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Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Old Houses are Still the Best Houses

"A building properly conceived is several layers of longevity of built components."

Francis Cuthbert "Frank" Duffy, architect

If you are about my age and had hippy, soixante-huitard parents, you may remember The Whole Earth Catalog published by Stewart Brand between 1968 and 1972.  I believe that a dusty copy is still to be found in my parent's library in Seattle along with Lorenzo Milam's Sex and Broadcasting.

It was completely by chance that I stumbled on a book Brand wrote back in the 1990's called How Buildings Learn:  What Happens After They're Built.

A delightful book.  In it he turns the whole business of architecture on its head.  Instead of thinking of building projects as an attempt to capture the perfect house, office space or monument, he looks at these projects as just the beginning of the building's life and he asks how they be constructed to last and to evolve over time.  A dynamic, as opposed to a static, process.  New eras, new owners, new uses.

Brand has a rather jaundiced view of architects and he quotes Marvin Minsky who said, "The problem with architects is that they think they're artists, and they're not very competent."  I'm not qualified to agree or disagree with that comment but Brand's examples of bad buildings (or ones that in retrospect haven't aged well)  are well chosen.  The Centre national d’art et de culture Georges-Pompidou (The Pompidou Center), for example, is one that when it opened in 1977 was a very impressive, exciting, modern structure.  Looking at it now in 2013, it  appears rather shabby and a bit dated.

Moving from monumental architecture to something a bit closer to everyday life (from art to craft, one might say) the best houses, he says, are old (or new) ones that start simple and are robust and built to last. He favors the "house as box" - a design that has been around forever and is still, in his view, a good one, "because it is profoundly adaptive."   Like the Saltbox which was a very simple U.S. style built between the 17th and 19th century. Or these two examples from my archives: an early 20th century stone house in Brittany, France and a small dwelling in our old neighborhood, Shirokanedai, in Tokyo, Japan:

Brittany, France

Tokyo, Japan

These are houses, "vernacular buildings", that can grow depending on the owner's wishes and needs.  They can be bumped out or up.   The "skin" can be changed and porches, verandas and extra rooms added.

It's not just the outside that can be changed but the inside, too.  The interior is very simple in these houses and is usually constructed with a corridor (or staircase) in the center with rooms on either side. "Let there be," says Brand, "a central passageway and stair hall, say, with roughly identical pairs of rooms on each side upstairs and down."

In the Brittany house, that is exactly what one finds:  a hallway with a very steep staircase and rooms (and stone fireplaces) on either side going up 2 floors.   The owners (my in-laws) didn't have to spend much to recuperate the attic space and turned it into bedrooms with windows and a small bathroom, thus making a four-bedroom vacation home out of a very basic two-bedroom fisherman's house. (House still doesn't have heat, though.)

Another good example is the house I live in now - a 1929 brick house that was previously owned by a laborer (a tiler by trade) and his wife.   We think there were remodels in the 1950's and in the 1970's. They clearly went down and dug out the basement to create a laundry room and bedrooms for their two sons.   Since water and sewer didn't start being installed on our street until 1929, we strongly suspect that what is the bathroom (salle de bains) today was something else when the house was first built.  Perhaps a second small bedroom for children or maybe the kitchen was bigger.

What we can see from the plan (and the size of the lot) there are an almost infinite number of changes inside and out that would be relatively inexpensive to make.  Not a lot of work frankly to make the kitchen larger, to grab the space that is today the front porch to make the living room bigger, or to tack a veranda onto what is called the salon in the plan. (Provided, of course that the architecte de la ville agrees.)

We are thinking about the last but we're taking our time.  The house was well-maintained for many years but the tiler's widow had to let some things slide and it seems prudent to tackle things like the leaking gutters, the rotten railings, and the peeling paint first.  Anything more complicated than that will have to wait because, to be honest, we have more will right now than wallet.

And that, according to Stewart Brand, is a Good Thing.  Why?

For one, Brand agrees with David Owen (The Walls Around Us) that all houses suffer a nervous breakdown when new owners move in.
"A few days after the deal is closed, water begins to drip from the chandelier in the living room, a heating pipe bursts, and the oven stops working.  The house is accustomed to being handled in certain ways.  Then, suddenly, strangers barge in.  They take longer showers, flush the toilets more forcefully, turn on the trash compactor with the right hand instead of the left, and open windows at night.  Familiar domestic rhythms are destroyed.  While the house struggles to adjust, many expensive items...unexpectedly self-destruct.  Then, gradually, new rhythms are established, the house resigns itself to the change of ownership, and a normal pace of deterioration is restored."
For another, Brand argues that the enemy of good preservation and prudent remodeling is money.

"Form follows funding."

Too much money and the owners do tout et n'importe quoi.  They indulge their fantasies and the results are often quite ugly, impractical, inflexible, and go out of style in just a few short years. These then become the nightmares of future owners who say to themselves, "What were they thinking?"  Too little money means that basic maintenance isn't done and the house suffers serious structural damage that new owners must try desperately to fix.

Music to my ears since that describes us perfectly (at least until the Frenchlings finish university). And here I was feeling guilty because there is so much to do and there just isn't any way we can do it all right now.

I'll buy Brand's argument that makes a virtue out of a necessity.  Fantasies cost nothing and,  “if dreams were thunder and lightning was desire, this old house would have burned down a long time ago.” (John Prine).

And if you're interested Steward Brand did a How Buildings Learn series for the BBC in 1997 which is up on Youtube.  Very well done and you can learn more about what he really thinks of the Pompidou Center:


Blaze said...

I'm showing my age. I read the Whole Earth Catalogue--along with almost everyone else of my generation.

Writing about old houses makes me long for the 1925 home (center hall plan with the corridor down the middle) with all its charm and character that I sold last year.

Then, I remember all the bills and headaches for maintaining a charming old home and I'm grateful for my carefree condo.

Hmmm. What would Whole Earth say about that? Well, it's eco-friendly. I have been here since last April and I have not yet turned on my heat. I just closed my windows on those days when it was -28 celsius and I stayed toasty warm. So, I think Whole Earth might approve.

I wonder what happened to the author.

Catherine said...

This post brings a whole new perspective on the home for me. Fascinating. And, he makes a great deal of sense with his discussion - your translation of that - on the change and practicality of buildings. Thanks for such a good read!

Allou said...

Steve Jobs described The Whole Earth Catalog as Google in paper, which seems very apt. I recall once having a copy, I believe there were some published well into the 1980s and we could get them in Europe too!

Victoria FERAUGE said...

I was thinking the same thing, Blaze. Say "Whole Earth Catalog" to the Frenchlings and they give you a blank stare.

Apartments are more eco-friendly. Still, for now I'm still under the enchantment of owning for the very first time, my own house.

@Catherine, Me too. The part about the house having a nervous breakdown? Absolutely. When we moved in pipes started gurgling (because had intalled a dishwasher) and the ceiling and walls are cracking in a few places (because of the wood stove).

@Allou, You're right there were some published after 1972. I'm not sure if Brand was still involved or if it was someone else.

Blaze said...

Victoria: I think Whole Earth Catalog would also draw blank stares from most people under 50 in North America.

Here's what happened to the author. He's 75 and has lived on a 1912 tugboat with his wife since 1962 52 years!).

One of his favorite items is a table on which (it is said) Otis Redding wrote Sittin' On The Dock Of The Bay.

Stewart Brand has established several organizations. His most recent book Whole Earth Discipline: An Ecopragmatist Manifesto was published in 2009.

I think Stewart Brand would be thrilled someone like you in your house with soul in France is citing his work--even if the Frenchlings give you a blank look about it.