A Life in Ruins

[Photos by the author]

Every year the AIA — the professional organization for architects — sponsors a tour of new houses in Austin to promote architecture. On that day you get to invade a lot of privacy, arguably to get a sense of what’s going on; but really, it’s not critics along for the ride, it’s all voyeurs. The AIA gives you a map, and you drive along from one house to the next, following a path of least resistance. The architects are usually there, and the clients too, and sometimes even the builders — in some houses you can still smell the wet paint.

In the morning there might be some serious questions about content, but mostly it’s the middle aged appreciating kitchen layouts, or improvements in plumbing technology. The year I went, one of the houses had a remote control toilet from Japan that you flush with something like a TV clicker, to avoid the aeration of bacteria — or to torture your significant other. I think of it every time I flush now, and it tempers my bathroom with dissatisfaction and worry.

Anyway, the tour, it’s the kind of thing I hate. I would prefer to wait until the owners are dead. I only went because some clients, Paul and Shelly Delveccio, wanted me to accompany them. Paul was a tech industry wizard who’d made a fortune with a product he had developed and marketed called Honestly!, a sort of home polygraph. Honestly! came with face and arm sensors — clad in brightly colored Nerf — that you attached to your computer through a firewire port. The idea being that you’d strap in your friends and ask them all sorts of embarrassing questions. The information was transmitted directly to a website linked to an analysis mainframe, the results read out in real time on your home computer screen. Honestly! was somewhat subversively advertised as a children’s game, but its real success was as an adult party toy. Paul had sold enough to never have to work again, and he wasn’t; and neither was Shelly, who had quit her work as a lawyer.

Listen to David Heymann read “A Life in Ruins.” [Right-click to download]

Instead, they were both being parents of three young children, and fully diving into things that interested them. Just then the thing was building the ultimate house, a project to which they brought a frightening concentration. The project consisted of two parts. There was the house itself, which we’d been going round and round about. They wanted it to be like a castle — and they weren’t compromising for an “interpretation” of a castle, either. They wanted turrets, and hidden passageways, and lots of stone.

Then there was the complex reclamation of the land, which they hoped to return to a pre-settler state. The 80 acres they had purchased, once a goat farm, was isolated, out near Pedernales Falls. So that was a huge undertaking, trying to revitalize springs by clearing cedar, and restarting prairie, which isn’t just about leaving things alone, but requires extraordinary care, work, and money. It also requires the removal of established invader species, which has its odd limits, since you have to decide how far back you want to dial the clock.

We talked a lot about why they were making the move, and Shelly said this interesting thing: “You know, we feel our lives are filled with false socialization — in meeting rooms, and elevators, and cocktail parties. Also, we’re tired of the competitiveness. I took Jane” — their four year old — “for an interview at a church day school, and the kid before us could already tie his shoes. Jane took the poor boy’s little stuffed toy and wouldn’t give it back, and, honestly, I felt like the teachers were thinking: you are such a lousy mom!”

Despite the seeming incongruity of their desires, we got along easily. Early on, when we were discussing various locations for the house, they had wanted to be on site for several days, and so they had asked me to camp with them at a nearby state park. They timed the trip to coincide with the nights of the Perseid meteor shower. I got there just after dark, and had to stumble over from the car to where they had set up portable lounge chairs to watch the night sky. I had thought the campground was relatively empty, but when a meteor arched over, you could hear people up and down the valley yelling and whooping, like at a UT football game.

In the morning I woke up to an odd hissing sound. I looked out of my tent, but no one was up yet, not even the kids. The hiss seemed to be coming from Paul and Shelly’s tent. I put on my shoes and walked over there. All you could see was a hundred-foot extension chord running back to a power outlet where the cars were parked. Paul stuck his bearded head out the zipper: “Cappuccino?” Needless to say, I liked them a lot.

