Sunday, 18 March 2018

thinking about houses


18 months ago I bought a house without Maria seeing it. Here is part of the story of why I did so, why I have never regretted it and what happened next.

For more than 20 years of our adult lives we lived in a cul-de-sac in Brunswick. We bought the house we could afford, a brick veneer with ugly yellow bottle glass doors, gaudy chandeliers and many other southern European features. They were fabulous years and we loved living there. But we didn't love the house. We chose it for function not form.

Over the years we did our best, with our limited budget, to make it our own. We could afford to do very little in the early days but we chipped away ... we removed the rusted old Hills hoist, with the help of a couple of mates I laid a slab and put up a garden shed. I made a (very shoddy) chook run and shed (it was Brunswick after all). We painted inside. We were lucky that the house was very functional; the kitchen had stuff in the right place and we had a massive family room with lots of flexibility. After about 10 years we could afford to start fixing the un-permitted dodgy renovations of the previous owner (bless him and his mates) and doing more substantial improvements; we ripped up the old brown carpet and polished the floor boards. We rebuilt the bathroom and the kitchen.

Then a few years later we completely cleared the backyard and designed our little corner of suburban paradise. And then later still the front yard got the same treatment. It was hardly recognisable from the house we moved into, and we felt much better about it than we had 20 years earlier.

The walls and floors held the stories of our growing family. Every year or so, I'd walk through the house from front to back taking video to record that point in time, an un-sanitised memory of messy bedrooms and daily activity. It was the home our family will always remember. We will forever tell stories of things that happened there.

But we knew we would not be there forever and I used to regularly make a promise I could not be certain of delivering on ... that one day we would have a house Maria really liked. We fantasised about where it would be and what kind of place it would be. Like so many discussion about dream houses, we considered location, and the kind of lifestyle it would facilitate. But there was another stream of thought for me. It was design.

For as long as I can remember I have been drawn to good design. I did not have a language for it in the early days. At school I loved the creativity of art (especially surrealist painting) and the detailed precision of technical drawing (especially drafting). And I was intoxicated by the beauty of patterns in mathematics; once I understood the patterns I created massive Pascals triangles to solve binomial expansions and drew huge magic squares marvelling at the symmetry and cleverness - just because I could. I found the intrinsic 'rightness' of the Golden Ratio fascinating (eg. think A4 - which has an overarching design principle compared with the awkwardness of US letter sizing) and I marvelled at how Fibonacci sequences occurred in nature (the shape of shells for example).

And I have always been a 'people person'. I had an early intuition and then later came to understand the sociological and psychological principles that governed the way people interacted; with others and their environment. Put these two interests and inclinations together and I now appreciate why I was curious about how buildings worked. As a child I knew some houses I visited 'worked', and others did not, and I sensed it was more than the personalities of the people. I wondered about why hospitals made me feel disconnected from the people in them and I knew that the way I encountered churches with bench seats all facing the front had a profound affect on the way people engaged with each other. I know now that the towns I liked, I liked because of their design and how they belonged (or otherwise) in the landscape. (Sheffield worked but Burnie didn't.)

But it wasn't until much later in life I began to discover the rich thinking of people-centred design. The Architecture of Happiness was an intelligence explosion in my head. Then, about 8 years ago, based on an off handed comment by someone I didn't know on the other side of the world, I chased down a copy of Christopher Alexander's classic A Pattern Language. Even though it was written back in the 1970's I had a strong sense it would be a significant book for me. The fact it was so hard to get in Melbourne at the time reinforced my excitement when it finally arrived. It far exceeded my expectations and I will now always see the world with the wisdom I gleaned (and continue to glean) from it.

I had never imagined such a field of knowledge even existed. How could I have been robbed of this for so long? Alexander and his colleagues had developed a set of patterns (253 to be precise) that govern how people interact in and with their environment. These 253 patterns are applied to design problems that range from how to distribute towns in a country, to where to put a window on a staircase. 

I am not an architect so I don't get to apply these directly in my work. Rather, I am curious to peel back the layers on why certain lounge rooms or cafes or playgrounds or carparks or towns or gardens  or workspaces 'work'. And why is it when I put furniture this way rather than that, or put the bookcase perpendicular to the window or parallel it seems to make a substantial difference. For me it's the code. It's the science to go with the art of design.

So when we began looking for the house we anticipated would be the one we'd live in for our 50s and 60s, design was an important consideration. Firstly as a structure / an infrastructure for our home life. And secondly, I knew that we had an opportunity to furnish it meaningfully. Maybe I could come good on the promise afterall.

I still pinch myself when I realise how lucky we were to find this place. Whoever designed this little house knew what they were doing. Lines of sight; window height and placement; corners, nooks; thoroughfares; ceiling height variations; textures; public and private space transitions; .... Before we made the offer, I had been inside for two visits totalling about 15 minutes. But I knew. It was superbly constructed and facilitated all the emotional reactions that I knew I wanted in a home. It was designed for hospitality and communion. It was warm and inviting but had distinct areas for more private living. The inside/outside transition worked well at multiple instances. I had zero doubt Maria would love it too.

In the months leading up to our move I had a copy of The Monocle Guide to Cosy Homes on our coffee table. I would pick it up and browse it randomly, infusing my mind with good design thoughts. And so when we moved in we set about making this well designed house into a home that is infused with meaning and homeliness. We have not built a dream home in the 'Grand Designs' sense of it. But we have been lucky enough to find a place that is an exceptionally good container for our lifestyle and desires.

I have come to love so much about living in these spaces. We have been intentional about little things and continued our commitment to give away or recycle anything that doesn't add something of value. Every bit of furniture has a story, Every piece of art or print on the walls has meaning. And now that we are a year into calling this home, the stories of being within these walls are beginning to accumulate. And so for my own satisfaction, as a disciple of thankfulness, I intend to write a series of posts with little snapshots of what I enjoy about our little home. 

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