On this south side of Lover’s Hill, just down the street from us, on Mesa Drive, are two new houses, built into the hillside, side by side, with almost identical foot-prints. They are just finished and up for sale-- in the millions. And they are extra-ordinary, suggesting, as they do, almost the last gasp of classic modernism. One is in shades of carbon stucco, the other, of which I write, is a sunny tan or beige stucco. Like night and day, the one to the east is the agitated dark shadow of the other, beaming bright in the west.
Be assured that I like both the houses. They are wonderful works of art, each one justifying and pointing the other, sororial opposites, yet twins, each impossible to imagine one standing there without the other. As I drive and walk by their construction, they make me feel good. I admire their daring, their glass gaze out over Boulder, their powerful presence. I try to imagine living in one of them and am seduced.
The westerly beige house was entirely prefabricated in Germany, it's many parts shipped over to Houston and trucked in great containers up to Boulder. German technicians and builders came along to snap together the bits and pieces of its interlocking, complex and esoteric technology. And now it’s been opened to us neighbors-- with wine and good things to eat. I am taken with its Germanism-- its severe elegance: it’s like having a bit of Bauhaus on Mesa Drive.
Years ago I read an essay-- I forget where or in what-- in which the author suggested what might well be the origin of all architecture. In his anthropological imagination, early, wandering human-like ancestors of us all took refuge for the night, for their safety, under a rock large enough to cover them. The author referred to this little retreat under a roof of rock as a little aedicule, a little house. It was in point of structural fact a lintel roof propped up or supported by posts of more rock at the sides. This little aedicule, this little house, might have resembled one of the ancient dolmens on the western Irish landscape-- numinous, sacral structures that were the little houses of the dead.
Doubtless our wandering ancestors may have sometimes taken up longer residence in one of these little houses of post and lintel stone. They would have hauled stuff in with them, the necessities of their life. And, sure as you’re alive, they would have decorated some of that stuff and invented art itself.
Secure as they were from the elements and their enemies in their little aedicule, they could have been almost cozy and, in the leisure of their security, made something beautiful for the house.
Should you want to test this profound impulse to get inside, into a little aedicule, just ask a child playing house under a card-table. The child will show you these posts and lintels. There cannot be much of anything more persistent or basic to life than this compulsion to get a lintel overhead with two good lusty posts at the side for support of a little roof over head. One need only improvise a bit on this principle to build a proper room-- or house.
This need and its impulse must surely be genetic.
Of course, we well know how the architects of Antiquity took the post and lintel idea and made The Parthenon out of it-- and all the other glories of the Classical world. Nor are we independent of it today. We use it in a thousand ways and depend upon its security. When we come home, at day’s end, most of us are welcomed by a familiar doorway of post and lintel that we know so well and depend upon for both structural and spiritual support.
You may well wonder where all this aedicule business of post and lintel is getting us amid the pleasures of this German masterwork of domestic architecture. I want to argue that it is precisely the comforts, the snug, cozy security of a little aedicule that is missing from this structure.
Nowhere in this beige German house can I see and feel that intimacy of support of post and lintel. I see and admire the straight running elegant lines and sharply cut angles of everything. I admire the rule of reason and fine, clean design that I see everywhere around me. As I love geometry, I could love this house. But I cannot find any place to snuggle into, not even in the lovely glass enclosed bedroom. There must be posts and lintels in the structure somewhere, but they are hidden, masked in steel, aluminum and faux stone. Nowhere do I feel cozy and protected.
For the purposes of my argument, there are two kinds of houses. One is designed and built for the resident to furnish and define as an expression of her personality. These houses acquire character from the accumulation of décor, of stuff-- by the processes of addition.
Another kind, the kind we have here newly on Mesa Drive, is so rigorously designed, so militantly “finished” as to allow little or no contribution from the resident, little or no identification with his imagination. Architectural purity is maintained by the processes of subtraction. The resident becomes a sojourner, not quite at home.
Curiously enough, it is often maligned post-modernism that has recognized the compulsive need in humans for a local habitation, a personal home. And, in its sometimes outrageous architectural expression of the idea of home, it has nevertheless recognized the primordial human need for intimate enclosure and the sensation of being protected and comforted within a deeply personal place. Think for a moment of one of these post-modern “mansions.” Think of all those small, crazy spaces, those nooks and crannies, towers and turrets, dormers and bays in which to go hide and be safe with one’s laptop, or maybe even a book.
Were I in position to do so, I would have placed between the two houses, between their garages fronting on Mesa Drive, the de facto point at which both houses define themselves-- I would have placed an heroic sculpture of a human being, at least in the scale of Michelangelo’s “David”, all naked and defiant. A statue that would announce to all the world that, “I, this human being, of unlimited consciousness, imagination, and soul, did build these two houses as homes for creatures like me.”
This late-modern “david” would be stunning placed just there to advise that these houses are in no wise robotic. They need only us, regular human beings, to occupy them and discover ways in which to make them uniquely our own, make them into convincing narratives of our imagination, our experience, and our dreams for the future.