The architecture of redemption

Posted by jdg | Monday, March 20, 2006 | ,

I grew up across the street from this house. My own parents' home was old and traditional, but back in the early seventies their eccentric orthodontist neighbor designed and built what we would always call the bubble house. During the eighties, it was purchased by German alcoholics who really let the place fall apart. A few years later someone else bought it and undid all the damage the German man had done, and she put it on the market last year for $1 million, but in the end, couldn't bear to sell it. This caused quite a stir in an area where homes never sell for more than a couple hunded thousand dollars, and where the neighbors debated whether they could tolerate a single night in the bubble house let alone live there.

While we stayed at my parents' house last week I took this picture, and I also read this article in the New York Times about the emotions involved with the decision to buy a home. The next day we headed to Detroit to look at seven houses currently on the market. What struck me in the NYT article were the following words, "the aha! feeling that a person experiences upon walking into a space can often be attributed to his or her recognition of unconscious yet happy memories. On the other hand, those who gravitate to a housing location or style that is the opposite of what they had in childhood are frequently making a statement that they are not like their parents."

My parents have always chosen to decorate their home with antiques, knick-knacks, and wallpaper. They do their furniture shopping in the bargain basement. They have been fighting a decades-long battle against clutter. They would have loved nearly all of the homes we looked at with our realtor in Detroit, the gigantic brick Victorians with turrets and stained-glass windows and wallpaper, or even the 5-bedroom Arts and Crafts home tucked behind the Fisher building. But none of these homes spoke to me. I could respect their beauty, their history, but none of them were the kind of place I wanted to live.

And yet, when our realtor pulled up to the Mies van der Rohe-designed buildings in Lafayette Park, and she brought us into an example of one of his townhouses, I had the exact kind of feeling described in the Times article. All of the lines inside and out where clean and simple. Minimal. I knew immediately that this was where I wanted to live. Bright, airy, urban, and so modern I could already hear my father groaning about the architecture, comparing it to the coldness of the orthodontist's folly across the street.

My father works with his hands, repairing antique cars. The only thing I have ever seen him read is his monthly issue of Hemmings Motor News, a magazine consisting of classified ads for old cars that he dreams about restoring. Most of the vacations I knew as a kid were trips to gigantic car part swap meets in various parts of the Midwest, sometimes getting there by blue highways in a 1927 Franklin or a 1931 Buick Phaeton. My dad didn't go to college. He's a smart guy but he doesn't have much patience for "intellectual crap." Somewhere along the line I rejected all this. I stopped caring about cars and starting reading books. There were a thousand other rejections and battles along the way but this alone remains paramount: I found my identity as a guy who reads books, a guy whose work with his hands ends at the keyboard.

There was no precedent in my childhood for books or letters, and certainly none for modern architecture, unless you count the hours I used to spend looking out the window, wondering about other kinds of lives in other kinds of places. The bubble house was always there, gleaming white among the trees.

We're in the midst of choosing our first home; the decision feels epic. We are determining the kind of environment that Juniper will one day look back upon and either remember with an emotional tug or reject outright. I have a feeling that so long as there is love and joy in whatever kind of home we choose, she will look back on it fondly. I am not the type to ever say a bad word about my own parents: my home was full of love and joy, but still I want to build a different kind of home for my family. Is it possible to love that which you reject, that which you strive to be different from? It is possible, isn't it?

I look at Juniper, and I cannot believe even at this age how strong my desire is to mold her to think like me, to have my taste and values, to forge her image in our own. I think partly that is why I so strongly want to move back to the Midwest. I do not recognize the values and sophistication of these kids that grow up in the big city. They are nothing like the still-on-the-turnip-wagon kid I was at their age. I want to take her back to where I grew up, to give her the kind of innocence and confidence about the world that I once had. I want her to inhabit the kinds of spaces I once knew.

And yet, the rejection will surely come. If I give her a world of Mies van der Rohe townhouses filled with Barcelona chairs and abstract paintings she will find a way to supplant me. It is only natural that she will want to do what I have already done: if she is anything like me she will want to be different.

While I was at Wood's mother's house last week, I received a call from my parents. They were out "antiquing." They love antiques so much they do them as a verb. This was another activity that occupied much of my childhood, driving from no-name town to no-name town looking for giant antique malls occupying old warehouses and spending hours browsing from booth to booth. It turns out my parents were only a few miles from Wood's hometown and they said they found some furniture I might like in an antique mall. Wood was sick, so I took Juniper and found my parents standing before a booth filled with beautiful modern furniture: a custom-made Howard Miller Nelson clock and a Thonet bent-plywood dining set and two vintage Knoll tulip chairs and a bunch of other stuff so rare and unusual I can't even remember the names. "We saw this stuff, and immediately thought of you," my mom said. My dad stuck his nose up at the furniture, but happily carried Juniper around the antique store on his shoulders for the next few hours while I looked at all the great stuff in the antique mall with my parents. It had been years since I'd been in that kind spawling Midwestern antique store. I had a blast with my parents in that store.

That's the thing about time: it has a funny way of making anything modern into an antique.