Who's in Charge Here?
Every idea, no matter how huge and amazing it may seem, is just another meaningless, fleeting thought until you take the tools to it. Tools realize possibilities and impose limits. Tools make things real. And this means tools have a lot to say -- maybe more than we realize -- about what we ultimately make out of our ideas.
Above are two recent design projects. One is an addition (done for the wonderful Feldmeier Galyean) to a traditional Bayou St. John house. The other is new house I designed around the same time. The projects are in different neighborhoods with different clients, of course, but they are both still houses, both in New Orleans, both in the same phase of design, and both on restrictive sites. They use the same materials, are in the same climate, in the same price range, and they were developed by some of the same hands. And yet they turned out to be very, very different. Why? Here's one possibility: the more traditional design was created and drawn in the traditional way, with lines. The less traditional design wasn't drawn at all, but designed and built entirely within a 3D model, in a Building Information Management program called Revit. As I work, the different tools show me things from different perspectives, they force me to make design decisions in a different order, and they allow me to see materials and forms, quite literally, in a different light. This has to have a huge impact on the resulting product. I have to wonder what would have happened if I had swapped the tools used to realize these little projects. And to wonder if we get stuck in our processes sometimes because we're reluctant to pick up a new tool.
A good building is more than a shelter or a sculpture - its an experience. And like a good story, it reveals itself slowly and methodically, with twists and expectations and comfort and surprises and little moments of delight. This experiential quality is the thing that makes a building great, that makes it feel alive. Because it' s not just helping to tell your story, it's helping to write it. It's true for a church or an office tower or a bus station or a home.
Chapter 1 - A Stranger
It all began, as it should, with a gate, the gap in the fence that separates you from 7 billion strangers. They're out there, and you're in here. Just inside the gate, inside the fence that describes your little piece of the planet, everything changes. The sidewalk changes, often breaking apart into colored stones. No longer subscribing to the hard municipal right angles, it twists in gentle curves that suggest that you slow the pace. Some numbers on the house announce the official, legal, one-of-a-kind designation so we can all can make sure we're in the right place. And a little garden softens the collision. It's nature, but not natural. Yes, there are plants that grow naturally, but they're arranged in an unnatural way. In the wild, plants don't congregate by height or align themselves in rows. This isn't the natural world, your garden insists, it's your Front Yard, where you clearly exert control over everything, even the plants. You garden whispers some hints about what kind of place, exactly, someone is getting into on this side of the fence. A box hedge could suggest a desire for order, where a loose collection of colorful flowers and stalks could reveal a little playfulness. A sand garden might signal that you have a more spiritual sensibility. Or that you hope to. But these are all just greetings, an open, but limited invitation laid out for the whole world to see. Almost anyone is allowed in your Front Yard. A kid chasing a ball. The meter reader. But it's on a limited basis. This is not a public park. Even if there is a bench next to that bird feeder, it's understood to be strictly decorative. No hanging around. You've entered someone else's world and you're either going right back out, or you're venturing further in.
Chapter 2 - The Man at the Door
If someone continues through the Front Yard, the path will deposit them at a small set of steps at the edge of the Porch. The Porch is raised, if it's a good one, and not just to avoid a flood. A Porch, like a stage or a temple, elevates the occupants just a little bit above the plane of the ordinary. A guy who steps up here is brought to a new level - floor level. This means that, having risen to your level, he has business to conduct, in person, with you. So, the Porch greets him with shelter and shade, welcoming him with a single warm light and a mat set out to make sure he knows where to go. But The Porch won't take care of him. It offers no heat or air conditioning, no protection from the wind. He's still Out There. So, taking his place on the mat, he'll face the Front Door.
The Front Door is always the heaviest, widest and most decorative door in the whole place. And it's full of mixed messages. Half solid wood (stay out), but half clear glass (look in here). There's a friendly little decorative plaque (welcome!), but also a lock, a deadbolt, and a chain (I said to stay out!). A scowling surveillance camera is perched above, while, below, a cheery door chime waits to be rung. It's a complicated situation because a complicated thing happens on The Porch - the sorting. Sure, the pizza guy will climb the porch because he does, indeed, have business with you. But it's not personal business. The Porch will let you and the pizza guy carry out your transaction in full view of the whole world and then send him on his way, still a stranger. But if he makes it past The Porch and through the skeptical Front Door, he'll become someone else.
