Available at: Amazon
A book about Michael Pollan’s desire to build a small writing hut of his own, the book goes through the process from start to finish, from design to completion.
As someone who’s dreamed about building a cabin for myself, I thoroughly enjoyed the book. Pollan’s writing is beautiful, witty, and easy to read. Recommended reading for anyone interested in building a space or house of their own.
To see photographs of the finished building go to michaelpollan.com, and click on the image of the building on the home page.
Chapter 1 - A Room of One’s Own
Nor did what I do (writing) seem to add much, if anything, to the stock of reality, and though this might be a dated or romantic notion in an age of information, it seemed to me this was something real work should do.
Daydreaming does not enjoy tremendous prestige in our culture, which tends to regard it as unproductive thought. Writers perhaps appreciate its importance better than most, since a fair amount of what they call work consists of little more than daydreaming edited.
Yet anyone who reads for pleasure should prize it too, for what is reading a good book but a daydream at second hand?
The book was called Tiny Houses, and had been written, or drawn (since it contains very few words), by an architect by the name of Lester Walker.
Chapter 2 - The Site
Vitruvius spelled out principles of orientation that have not been improved on (which is not to say they have always been heeded): Buildings should be laid out on an east-west axis, with their principle exposure to the south.
This means that in the Northern Hemisphere the low angle of the sun in winter will keep the building warm, while during the summer, when the sun passes overhead, direct sunlight will enter only in the morning and evening, when it will be welcome.
For the same reason, he recommended an eastern exposure for bedrooms, western for dining rooms.
In the landscape paintings the Romantics revered, nature tends to be well-composed (divided into foreground, middle ground, and background) and pleasingly varied (particularly in terms of light and dark). It also offers the spectator’s eye an inviting path to follow from one element to another, but especially from the foreground to the distant horizon.
But I’d also begun to doubt the wisdom of building right on the main axis of the house and garden, and in this I found strong support among the picturesque designers I consulted. They detested straight lines on aesthetic as well as political grounds—axes being closely associated with the formal mockery of princely gardens on the continent—and made sure their paths always curved. A path that eventually.
I called Charlie to see if he had any advice. He did, though at the time it seemed too glib to be of much use. Think about it this way, he suggested. You’ve been hiking all day, it’s getting late, and you’re looking for a good campsite—just a comfortable, safe-feeling place to spend the night. That’s your site.
Like picturesque garden theory, it tells you how to improve a landscape, but to spiritual rather than aesthetic ends.
Stripped of animal metaphors, the practical import of this principle is that people should build among hills, on ground neither too high nor too low, on a site that is open to the south and has higher ground to its north—advice, by the way, that Vitruvius would enthusiastically endorse. A more general rule of fêng shui holds that the topography of a site should strike a balance between yang land forms (the male ones, which tend to be upright) and flatter yin, or female, ones, such as plains or bodies of water.
As far as I could tell, chi has a lot in common with water.
As soon as I’d begun to think of chi as flowing water, I could visualize its movement over my land, as it searched out grooves in the earth and openings in the forest on its course down the hillside. To map a landscape’s dragon lines, a fêng shui doctor will sometimes travel to the top of a ridge and then run down it several times as heedlessly as possible, noting the various paths he naturally inclines toward, the points at which they intersect, and the places where his momentum is checked by hollows or inclines.
Ideally, chi should meander through a site; torrents were no good. I felt proficient enough at visualizing the flow of chi to see that it was moving at a very rapid clip through the property, and probably whizzing right by my site in a feckless blur.
Once I began to think of fêng shui as a set of time-tested metaphors to describe a landscape, rather than as spiritual dogma, it became a lot less strange, and potentially even useful.
In his collection of lectures The Symbolism of Habitat, Appleton demonstrates the importance of symbols of prospect and refuge in the history of landscape painting and architecture.
A pleasing landscape painting or garden, he maintains, will be one that offers both kinds of symbols, along with some visual means of traveling from one to the other. Among the symbols of refuge he mentions are trees, copses, caves, and buildings; horizons, hills, and towers function as symbols of prospect, and paths or roads serve to link the two kinds of imagery, facilitating the viewer’s exploration of the scene. The picturesque painters and landscape designers were masters of the symbolism of habitat, Appleton contends, and this is why their ideas and creations have endured.
