A Clearing in the Forest
For generations, the family of Lemuel Fox tilled an east-facing hillside in the Shenandoah Mountains and grew corn there. They ceased farming here in the 1930s. This is their family cemetery. Its walls are made of stones uncovered by Mr. Fox and his grandsons when they plowed the fields.
Originally the Fox Cemetery was on open hillside, shaded by a lone cherry tree. Now a forest has overgrown the cherry tree and the cemetery. A few flowers the family planted in the enclosure survive and bloom in April; native orchids bloom in
the hillside forest where corn once grew.
Few of us can have a final resting site so personal and grounded as Lemuel Fox. His grave reminds us of a remark written in 1874 by an English novelist: “…for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.” ― George Eliot, Middlemarch: A Study of Provincial Life
A Luncheon under the Linden Trees
I’ve noticed that many people park their cars backwards these days. Landscape architects say they’re having to reconfigure parking lots as a result. Why do people back into parking spaces? Are they thinking of leaving as soon as they get there?
I had lunch recently where no one thought of leaving. We were friends gathered to celebrate a wedding anniversary. We dined on the terrace of the Auberge des
Tilleuls, an old French farmhouse in Grambois, Provence. Linden trees shaded its plaster walls and dappled the linen tablecloth with shadows.
The waiter was invisibly attentive, as is the French custom. We dined for two hours. Some of the wine we drank was made from a nearby vineyard, and as we
drank tractors pulling wagons filled with red grapes glided past. Children leaving school rode by on scooters and bicycles.
How is it that the French will travel 50 miles to have lunch in a restaurant in a small Provençal village? The French writer Michèle Fitoussi said that her compatriots “have a keen sense of the brevity of time and the immediacy of pleasure.”
On this afternoon there was a faint smell of smoke from leaves burning somewhere in the distance. It was early fall.
When we left, I noticed there were no cars parked backwards in the parking lot.
City Life in London
In London payday is the last Friday of the month, when groups of people gather at pubs at 5p.m. to celebrate. Here is a group at the Blue Posts Pub on Berwick Street in Soho. Despite their rather somber black clothing, this is a happy crowd of drinkers, their plastic beer glasses parked on the granite curb as hands gesticulate or punch out text messages.
On this fine evening in May there are many seats inside the pub because everyone wanted to stand outdoors. Not far away another pub has a crowd, and the sound of laughter echoes down the street. One can bicycle through London on a Friday
evening such as this and pass dozens of open air impromptu festivals at pubs along the way.
There’s not much traffic noise because London has a daily tax on automobiles in the central city, greatly reducing air pollution. This has returned much of London to its primary role as a place for people to exchange ideas, services and to share to a pint with friends.
One thing they have to celebrate is a civilized city.
The Promise of Function
It’s been estimated that architects design only three percent of American buildings. Here’s one of the 97 percent, designed by a boat builder for a workshop on Mill Creek in Deltaville, Virginia. It’s foursquare, made of wood and tin, and will never need a speck of paint.
Someone may object and say that America needs big buildings, not small ones. Yet there are graceful aircraft hangars and shipyards and steel mills that are larger than most buildings and a dirigible hangar near Edenton, North Carolina could be a cathedral. The beauty of these buildings comes from a strict adherence to purpose, what the American sculptor Horatio Greenough defined as “the promise of function.”
That brings me back to this workshop’s function. The windows provide good light by which to work, the doors open for ventilation, and the loft provides storage – all arranged symmetrically like a well-trimmed sailboat. Buildings like this are the salted nuts of American architecture.
“There are more salted nuts consumed than caviar,” Mickey Spillane said. Spillane was describing his crime novels. But he could have been describing structures like this boat house.
The Stupid House
The future has arrived for smart houses. With an iPad we can set the temperature down to 70 degrees, dim the lights and lower the shades. We can seal out the weather – and the world. But does this make us feel better? Beyond a lower electricity bill, do smart houses make us any happier?
I think it’s time to consider the not-so-smart house. Take this house in Charleston, South Carolina for example. It’s known as a Charleston Single. Singles were built for two hundred years using the following principles:
- Make the house face south or southeast.
- Make the house one room deep (the single) so that every room gets daylight on two and sometimes three sides. Open the windows and get cross ventilation.
- Use high ceilings so that light can penetrate deeply, and so that cooler air collects at the floor.
- Add porches.
The Charleston Single, treasured today, shows us that orientation and building mass can contribute far more to happiness than all the technical gizmos in an Amazon warehouse.
It’s the porches, stupid.
Thinking Large, Building Small
In a world that rewards size, Seattle architect Tom Kundig likes to build small. He designs modest houses to be made of steel plate as thick as your finger and concrete you could sharpen a knife on. The physical immediacy of his buildings is like biting into a lemon.
Kundig designed the entire wall of this Idaho vacation house to pivot and open to the sky. Its hand-powered gizmo is so efficient the owner’s eight-year-old daughter can use it to lift the two-ton wall. A gesture like this would go unnoticed in an airplane hangar. In a small house, it is sensational.
There is a history of small buildings that have an influence greater than their size, for example: Thorncrown Chapel in Arkansas by Fay Jones, the Magney House in Australia by Glenn Murcutt, and the Pilgrimage Chapel at Ronchamps, France, by Le Corbusier. Each has inspired architects to rethink building.
Building small doesn’t guarantee great architecture, but it doesn’t prevent it, either.