Chapter 3 - A Quick Decision
Entering the Foyer, he becomes known. Or at least specific. No longer just the pizza guy, The Foyer dubs him That Pizza Guy. That Pizza Guy who came inside that time. Unlike all previous pizza guys, you'll remember him. You'd recognize him in the grocery, but you wouldn't talk to him. You don't even know him. And you won't get to know him here. The Foyer isn't a room where you get to know someone, it's a transition, a place between places, strictly for comings and goings. To spur you on, the car keys wait eagerly on the hooks, umbrellas and coats stand at the ready, and the mirror says you look fine, please continue. The whole room is applying pressure, telling you to keep moving. It's too small to hang around in. There isn't even a place to sit. And now That Pizza Guy is standing here and the room seems to be getting even smaller, insisting that you judge this person. Now. Forced so close together, in the nice light reflected by the mirror, you can really see That Pizza Guy's eyes. And there's no fence nor door nor threshold between the two of you. Suddenly he's a person and you are forced to form an opinion of him. He has just enough time to flash a crooked smile and say one funny thing before his Foyer time expires. And in that awkward instant, as the Foyer demands, you make the call and gesture him further inside.
Chapter 4 - Adjacent
The Living Room insists on decorum. You quickly introduce yourself because you know full well that people in Living Rooms are always at least acquaintances and acquaintances always know each other's names. That Pizza Guy is now Charles. And in order to welcome Charles an acquaintance, the Living Room begins to acquaint him. It shows him some photos, giving him a brief history of your life to date, letting him know a little something about your siblings and your parents and your love of the outdoors. It might be fibbing just a little to make a good impression. The art and furniture, though, tend to tell the truth about you, or at least how you see yourself. And since becoming acquainted takes time, the Living Room provides lots of comfortable places to sit. Even the table, being a coffee table, is low to the ground, encouraging you and Charles to have a seat. And so you do. But the Living Room won't let you get too personal. Not yet. Like a cautious parent, it creates a little distance. It re-directs you, focusing your attention away from each other and toward some big distraction at the periphery, a TV or a fireplace. Even the furniture pitches in, keeping you at right angles to one another, not quite face to face. The low table, the one that offered you a seat, is comfortable with you sharing a drink (it is, after all, called a Coffee Table), but it will make things awkward for a meal. So, you and Charles do as you're told, sharing a drink and a fire and some conversation, sitting comfortably upright, ninety degrees to one another, at a reasonable distance. And, thanks to the Living Room's array of conversation starters, you have discovered a shared interest in snow skiing and kitsch. But now Charles has to know where he stands. So he stands. This is a test. If he's to remain an acquaintance, he will be directed back to the foyer, which will return his keys and coat and send him on his way. But, if he's to become something more, it'll require heading forward, with your permission.
Chapter 5 - We Come Face to Face
Unlike the chaperoning Living Room, the Dining Room insists on intimacy, gathering your attention from the edges and focusing it all inward. There's a central spotlight over a central table in the dead center of the room. The chairs crowd around this focal point and plant you right across from each other, face to face at last. The windows have moved from the front to the side yard, offering a little more privacy. The table, long and high, conjures up a meal. As the food is shared, so is time and laughter. And so are stories. In the flattering light, gazes are held, and guards are dropped. Charles would never lean back in the Living Room chairs, but he leans back, fully relaxed, in the Dining Room chairs. The makers of chairs know this will happen and build dining chairs accordingly. Through the ritual of a meal, Charles has now been transformed into Charlie, forever changed from acquaintance to friend. But not a close friend. Not yet. He's not in your gang. Hell, your boss has been in the Dining Room and while it definitely made him friendlier, that's as far as it's ever going to go. No, if Charlie's going to become one of your best friends, he'll have to spend some time, as best friends always do, in the Kitchen.
