Tuesday, July 8, 2008
Good teacher syndrome
Our house was built in 1952 by an architect for his family. The scion of a locally prominent family (they owned the ice house), he graduated from MIT in 1948 and returned home to practice his trade. I've found blueprints for the house dated 1948. Likely it was a senior thesis project. He had very good teachers. Wasn't Isamu Noguchi at MIT then?
The design is elegant and very smart. It faces east and utilizes a series of parallel north/south-oriented planes of increasing visual and physical density to establish an east-to-west progression that connects the inside to the outside. A breezeway in the front slices off a portion of the yard to create an empty courtyard (still outside, but contained). Behind that, is a screened in porch (both inside and outside). The plane of the easternmost wall of the house proper is interrupted by a double sliding glass door (solid, but transparent). Lastly, the rear (western) wall is standard construction: drywall inside and redwood planks outside. (The whole building is clad in redwood.)
Throughout the house I've found numerous instances of his use of the Golden Ratio--a/b=b/a+b -- from the aspect ratio of the rectangles in the porch screen's grid to the position of a low stone wall that divides the livingroom from the dining area. Someday I'll buy a lottery ticket with 1618 among its numbers, just for the proportionality of it.
It's a beautiful building. Living here is like inhabiting a sculpture.
The architect had very good teachers. But I've concluded that the design reflects much more of them than him. And they were not here in exurban NE Texas to supervise the construction. The number of downright dumb mistakes in the building is alarming. The glass doors were installed backwards and can't be adequately locked. The sewer lines were so messed up we speculated they were a collaboration between Dr. Seuss and Rube Goldberg, and they were drinking heavily at the time. There are two vent hoods in the kitchen -- one over the stove, the other inexplicably over a counter across the room. The light switch in one bedroom doesn't control anything so far as we can tell. Several other switches also appear to be merely decorative, but the one in the bedroom is particularly irksome. The interior finish in several rooms is cheap, fake paneling. The list goes on.
I'm left to conclude that God is no longer in the details.
When we bought the house, we also bought the architect's office next door. It's my studio, and it's a victim of the same sort of dumb mistakes and screwy slips in planning and execution.
I spent all day yesterday trying to make the front exterior lights work. I've failed so far. The knucklehead installed interior recessed lighting fixtures out there and did it in such a way that you have to tear out a section of the soffit to replace them.
I'm not teaching anymore. But the designer of my house and studio makes me wonder about what students learn from their teachers. What do they actually learn? Here's a guy who had a fantastic education, but who installed sliding glass doors backwards in a house that reflects a rarefied and subtle understanding of space and how geometric planes and materials of varying densities can divide it and maintain its continuity. Obviously he had very good teachers. But what did he learn?
What did my students learn?