On the day of the AIA tour I was late to the first house because I felt compelled to free an armadillo caught inside the trap in my courtyard, rather than let it suffer as the sun came out. Several weeks earlier I had woken up to find an armadillo rooting through the garden I had planted — really a beautiful creature, as if Leonardo had consented to design a military plow, all articulated parts and clarity of purpose. I had tried to catch it in a trashcan, but armadillos are startlingly quick once they sense your presence, and it shot off behind a row of bushes along the south wall of the courtyard, and vanished. Looking there I found — and promptly filled — a hole burrowed under the courtyard wall. Two days later the armadillo was back plowing, so I bought a live trap and set it under the run in the bushes, first aimed one way, then the other, until finally I found it inhabited the morning of the tour.

There was still time before I had to meet Paul and Shelly, so I lugged the caged armadillo — they are heavier than they look — to the back of my car and drove it to Red Bud Isle, a park that sits on an artificial island just below the Tom Miller dam, which divides Lake Austin from Town Lake. The canyon of the Colorado constricts there handsomely, and it was a logical spot to dam the unpredictable river. Both lakes are now maintained at a constant water level, the shoreline inhabitants having more political clout than the dirt farmers farther downstream.

When the original dam — the one that powered Austin’s moonlight towers — silted up and burst, its ruins formed islands in Town Lake that are now a public park. You can still see fragments of the old structure. People fish there for perch and bass — apparently there are really large bass. The discharge from the dam aerates the water, so the fish are narked up. You aren’t supposed to eat the fish because of PCBs from an old power station downtown, so mostly you see fly fishermen catch-and-releasing. Once a year there is (or was) supposedly a strange rowing regatta that starts from Red Bud: I have heard that all the rowers are naked, or nearly so.

Anyhow, as I was driving, I was thinking that there are now a lot of animals in Austin. Maybe there have always been, but I don’t think so. The white-winged doves, which were human shy, seem to have flocked to the city, perhaps discovering its safety. I have seen alligator lizards and all kinds of snakes, and hawk and kite migrations over the city, and countless warblers and raccoons, and possums, those post-nuclear rats. How animals work out their patterns of existence in the urban frame is a mystery to me. Do they find what they know to work, or do they adjust?

The most amazing example here is the colony of bats under the Congress Avenue bridge, which carries the main axis of the city across Town Lake to the south shore. The bridge was restructured some years ago using prefabricated concrete beams, the spacing and profile of which turned out to be precisely correct for Mexican free-tailed bats to roost. I don’t know how long it took for the bats to discover the bridge, but there is now a huge breeding colony there from late spring through early fall. At dusk the bats pour out from under the bridge in a cloudy stream, and the crowd of people that wait every evening for this amazing sight applaud. It is especially thick in late summer, when the young bats are weaned and add to the flight. In the morning the bats return, and the rowers on the lake see them plummet out of the sky like rocks.

The road to Red Bud Island, dropping steeply to the river, flattens jarringly as it passes over a series of concrete fins about an eighth of a mile below the dam, elevated just enough, eight or ten feet, even in times of really big runoff when the floodgates are open. Just as I came down hard onto that stretch I noticed, in the rearview mirror, something leaping up and slamming against the ceiling of the hatch: the armadillo, which had somehow freed itself from the trap. The leaping instinct of armadillos is what kills them on roads. They jump up into the undercarriage of cars.

I pulled off the road into the parking lot and sprinted around to open the hatch, but that frightened the armadillo into the folded-down back seat. I opened all the doors and tried to bully the damn thing out with a roll of drawings, but instead it wedged itself under the front seat. My heart was racing and I stepped away from the car to breathe. Finally, decided, I reached in and pulled it by the tail — the creature’s toenails left furrows in the floor mat — and heaved it into the grass. Having grass underfoot seemed to calm it down, and it just ambled off. I stood there sweating, listening to the armadillo shuffling its way through the leaves down to the shore.

The armadillo had urinated and defecated throughout the back of the car. To be sure, there was an aeration of bacteria. All I had to clean it with was a corduroy over-shirt I had on. After I’d wiped up as much as I could, I walked down to the shore, to rinse the shirt and wring it out. From there you could see a group of kayakers that had paddled up to the spume below the raceway of the dam’s power plant, where they were practicing full rolls, flopping sideways into the white water, and popping back up the other side. A kingfisher flew by, rattling.

When I got back to the car a park police officer was looking at the live trap in the back. She asked: “Did you release a wild animal here?”