Chapter 6 - The Clubhouse
The Kitchen is the clubhouse. Formality is not allowed. The table is pulled from between you and the lights are turned up. The artwork has left the hands of the artists and landed in the hands of the occupants, leaping from frames to hang at odd angles all over the fridge. Even the food has stopped putting on airs. Unconcerned with fancy plates, it lays about in pots and piles of ingredients, an unapologetic mess. This is where Charlie passes or fails the entrance into your inner circle, who gathers here to judge him. No longer hosts and guests, you behave in ways you would never consider in the Dining Room. You eat out of jars, stick your fingers into each other’s food, offer bites on outstretched forks and sips from bottles. In here, even your germs are pals. And at some point, Chibbles, which is what you call him now based on some new inside joke, hops up and sits right on the counter. It's like he's planting a flag. Who but one of your very closest friends would put his butt right on the counter where you prepare your food?! Yes, the initiation is complete and old Chibbie is in! He has a lifetime invitation to all the previously listed rooms. In fact, from now on he can bypass those rooms entirely and enter via the secret clubhouse door around back. He'll step right in and make himself at home. But this isn't his home. There are still deeper layers of the house where even he won't go.
Chapter 7 - Not so Fast, Buddy
There are often doors between the Porch, the Foyer, the Dining Room, and the Kitchen. But there’s an entire corridor separating that semi-public world from the very private core of the house. The Hallway is the DMZ between those worlds. Nothing even happens in here. It's just a buffer, a long narrow gap of windowless, unfurnished space, often decorated with pictures of people who are no longer alive. In the Hallway, we're all just passing through. That's why it's shaped like a road or a tunnel. It's not there to link your public and private worlds, it's there to separate them. The longer, the better. Even Chibbie doesn't belong in the hallway unaccompanied. It's so intentionally awkward, the Hallway requires permission or, at least acknowledgement, upon entry. “I’m just going to get my coat!” Mr Chibs might shout. Or, “I’ll be right back.” Or, if he's looking for someone, “Is Eileen back there?” No other room requires an excuse to enter. But the Hallway is the conduit into one of the most intimate places in the world. And The Chibblette isn't there yet. In fairness, almost no one is.
Chapter 8 - A World for Two
In adulthood, many of your closest friends have never even seen your Bedroom. And you've never seen theirs. Tucked deep into the house, you don't just happen by the Bedroom on the way to some other room. It's hidden behind the last door, down at the dead end of the Hallway, a private destination with a maximum occupancy of two. There's closet space for two and a bed that's large enough for two. Even the windows have been carefully placed, and their sill heights adjusted, to allow room for exactly two dressers. If The Chibbster ever makes it in here, you'll call him something even worse, a secret name, something silly and embarrassing. "Sweetheart", maybe. Or even Charles. Because you can say anything in here. You can even scream. For all of its comforts, this room is a fortress. It isolates and protects you when you are most vulnerable – naked, asleep, crying, making love. There's a lock on the door. Thick curtains block out light and the fluffy bedclothes and extra pillows muffle sound. Your secrets are told here. Your fights happen here. Your marriage is broken here and repaired here. In this room, your indiscretions remain discreet. It’s so private that if your very best friend is in your bedroom, it’s likely they are helping you dress for something special or that someone has died. There is only one room more intimate.
Chapter 9 - Ablution
In the Bath, you're hidden from everyone, even your beloved Charles. Here, you are as far as you can be from the public world, protected by a labyrinth of rooms and walls and doors, alone with your biology. The window is high and small. It lets in light, but not view. The surfaces are hard because the Bath knows things will get messy and need to be cleaned. Complex, hidden systems move water and air to whisk away the things you no longer need. There are bright lights and mirrors allowing you to examine yourself with brutal, clinical scrutiny. Tucked behind one of the mirrors is a shallow cabinet where you can hide the medicines nobody knows you take. Not even your ego accompanies you here as you drop your delusions and become your unadorned self - noisy and hairy and plain. And only here, after being reduced to your most elemental form, can you begin the transition back into the world, exiting the warm water, preparing your hair and skin and teeth to go back through the layers, changing again from individual, to partner, to family, to friend, to acquaintance, to neighbor. Then, beyond the gate, to stranger.