Saturday, February 27, 2010

House on a Hill? Or House with Porch?

This column was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper in 2004.

The first house we bought was on a steep hill. You went in the
front door, up the steps to the second floor, and out the back

One side of the driveway was an embankment with a three-foot stone
wall. The other was a sheer drop, protected by a one-foot stone
wall. In the winter we did not attempt to shovel the driveway. We
just clambered up from the bottom of the hill (precarious when
you are seven months pregnant and carrying groceries) and waited
until the thaw. Or we gunned the motor up the hill and hoped we
could get back down.

One memorable day my car ended up at the bottom of the hill,
planted cross ways on the stone wall, and was blessedly rescued by
two Mormon missionaries who happened to be passing by.

Only the young, you say, would make such a foolish house purchase.
Or else it was a beautiful house. Or it came at a bargain price.
Yes, yes, and yes, but those aren't the real reasons.

The real reason for our purchase was that my husband grew up in a
house on a steep hill with a curvy driveway. And they didn't
shovel in the winter. It was a family point of honor that if you
had a car, you could get up the hill past that icy curve.

Your childhood environment, as it turns out, is a major factor in
what kinds of living spaces you will like as an adult. A house or
a room or a piece of furniture that made you uncomfortable as a
child -- you will avoid it as an adult. A staircase, a chair, a
porch that you loved as a child -- you will resonate with it later
in life.

Architects and savvy real estate agents began to take childhood
experiences into account in the 1960s, when Gaston Bachelard
began to write about the poetics of space. In this new field of
"Design Psychology," Princeton-based author Toby Israel's recent
book, "Some Place Like Home: Using Design Psychology to Create Ideal Places," breaks new ground. She does in-depth interviews with three architects -- Michael Graves, Andres Duany,
and Charles Jencks -- digging into the emotional roots of their
early environments, finding out "how places from the past contain
the seeds of future choices, for home locations, dwellings, and interior design."

On the practical side, Israel's book provides self-help
worksheets. Take her questions, interview yourself, and come up with your own
"emotion-based environmental roots" analysis. Use this to buy your
next house -- or remodel your current abode -- and you are
will most likely be happy with the results.

Her book, lavishly illustrated in black and white and color and printed on glossy stock, is published by John Wiley. It sells for $32 and is available for $37 including shipping by mailing a check to Toby Israel Consulting, 429 Walnut Lane, Princeton 08540.

Israel refers to Bachelard’s "land of that Motionless Childhood,"
motionless because it stays in place while our lives move on. By
recalling the memories of childhood, we add to our store of

She urges the reader to "go into the storehouse of memory and
come as close as possible to retrieving the poetry of lost home."
Reflecting on these memories can help us make better decisions. With clearer vision, we can strive to create homes and other places that mirror our most fulfilled selves."

But Design Psychology is not<$> about nostalgia design," cautions
Israel. "Instead, the point of Design Psychology is to identify
the primal, satisfying, existential essence<$>of these places in order to use the 'high positive' associations they trigger as a touchstone from which to design." If you have fond memories of a primitive, old-world kitchen, for instance, you need not install a wood burning stove. Instead you create a space that is simple and earthy, with a lively close-knit quality that encourages the
family to gather there.

Israel offers a Design Psychology Toolbox, exercises to do and
questions to ask yourself. For instance, in what way(s), if any,
do you think your personality is reflected in your present home? If
you think your personality is not<$> reflected in your home, why
do you think this is so? In what way(s), if any, do you think your
home reflects anyone else's personality?

Overall, do you feel comfortable that your home reflects who you
really are? If not, what changes would you make to your home so
that it expresses who you are?

Ponder how your family's environmental experiences differed from
generation to generation. How did your environmental genealogy
influence your own environmental perspective and values, and was
this influence positive or negative? What sense of home do you want to
pass down to future generations as part of your legacy of place?

Create a time line of city settings you lived in from birth to
Present and indicate your age at this place. Now calculate how many years
You have lived in each of the following settings: city, town, village,
suburb, or countryside.

Looking at the timeline, decide what kind of setting you lived in
Most from ages infant to eighteen, and judge if you like that kind of
setting. Also, is there a place that has had a major impact on you?
As an adult, did you choose to live in a setting same or different
from what you had as a child? Are you happy in your current setting?
Why or why not?

Other tools that Israel offers include drawing mental maps and
going through self guided visualizations of favorite childhood places.

Israel applies her design therapist's eye to the selection
and furnishing of her own house in Princeton. She describes how
she and a team of architects from Witherspoon Street-based KSS Architects (including
Michael Shatkin, Merilee Meacock, and Peter Mattioni) applied her tools to designing a charter school
in Jersey City. Another chapter tells how she trained design
professionals in the Manhattan-based Mufson Group.

But what gives Israel's book its special eclat are the in-depth
interviews with celebrity architects. Interestingly, Israel was
turned down in her interview request by the likes of Denise Scott-Brown and Frank Gehry. Of the three who did agree, Andres Duany is a
New Urbanist planner who advocates "walkable" communities, Charles
Jencks is a noted critic, and Michael Graves is, of course,
Princeton's own reigning prince of Post Modernism, the
antithesis to look-alike big box buildings.