“Is that a problem, officer?” — I tried to explain what I’d just gone through. I was sweating again.

“It’s illegal to even catch them. If you’re having trouble with an animal you should call the city.” She tried to give me a card, but my hands held the dripping shirt, so she put it on the dash. “Our website explains the various rules for dealing with animals. Also, just so you know, raccoons and armadillos cover a lot of ground, so releasing them here doesn’t mean much, especially if they have litters.” She leaned into the back of the car and sniffed.

It took a while to finish the cleanup. By now I was really late, and smelly and sweaty, and driving the stinking car way too fast. Paul and Shelly had left the first house, a huge ranch house-like thing in limestone that was based on taking a cedar chopper’s cabin and feeding it growth hormones. At least I got to wash up there, which is where I saw the Japanese toilet. They had also already passed through the second house, composed of a series of little rural volumes — one metal clad silo housed a hot tub — artfully arranged around the site in a way that made me shudder.

I caught up with them at the third house, a vaguely Italianate stucco and stone pile just west of the river. As part of their house project Paul and Shelly had gone looking at villas in Tuscany, and I wondered what they would think. The grounds were all xeriscaped with beautiful native trees and grasses, not a cedar in sight. The house was symmetrically disposed about an inner courtyard on the uphill side. In it there was a fountain in the form of an artificial natural spring. I found Paul just off the courtyard in the public rooms, which faced north out over the river. He was locked in a somewhat heated debate with the over-dressed architect about whether the porch to the courtyard was or was not correctly called a loggia.

I wandered away and finally found Shelly upstairs in the big master bedroom, which, to my utter astonishment, was — other than the presence of a very large bed — organized and decorated like a Shaker meeting room. Set symmetrically in the wall facing the bed were two tall wood-and-glass doors that let out to a terrace. Between these doors, exactly opposite the bed, was a Shaker bench. On either side of the bed were doors, one leading in from the hall, the other, apparently, leading to a bathroom and closets. The two flanking sidewalls were also lined with Shaker benches, each at least 16 feet long, extending the full width of the room. The walls were whitish plaster. A pegged wooden strip ran around the room at eye level, hung with simple adornments: a small mirror and white cotton bathrobes. An ab-roller was resting over two of the pegs. Everything was done in solid cherry, beautifully dovetailed. The floor was all in cherry too, heavily figured wide boards that were either reclaimed or distressed.

Shelly was sitting on the far side of the bed. At the foot was a great Shaker chest. She had just pushed a peg in the headboard, and a TV was rising up out of the chest.

“This I like,” she said, getting up and walking over to me. I was still trying to get a grip on the room. “I like Shaker. It is both abstract and homey.”

“Shelly, it’s a Shaker master bedroom.”

She looked at me, waiting for me to finish the thought.

“Shakers didn’t have sex,” I said.

She looked around the room, then smiled: “Well, I’m sure some of them did, and if they’d done it more often we would have some Shakers around to build us decent furniture.”

As she was saying this, a group came in from the hallway, carrying champagne in glasses — a clean silvery man in his early sixties, wearing a black silk sports shirt; a fortyish worked-on blond woman accompanied by what one could only hope were her augmented breasts; and a tall, thin man in linen who clearly had some sort of privileges because he was smoking — he was actually smoking in the house — a brown menthol cigarette. Introductions being made, these turned out to be the owners, the Schmidts, and their decorator, Ben Cunningham.

I was trying to place his name, when he asked, smiling thinly, “You’re not one of those modern architects, are you?” emphasizing the “modern” and feigning mock horror; then, not pausing for a reply, “Don’t we love the surprise of this room?”

“Shocking!” was all I could manage, but Shelly over-rode me politely: “This is a lovely room. It must mean a lot to you. I am certain it must have been inspired by something important.”

This seemed to brighten Mr. Schmidt: “We spent part of our honeymoon in Shaker country up in Kentucky, near where my wife’s family is from. Do you know it? It is one of the most beautiful places I have ever been. There is something about that way of life that we find really simple and authentic. Honey, what was the name of that place?”

