Metaphors are dangerous. “Dumb as a post” makes sense, “Dark as Egypt” not so much.
Using the familiar to pry open understanding of the unfamiliar, clarify meaning with imagery or simply making words sing with poetic allusion can seduce writers and readers alike. But like wrecking a stew with random inspiration, words intended to delight and reveal can simply confuse.
Homes are so important and familiar that metaphors used in their description may seem forced. But where we live is so central to our lives we seek inspiration and clarity at every opportunity. HOUZZ has over 16,000,000 unique visitors a month: sometimes 1,000,000 a day: far greater than almost all television programming.
I have designed about 500 built homes. I have seen the sausage being made: the gritty realities of subsoil, zoning codes and bills that kill the buzz of building. I have also seen the gut level ecstasy of making beauty and reflecting your values in the one possession that protects and projects you in the world.
Grounding expectation in perspective is why I write: but I also type this to reveal the reasons for the joy humans have when we feel our homes both nurture and reward hope with tangible benefits.
To that end I offer up a very simple metaphor: the home as body. We live within our skin, but we also live in a skin we build: our house. At the risk over overplaying it, the connections are real, and understandable – we design and build the metaphor – it’s not coincidence we can see ourselves in our homes: its natural.
Our front facades get morphed into faces, our garages feel like engorging/excreting portals of necessary ugliness, trim and ornament are jewelry: but the simple truths of our bods and our pads are inextricably cross-referenced:
SITE AS BONES. We can lose weight, grow or cut hair, get tattoos, or get ripped in the gym – but beneath the cosmetics are things we cannot change: our bones. We can paint our house, garden it into bucolic splendor or design a new or expanded home to fulfill every fantasy: but where all this happens never changes beyond some simple grading: the climate, views, and neighborhood are as defined as your hips or shins. Trying to design a site into your preconceptions is like wearing lifts to get height: faking is not making. Of course, the structure of a home supports it – like our bones support us – but we can change that to create space: you cannot add a few inches to your limbs to play in the NBA.
WALLS AS SKIN. A good tan can add glam (and melanoma) – but it cannot lose the 27 pounds that put you beyond fashion model status. Layering over your house with new trim, siding or paint makes gloss, but not shape: like your skin, you can buff it, but you cannot become buff by rethinking the last layer of a shape.
WINDOWS AS EYES. You cannot see where you have no vision: “eyes in the back of your head” is wishful thinking: if you want to see the world, it has to be thru a lens – either eyeball or plate glass. If what you can see is what you wish to avoid, sunglasses help, but closing your lids is the only way to not countenance what’s there: closing off windows to the ugly and opening walls to beauty is as simple as turning your head and opening your eyes to see.
MOUTH AS ENTRY. Letting food and air in sustains life in us. Getting into a home is its reason for being. Wide open may encourage unwanted access, a clenched jaw means starvation. Our front doors can be a beckoning smile or daunting frown. Letting in can be delightful or threatening – but we control that: and we can control how we offer up our homes to access.
ROOMS AS FLESH. We create space, we make our own shape. Rooms can be big, or not exist: we can engorge and bloat or diet and shrink. We can make density of storage to compact our homes like a ripped set of abs, or we can let ourselves go, wear sweat pants and let our objects make every space smaller – it’s our choice.
There are infinitely more metaphors: but it can get a bit forced: THE ALIMENTARY/STOMACH/INTESTINE AS ENTRY/HALL/STAIR. But all our homes have realities we are often blind to: familiarity may breed blindness, but a little metaphoric allusion can, dare I say, turn the lights on.
The outdoor chapel at Incarnation Camp in Ivoryton, CT
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In Behind the Walls: The Not So Tiny House Movement (Part 1)
In New Haven Register: Quarantining Architecture
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In New Haven Magazine: Back Yard Forward
In New Haven Register: Ultimate Gesture of Architectural Modesty is a Buried Building
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In River & Shore’s Coastal Homes: Boy Was It Worth It
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In The New Haven Register: Ultimate Gesture of Architectural Modesty Is Buried Building
In The New Haven Register: Yale’s Evans Hall: Overdressed for Success
In New Haven Magazine: Cubed
In New Haven Magazine: Finding Design
In The New Haven Register: Pearl Harbor Bridge in New Haven Extension of Greatest Generation’s Legacy
In Hartford Faith & Values: An Elevator on Orchard Street
In The New Haven Register: Are Neighbors More Neighborly when there is Greater Density?
In New Haven Magazine: Lawyers In Love
In New Haven Magazine: A House of Homes
In The Source: Duo Dickinson, Architect at Large
In River & Shore’s Coastal Homes: On the Indian River
In The New Haven Register: Aesthetically inconvenient Mudd Library faces death sentence
In Connecticut Magazine: Elements of Surprise
In The New Haven Register: Real Icons Aplenty in New Haven
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In Design Bureau: Steve & Frank
Archive: Real Life Survival Guide
On Common Ground with Annette Ross: She asked “Where is Architecture?”, I answered
On HGTV: Mercedes Home Diaries Password: mercedes
On Home Page, Binnie Klein & I debut our new radio show. Listen here!
On A Miniature World, Binnie Klein & I discuss springtime striving, mislaid spirituality & the folly of architectural terms. Listen here!
