Thursday, March 10, 2011

I Contain Multitudes…of Houses! (Part 1)

With apologies to Walt Whitman and the grammar police, what I really mean to say is that, house design-wise, I feel that I am the sum total of all the experiences I have had in my lifetime with houses, gardens, and architecture in general. But you can see what an awkward title that would be!

I started thinking the other day about influential spaces and moments in my life that have informed my attitudes and values about what makes a house a home. I’m organizing my ideas around a concept borrowed from a favorite book of mine, “At a Journal Workshop” by Ira Progoff.

My "Architectural Steppingstones"
In the Intensive Journal workshops, one of the exercises is to construct your life “steppingstones.” These are akin to milestones except that they are very personal and not necessarily the usual ones like “I went to XYZ college, I got married, I had my first child, etc.” I think Progoff calls them steppingstones because they create a path to who we are at any given moment in time. Even more interesting, one’s steppingstones from today may not be the same as those from a year ago. Our worldview is constantly changing and thereby shifting what we believe to have been the critical moments in our lives.

Carl Vilhelm Holsoe painting--no french doors, but similar feeling to my grandmother's apartment.

Views from one room to the other.
Steppingstone #1: French Doors, Copenhagen
The earliest “architectural steppingstone” I can remember is my Danish grandmother’s apartment in Copenhagen. I could write pages about it, but for your sake I’ll just share one particular memory.

There was a pair of French doors that led from her dining room to the living room. When open, the two multi-paned glass doors created a large gathering space and, when closed, they allowed different activities to take place in each space but still within sight of one another.

Why was this significant to me? First, I thought the doors were beautiful. I had never seen a French door before and I loved the way the individual panes framed views into the two spaces.

Second, I liked the formality of moving through the doors—somehow they added elegance and drama to the simple act of moving from one room to another. Third, the idea of separate but still visually connected spaces was very appealing to me. I was enchanted. I was seven years old. (Never doubt that children NOTICE things.) 

Relevance to the new house? In our new house, there are two pairs of French doors leading into the living room, and another pair leading from the living room to the garden. The result is interesting views through the doors, several opportunities to “make an entrance,” and the option of being separate in one room but still connected to the rest of the house. This idea of “separate yet connected” also plays out in my general dislike of the Great Room concept. I really prefer distinct spaces to vast amorphous ones, and it shows in the layout of the new house.

Steppingstone #2: Palladian Window, Seattle
My old elementary school was a two-story classic red brick colonial. When I matriculated to 4th grade, I moved from the ground floor to the 2nd floor where the upper classes were. At the head of the stairway on the west end of the building was a large Palladian window with a view to a Yoshino cherry tree just outside.

Again, the appeal of a multi-paned window framing a view, but in this case it was also the idea of seeing an especially beautiful part of the landscape from inside the building that captured my attention. That, and the way the view changed with the seasons.

Every day as our class marched down the stairs to go outside for recess, I saw that cherry tree framed against the window—leaves turning gold and orange in the fall; limbs outlined dark and shiny with rain in the winter; branches occasionally draped in snow; and best of all, clouds of white cherry blossoms in the spring followed by bright lime-green leaves.

Relevance to the new house? We’ve paid very careful attention to views from inside the house to the garden outside. Axial arrangements of windows will allow direct views from across the living room through the library and dining room to the east side yard which I intend to plant as a shade garden. Another view, through multi-paned windows, will exist from the living room out to fruit trees in the front yard—hopefully developing sculptural limbs and branches over time just like that old cherry tree!

More to come in Part 2—stay tuned.