“Pleasant Hill. You all must visit the inn there. All the rooms and furniture is original Shaker. It is so tranquil, so real. We were quite taken with it, and flew Ben” — now I recognized his name: he had made a fortune in Dallas transforming modest houses into French Country Homes — “out to join us. We thought at first this whole house could be Shaker, but in the end we decided a Tuscan house made more sense here in Austin. We wanted the house to be right for this landscape that we so love. This is our little bit of paradise, here in paradise.” She pointed to the doors leading out to the porch, through which you could see the tops of oak trees leading up a little draw. “Ben suggested we buy the land in the view, so there will never be anything but nature. Ben did the most brilliant job with the interiors of this house: it is his masterpiece.”

Ben was clearly flattered: “Thankfully, I am immune to flattery!” He paused for two beats. “Now, David, as an architect you might appreciate this.”

He walked over to a wall and, looking directly at me, took a puff off his cigarette, then turned and exhaled smoke in a thin stream at the peg strip. The smoke promptly blew straight up the wall. He swiveled back triumphantly: “No visible air supply!”

Shelly and I went over to look. The peg strip was set just off the wall, and behind it ran a thin air diffuser. “Amazing,” Shelly murmured.

“The amazing thing,” Ben continued, “is that the Shakers did not have architects at all” — the guy was slamming me like a real professional — “they just knew what was right. And, of course, they didn’t have electricity. Where are the outlets?”

We looked around, following the sweep of Ben’s hands. “Momento, per favore.” Ben walked over to a large knot in one of the cherry floorboards. He knelt down and pushed on the knot, which popped out to expose a convenience outlet. O.K., that was cool.

“And where do you suppose the lights are?” We looked up, and sure enough, nothing. Ben had moved back to the bed, where he turned another Shaker peg. Apparently this was a dimmer; as he cranked it, bright white light washed up the walls from a narrow reveal between the floor and the baseboards, passing behind the bench seats, which also turned out to be set off the walls. The effect was to make the floor float, like a life raft, with the benches as a kind of safety rail.

“Wow!” Shelly said. “How do you change the bulbs?”

Mr. Schmidt laughed. Ben walked over to one of the benches and tilted it forward. The floor rotated with the bench, revealing the light fixtures, as well as a built-in vacuum cleaner fitting: “Ecco!”

“Nice,” I said, thinking I had him, “but how do you read in bed?”

Reading?” Ben was on the spot. But Mr. Schmidt interrupted with a champagne grin: “We don’t do a lot of reading.” He winked at his wife.

Well, it was a sort of Caligula moment. I certainly couldn’t think of the right thing to say — like “So, Ben, how did you solve the Viagra storage problem?” — but, with the seconds ticking away, I felt I had to say something: “Well, this is one kinky room.”

“Hmm. Kinky,” Ben said, “that must be an architectural term?” He really had a genius for patronizing.

“I’m sorry, that was a bad choice of words.”

“I see, you chose those words!”

I looked at Mrs. Schmidt: “Listen, I don’t know how to say this without it sounding wrong, so please don’t take offense. I know that in a way this is an ingenious room, but I was wondering if you don’t find this somehow very odd — I mean, as a bedroom?” “Odd?” She was looking at me blankly. You could see the pleasantness drain from her face, and sense her husband’s nostrils flare. Ben’s eyebrows were way up, and he stepped in protectively, “I’m sure we’re not certain what you mean. Are you referring to the Italianate space in the majority of the home?”

I could feel sweat again. “No, you know, this being the bedroom, with that whole Shaker abstinence thing.” I tried laughing as I said this, but it had no effect other than to provoke a profound silence in the room. It was clearly going badly, and I looked over imploringly to Shelly for help, but her too-big grin told me I was on my own.

So there was no way to back out of it: “Look, I just meant that when the Shakers developed this kind of space they weren’t thinking about its style. Maybe I’m wrong, but didn’t they just want to have everything be real? You know, solid matter, made by hand, solving only the direct problem, because they didn’t believe in appearances. So, for them, looking Shaker was a contradiction. You had to be a Shaker, and part of that was, you know, refraining from enjoying — what is the word? — earthly relationships.”

“What ever do you mean?” It was amazing to watch Ben work. He was completely relaxed, “and what is that on your shirt?”