Chapter 3 - On Paper
Information overload is something we hear a lot about these days, and there does seem to be a growing sense that technology, the media, and the sheer quantity of information in circulation have somehow gotten between us and reality—what used to be called, without a lot of quotation marks or qualifiers, nature. This may not be a new phenomenon—it was more than a century ago, after all, that Thoreau went to Walden to recover the hard bottom…we can call reality from the mud and slush of opinion that obscured it—but the situation does seem to have gotten worse. Not only is the mud and slush of opinion a lot thicker now that it’s being piled on by so many different media, but our most famous philosophers (think of Jacques Derrida or Richard Rorty) are telling us that, underneath it all, there may not be any reality to recover—that it’s mud and slush all the way down.
And then, a few years ago, the tiny voice whispering that I might be missing something spending so much of my time in the tub was amplified by a sentence I read (on the subway, as it happened) in a book by Hannah Arendt, a sentence that kept coming back to me as a kind of rebuke. Nothing perhaps is more surprising in this world of ours, the philosopher wrote, than the almost infinite diversity of its appearances, the sheer entertainment value of its views, sounds, and smells, something that is hardly ever mentioned by the thinkers and philosophers. At first, this sentence struck me as being poignant, even profound. But then, with this piercing sense of deflation, I realized that anybody who regarded this observation as anything but obvious—as anything but pathetically obvious—had a serious problem
Alexander calls these forms patterns, and his best-known book, A Pattern Language*, published in 1977
Even to contemporary designers not at all given to mysticism or numerology, the Golden Section seems to retain some value as a pattern, or type—something to fall back on when faced with a decision about proportions, providing a bit of shelter, perhaps, from what Kevin Lynch, the writer and city planner, once called the anxieties of the open search.
3. The Design
Chapter 4 - Footings
Once we had planted the four corner stakes, making sure they formed a rectangle of the dimensions specified on Charlie’s footing plan (14’2" by 8’9"), we checked to make sure it was square by measuring the diagonals; if the lengths of the two diagonals were equal, that meant the rectangle was square.
Chapter 5 - Framing
If the idea of a hut dictated the big, treelike timbers, the timbers in turn dictated the building’s system of construction. It would be a variation on the traditional post-and-beam, in which the frame of a building is comprised of large and generously spaced vertical posts joined to horizontal beams. Traditionally, these joints were of the type known as mortise and tenon: The end of each beam is chiseled to form a protruding shape called a tenon (from tongue) that is inserted into a matching notch, or mortise, carved into the post, and then held in place with wooden pegs driven through the two members.
Charlie had proposed a suitably idiot-proof alternative to a traditional joint: his construction drawings called for a steel joist hanger at the point where the corner posts joined the four-by-eight beams that would support the floor.
Chapter 6 - The Roof
The Vanna Venturi house.
The architect Louis Kahn used to talk about interrogating his materials in order to learn what they wanted to be—that is, what the distinctive nature of a material suggested should be done with it:
You say to brick, "What do you want, brick?" Brick says to you, "I like an arch." If you say to brick, "Arches are expensive, and I can use a concrete lintel over an opening. What do you think of that, brick?" Brick says, "I like an arch."
The easiest way for an architect to avoid problems with his roof is to pay more attention to vernacular practice. Vernacular roofs—most of which happen to be pitched, the precise pitch varying with the latitude and local snowfall—reflect the experience of thousands of builders over hundreds of years; they represent a successful adaptation to a given environment, a good fit between the human desire to keep dry and the predictable behavior of water and wood under specific circumstances.
Owing to its scale, Grand Central is a particularly dramatic example of such an imitation, but the sequence of constriction and release we feel stepping out of a forest into a clearing is probably one of the most common spatial gestures, or tropes, in all architecture; even my little building contains it. It seems to me that spatial tropes of this kind—prospect and refuge is another—speak to us more deeply, more physically, than mere signs do, since our sense of their meaning depends on nothing more than the fact of our bodies and those forms of landscape with which everyone has had firsthand experience.
Chapter 7 - Windows
My parents’ view also acquainted me with the peculiar distancing effect of plate glass. Ours was double-glazed, and unless the big slider had been left ajar, the seal of the wall was complete. You saw the waves break white out beyond the dunes, but heard nothing; watched the sea grass bend and flash under the breeze, but felt nothing. There was a deadness to it, a quality of having already happened. The view seemed far away, static, and inaccessible, except of course to the eye.