60 panes of donated stained glass set into a mansion when it became the HQ for a mainline Protestant church are repurposed in its new office: a revived site of a ball bearing factory in a challenged urban environment: the story is recounted in Berkeley’s architecture journal, ROOM ONE THOUSAND:
THANKSGIVING! LIVE! NOON! on Home Page: : WHAT THE PURITANS FOUND: Native American Domestic Life Comes To Dinner WPKN 89.5FM in Ct or LI or http://www.pkn.org ANYWHERE!
Guests Don Rankin and Allan Saunders tell the truth about what was here before cranberry sauce, tryptophan and NFL football came to define our national Feast Day.
The Smart Phone Epidemic has spawned the Selfie. Everyone has a face. Some feel their faces project who they are. But none of us, not even Michael Jackson or Joan Rivers, created the gist of our visage.
It’s the one original piece of art every human has been given – by billions of genetic coincidences. In a marvelous verification of the the meaninglessness of the Selfie act, Kim Kardashian claims to have coined the genre in a book of them, perfectly named “Selfish”.
Given the lack of thought and meaning that are the bedrock virtues of Selfie creation, having Kardashian as its architect is a perfect unity of vessel and content. Intention and reality are always distinct, but wishful thinking has created entire industries: fashion, make-up, Instagram…
Very few of us has the devotion to anything that Kim has to Selfies: and in truth the vast majority of those who focus a camera on themselves are just being a little narcissistic, not venal or brain dead: but the desire to find meaning in the meaningless, value in the effortless, or beauty in coincidence is universal.
Although I am not great at finding the herd comforting (I have never owned sunglasses, blue jeans or built flat roofed buildings) I have taken photo’s of photo’s of myself: but never a literal Selfie.
It’s not the freezing of a moment, an angle, a place, a space and a sensibility that make Selfies so sad, – all 2 dimensional art does that. The sadness lies within the hope that those creating them have revealed beauty by simply taking them. You choose what to wear, what make-up is on what feature, what tatt is on what body part: but does that control or create who you are? Does it even reflect what you are – or rather what you wish to be?
The good news is the “Delete” button allows for complete control of who sees what aspect of who you want to be. Unlike losing an election or a game or getting fired, there can be infinite do-overs in the coining of a Selfie. Believing in anything outside your direct control has problems: voters, the other team and your boss have authority over the realities politicians, athletes and employees have signed on for. Unfortunately built buildings get few do-overs. Boston’s new City Hall was to be a 1960’s hip affirmation that Beantown could be cutting edge: it proved some architecture can be almost perfectly wrong, and it yet abides in the belly of the town.
I design buildings for a living, and in helping families and institutions reveal themselves to the world in the values they build around them, I have been part of about 700 journeys meshing aesthetics and humans and the world.
In seeing the sausage being intimately ground into being, meshing high intent with low limits and facilitations, I know the simple truth that Art is more Religion than Law. Architecture is, as Goethe mused, frozen Music – and Music is not Law. Religion and Music and Art may give each life joy and meaning, but you cannot eat or heat your home with them.
The vessel of art often has no relationship to its realized contents: an artist’s intent can have nothing to do with the creation that flows out of his or her hand. The fact that there is no factual foundation under architecture’s aesthetic feet means the Boston’s City Hall is exquisitely beautiful to someone. Who I have yet to meet.
In truth, vessel/content confusion often has nothing to do with aesthetics. I am the Properties Chair at a 200 year old building of great cultural gravitas and sentimental power I am tasked with keeping its precious fabric from unravelling, and sometimes making it better than its original weave allowed. But when a lightning bolt hit its classic Anglican tower top, and blew up a finial, many expressed terror at the thought of losing the building. Being almost 60 I felt free to say, factually, that if the building burned down tomorrow, it would not be tragic. My fellow Episcopalians were not a little shocked: as they were naturally confusing the vessel with its contents.
It would be sad to lose the embodied history of that building, its sad to grow old, it’s sad when the Giants lose: but tragedy, for me, is irretrievable loss. Buildings are built every day. I have no choice but to be near 60. The Giants will play again.
We can lose the 658 Selfies to publish the one we like – but those undelivered bytes are not tragically lost. In grinding so much aesthetic sausage into deeply meaningful expressions of human devotion – the buildings I design – I know that their beauty is only facilitated by aesthetics, not created by it.
It’s the Faith of its parish that is the beauty of a place of Worship, its the raw exploding devotion of love and belief that make sports compelling, not the winning, it’s the direct neural connection of notes and rhythm that makes music grab our guts: The Styles of these Things are Meaningless.
The vessel of what we are has nothing to do with what’s inside it: if the two harmonize, like Selfies and Kardashians, its a lyric coincidence not a cause and effect. Mother Teresa ‘s vessel was not her beauty: its content was, as are the thoughts of Steven Hawking or the resolve of Churchill. I do not think those folk thought the way they looked mattered, because they saw the beauty in what they could do.
The tragedy of irretrievable loss extends the the billions who so firmly believe they have lost any chance at doing beauty that they focus on trying to snapshot it into being. a tee shirt for devotion, a quarter in the Salvation Army pot, a Tweet for a cause, or just watching a TV show with feeling.
We are not responsible for our faces: our hair gets cut, our BMI fluctuates, stuff can be injected, painted or powdered on the veneer it, but just as parents have no genius in spawning a beautiful baby, we are given the face we have. It’s crazy to be proud of a gift: no earning was part of its bestowing. It’s equally nuts to be ashamed of something that was imposed on us. My bald spot is not my fault.
When a Selfie is made, its all about the maker: when beauty is made it locks into something beyond the maker.
I wish I knew what that is. It would make my job a lot easier.