildly, filling up the space of his little office by the pool. He was dancing.
All the evidence of architecture lying around and hanging like sculpture bore no resemblance whatsoever to this painting. Could the twisting turbulence I experience in his designs have something to do with that stormy sea and the masts sticking above the wave peaks? I think it best to leave that to him. I did not ask and he stopped himself before saying too much.
There are some who might tell you they understand the design process. They might even say they have a method, a philosophy, or a certain aesthetic ideal they believe in. Some firms proudly claim they are late-modernists and their designers seek to evoke this with every straight line and sleek linear volume. Perhaps there has to be a bend here, a crank there, a skew…something.
The design process is not something to understand or intellectualize. You cannot go to a design psychologist and uncover your early design traumas to discover how your buildings come to look the way they do. Even if you could, what would be the value of this? Better to perform your ritual sacrifices to keep the bad juju away, wear your lucky red pants, or take whatever elixir you require to facilitate the magic. Do not question where it comes from or why. Me? I like jelly beans.
Stories from childhood are oft cited as sources for creative powers. Design may come from the same place, but then so does everything else in life. For architects, such stories can take on the power of myth. If indulged too obsessively this can be a dangerous thing. In moderate doses, childhood experiences can serve as powerful catalysts for design thought. How would we design without this? By intellect alone? Doubtful.
Maybe there was some space like a cave, a tower, or an attic like the one Gaston Bachelard describes in The Poetics of Space. He also talks about the basement and the stairs in-between and what these spaces can do to the imagination of a child—how they have impacted our cultural imagination and our understanding of space.
This could easily describe my first experiences with architecture. My grandmother’s house overlooking the Atlantic had a dark, musty basement made of granite blocks. It smelled dark and old. It was the basement of nightmares complete with the huge iron oil furnace. Three floors above was the complexly pitched attic. Connecting them were narrow stairways whose steps played like out-of-tune piano keys to the step.
It was not just the spaces themselves but what they contained that affected me. In the basement were the rusted implements of ancient gardening and the steel rake I once slammed into a hive of yellow jackets. The small round scars are still visible. One or two look like cigarette burns.
When I was six, I found my grandfather’s Luger in an attic drawer. I searched the other drawers for ammunition. He was a marksman and a gun collector so I had seen and held most of the weapons in the house by this time. But this was a new find. For some reason he had never showed me this one. This was also the summer I spent most days at MIT Day Camp and shot pellet rifles in the basement of one of the lab buildings.
I found ammunition but it did not fit the clip. Reflecting on this, it is both remarkable and frightening how quickly I mastered every piece of that weapon in just a few minutes. I ran around the upstairs with the Lugar pretending to shoot the enemy then put it back where I had found it. I remember keeping the safety on. I never took it out again.
The attic was also where there were drawers of little things that looked as if they had been important to somebody in the past. Were these beads my mother’s, my sister’s? They could have been Bunny’s, my grandmother’s sister who died at such a young age that only worn black and white photographs remain—and them she is blurred and looking away from the camera. Nobody ever talked about her. All these artifacts and it was as if only I had access to them.
One of the things that made that house magical to me in childhood was the way the outside world surrounded and interacted with it. On warm summer nights the house would almost disappear around me as I sat in my upstairs window and watched the thunder storms light-up the bay. The summer storms were like an immense warm room and I was seemingly sitting on a platform in the center of it all.
Une étrange maison qui se tient dans ma voix Et qu’habite le vent. Je l’invente, mes mains dessinent un nuage Un bateau de grand ciel au-dessus des forêts Une brume qui se dissipe et disparaît Comme au jeu des images.
(A strange house contained in my voice Inhabited by the wind I invent it, my hands draw a cloud A heaven-bound ship above the forests Mist that scatters and disappears As in the play of images.)1