Though Graves is relaxed and accommodating to interviewers, he generally veers away from discussions of his personal life to focus on his work. But over the course of six hours Israel’s probing questions helped Graves to discover new insights about himself, and Graves' groupies will be fascinated by his candid replies. For instance, he tells of his grandmother's wonderfully creaky old Carpenter Gothic

"It was an extremely pleasant house -- made pleasant by my
grandmother. There was a pump in the kitchen, and dark, floral
wall paper. Always waiting for us the huge Thanksgiving-style dinner my
grandmother prepared. I can remember my grandmother telling us
stories, cooking. It was all very loving. The stories were all
about her family, and they were all true, though we didn't know that
until we grew up."

The most startling insight was that his visits to the Cleveland
stockyards, where his father, grandfather, and uncle worked, has
been a significant influence on his design for libraries in Venice, California, San Juan Capistrano and Denver, and even his own Princeton home.

His memories of the stockyards fall into the category of a
"transcendent place," not a place that represents family, love,
and affection, but a place remembered as "an unforgettable living
presence in itself, exciting all five senses and inspiring
exuberance, calm, or awe." Graves describes it:

"An exaggerated building with great elevated passageways all made
of wood which crisscrossed in the air, more like Piranesi though I
didn't know that at the time. It was not just the passageways, but
that you looked on the animals in their pens. There was a
character to it that I've never seen since.

"I talk about character a lot. I wasn't so aware of it when I was
in school. Now I'm more aware of what that experience meant; it
was dramatic. This was an exaggerated building. For me it was the
recognition of character. It affected how I later came to regard
Modernity -- particularly its lack of breadth.

"Understand that I'm from a place in the Midwest without much
culture, without much building," says Graves. He has no warm
feelings for the nondescript houses of the Indianapolis suburbs. "The library, the church were real buildings but they were so ordinary that you wouldn't think twice about them. The profundity of the stockyards was a result of its
contrast compared to my house, school, shopping center, etc."

Though the suburbs offered good streets for bicycling, but that was about all. “It had biases,” says Graves, “in that we didn't go to theater, exhibitions, galleries. We didn't travel. We weren't deprived. We just didn't do those things.”

The depth of his youthful naivete can be indicated by the fact that when he
went to architecture school in Cincinatti, he had never even heard
of Frank Lloyd Wright. When he went to Harvard for a master's
degree, he was the only one in the class who had never been to
Europe. And when he visited Rome at age 27, to spend two years at
the American Academy, it was a seminal experience. He describes it
as a return to his (non literal) roots. "Graves clearly
acknowledged his own development while in Rome," writes Israel.
"He was able to let go of Modernism's 'moralism' and let color
replace whiteness. In Rome, culture and conviviality joined hands
for Graves on both a personal and an architectural level."

A short teaching stint at Princeton University turned into a lifelong stay. Princeton offered the safe streets of the Indianapolis suburb, but it had more cultural opportunities.

"I liked it OK, but 30 years ago it was a different place. The
university wasn't co-ed. Nor was it as popular as it is today.
Since then, the explosion of everything in the immediate area has
brought a kind of roundness to the town's life which is quite satisfying.
It's a university town, a commercial center with a variety of people.
Princeton is like a small, contained city, but avoiding all the
negatives of a big city. It's a good base. In some ways it's like
Verona, rather insular yet manageable, though Princeton has
greater choices."

His house in Princeton is a former Princeton University warehouse used to store furniture. Israel compares the warehouse, which came with 44 long and narrow rooms, to the stockyards, with its line of narrow pens. Graves admitted there might be a connection, that he might have been subliminally attracted to the warehouse for that reason, but he is more enthusiastic about a different conclusion, that both the warehouse and the stockyards attracted him because they had character. Said Graves: “The interest in character , itself, is something I see as a distinguishing character of my work. If I were building a hotel in Egypt it doesn’t look like a hotel in Ohio. . .

He also thinks he was strongly influenced by his stay in Italy. When he found the warehouse it was in ruins but, says Grave, “had a certain integrity. It didn’t seem to be styled. I find out later why that character came through. It was built by Italian masons. They built it as a Tuscan warehouse, a Tuscan barn.”

When it comes to his struggle to make a house a home -- about the financial pressures Graves had when he was young, the collapse of two marriages (who was Lucy??), his current lack of leisure time, and his bachelor existence --- Graves goes into some detail,
wistfully admitting that his house never achieved the sense of conviviality that he remembered from his grandmother’s home.

Israel pointedly criticizes the lack of psychological training for today’s designers. In particular, she castigates Peter Eisenman for his design for the World Trade Center, office towers “which would appear to be collapsing – buckling at the news. If, in a moment of insanity, such buildings were actually to be built, they would enshrine and extend our trauma rather than heal the American psyche. How could designers come to propse such a disjuncture between people and place.”

For most of us, though, this book is a rich source of speculative conversation on one’s own environmental memories and those of one’s friends. It could certainly be a useful in making decisions on what houses to buy or how to decorate. Speaking of houses.. .

If the house on a hill was my husband's fond memory, mine was of a
childhood spent in an small farmhouse set close to its newer
neighbors on each side, and the farmhouse had an L-shaped porch, complete
with swing. Oh I loved to sit on that swing and watch the cars and
people pass. Every other house I've lived in since then has had a porch
of some kind.

Until we moved to the house on the hill. And several years after
We moved into the house on the hill, we built a deck on the front
That could pass for a porch. Now I know why. Now that I have "gone into
My storehouse of memory and retrieved the poetry of my Motionless
Childhood," I realize that I needed<$> that porch.

Does my current house, an aging Cape Cod where we have lived for
30 years, possess a porch? No, and to tell you the truth, I
Never really resonated with that house. So if you see trucks parked in
Front of it, and you see workmen digging footings on our front lawn,
you'll know that Design Psychology triumphed again.

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