Our picture window’s horizontal format probably contributed to this impression. As painters understand, the horizontal dimension is the eye’s natural field of play, the axis along which it ordinarily takes in the world. Compared to a vertical format, which is more likely to engage the whole body, inviting the viewer into the picture as if through a door, the horizontal somehow seems cooler, disembodied, more cerebral.
By building this house off in the woods, and by making it with my own hands, I’d hoped to break out of a few of the frames that stood between me and experience, especially the panes of words that boxed in so much of my time and attention and seemed to distance me from the world of things and the senses. Though I suppose I had accomplished this, it seemed clear now that what I’d really done was trade some old frames for a few new ones. Which might be the best we can hope for, transparency being as elusive as truth.
Not that the trying wasn’t worth the effort; it was. Just look at what I had to show for it: this building and these new windows, for one thing, which have given me so much more than a view. And then there were the new and sometimes warring perspectives I’d acquired along the way—that of carpenter and architect, I mean, not to mention apprentice; there were all those new windows too.
Maybe it wasn’t as important to see things as they really are as it was to see them freshly, scrupulously, and from more than one point of view.
Yet there is still and always the frame, even if one has perfect vision and sleeps out under the stars. Transparency’s for the birds, for them and all the rest of nature. As for us, well, we do windows.
Chapter 8 - Finish Work: A Punch List
Time and Place
In The Timeless Way of Building, Alexander writes that those of us who are concerned with buildings tend to forget too easily that all the life and soul of a place…depend not simply on the physical environment, but on the pattern of events which we experience there—everything from the transit of sunlight through a room to the kinds of things we habitually do in it.
J. B. Jackson makes a similar point in his essay A Sense of Place, a Sense of Time, where he argues that we pay way too much attention to the design of places, when it is what we routinely do in them that gives them their character.
The Writing Desk
it is an axiom of woodworking that one always cuts from the back side of a finished wood surface in order to prevent the teeth of the saw from marring it.
The Metaphysics of Trim
My grasp of wood behavior was daily growing surer, and I’d internalized all of Joe’s sawing saws, which now played in my head like a cautionary mantra: Measure twice cut once, consider all the consequences, remember to count the kerf (the extra eighth of an inch removed by the saw blade itself).
On the subject of error he liked to quote Ruskin, who had defended the craftsman against the inhumanity of the machine by declaring that No good work whatever can be perfect, and the demand for perfection is always a sign of a misunderstanding of the ends of art.
This last labor consumed me for a great many of those Joeless days, as I sanded and oiled all the interior surfaces of my building, a task so vast it made me feel like a mouse trying single-handedly to refinish an armoire. The sanding alone took me over every inch of the interior four separate times: first with the belt sander, to remove the saw marks and lumberyard inks, and thrice more with the palm sander, each time applying a finer and finer grit, until the grain rose up brightly from the muffled surface of blemishes, sanding marks, and pith. Each coat of tung oil required another circumnavigation of the interior, and there were two coats everywhere but on the desk, which received a third and a fourth. Lastly there were the once-overs with steel wool, to remove the tack between coats of oil.
First we shape our buildings, Winston Churchill famously remarked, and thereafter our buildings shape us.
I don’t think there is a lighted house in the woods anywhere in this world that doesn’t hint at a person inside and a story unfolding, and so, it seemed, did mine.
Thoreau, Henry David. Walden.
Walker, Lester. Tiny Houses.
Wright, Frank Lloyd. The Natural House.
Alexander, Christopher, et al. A Pattern Language.
——. The Timeless Way of Building.
By far the most provocative article I’ve read on windows is Neil Levine’s Questioning the View: Seaside’s Critique of the Gaze of Modern Architecture in Seaside: Making a Town in America, edited by David Mohney and Keller Easterling (Princeton: Princeton Architectural Press, 1991).
Colin Rowe’s seminal essay (with Robert Slutzky) Transparency: Literal and Phenomenal in The Mathematics of the Ideal Villa and Other Essays (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1976).
Brand, Stewart. How Buildings Learn (New York: Viking, 1994).
Montaigne’s description of his study appears in On Three Kinds of Social Intercourse in Book III of Michel de Montaigne: The Complete Essays, translated by M. A. Screech (New York: Penguin, 1987).