I looked down at a smear of armadillo shit. Oh well: “Let me take another crack at it. I am assuming from what you’ve got going outside, that what you like about living here, I mean in Austin, is the sense that things are pretty much real — you know, the hills, the springs, live oaks, you name it. Everyone loves that quality of this landscape — that’s why they want to move here from places like Dallas. So why would you want to undercut that sense with this fantasy inside a fantasy.”

“Try: because we are adults!” was Ben’s reply.

For some time no one spoke, waiting for me to answer, but I was beaten. Then Ben, putting his arms around the Schmidts, finished me off: “Well, I am sure we’d all love to see your work!”

I fled, pulling Shelly along, but I could hear their laughter all the way down the grand stair. When we were finally out, Shelly put her hand on my shoulder and said, pleasantly, “You are such an alien. I guess in architecture school they teach you to go ahead and dig a deeper hole.”

Paul was leaning on my car, and as we walked up he pointed to the mess in the back seat. “What the hell happened here?”

“Welcome to my world,” was all I could manage.

The rest of the afternoon was a blur, with Paul and Shelly in high spirits. So in the end they got their castle, and the stream is flowing on their re-authenticated land, and Paul and Shelly go out and map the nesting sites of endangered golden-cheeked warblers. Here is what I have decided. They are making their own Eden on Earth, and they will not be expelled from the Garden, because they are writing their own ground rules. The first of these is: appearance is a reality unto itself, without recourse to things that really occur. They are conservationists, though they are destroying a hope many architects secretly harbor, that architecture is a conduit to the real.

Editors' Note

“A Life in Ruins” is excerpted from David Heymann’s forthcoming book, My Beautiful City, on the adventures of an architect in Austin. An earlier chapter was published on Places last January.

David Heymann, “A Life in Ruins,” Places Journal, January 2014. Accessed 01 Oct 2023. https://doi.org/10.22269/140106

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Past Discussions View
  • 01.07.2014 at 23:59

    I always considered architecture to be an artifice, a way of imposing our own definitions of space onto the raw world. After all, living indoors is artificial, but importantly human, and a hell of lot more pleasant than the alternatives. There was an article some years back about a site where early human ancestors had divided their space into a sleeping area and a food preparation area. Whether they had language or not, they had given meaning to the spaces within the space they had occupied. Like fire, like hand crafts, like tool kits, this is something we do, though often we'll hire an architect to do the heavy lifting.

  • 01.08.2014 at 16:55

    Another beautiful essay by David Heymann. Keep them coming! But Kaleberg hits the peg on the head: architecture is artifice. The difference between good artifice and bad is more a matter of judgment, I would think, than of rule. Not having seen the room, my judgements would be: Shaker furniture in a master bedroom, fine (how often do Barcelona chairs receive the royal rumps for which they were conceived?). Pegs as switches? Maybe not . . . and, yet, my earliest interest in architecture was in the design of houses with secret passageways, something my friend Tom and I explored with considerable passion around the age of ten. Perhaps one reason I drifted away from architectural practice to other things was the lack of requests from clients for priests holes. I have crafted something of the sort in our house, for our son, who is now ten himself. (I could tell you where it is, but . . . .) What sounds lovely to me is the floor floated by the lighted reveal. How often do we experience the floor as an active thing, something that has lifted us off the ground? That's artifice revealing (sorry) the real.

  • 01.09.2014 at 19:48

    What a wonderful essay! Not only did I post it on my Twitter feed, I sent it to all still-skeptical family members who continue to raise their eyebrows when I contend, they think stubbornly, that I truly loved Austin. You've made me remember why.

    Why is it good? It has substance and it has style. Yes, architects do nostalgically fantasize about the "real", but they're right to; the problem is that their "real" often differs from their clients'--and resembles only one another's--owing to their many years of training.

    Now, that's a dilemma.

    David, congratulations. I eagerly anticipate the publication of your book, so we can all read more.

  • 01.11.2014 at 12:50

    This is the stuff that makes life so entertaining, and David, I am grinning just imagining you digging yourself deeper and deeper ... See you in China.

  • 04.15.2014 at 23:33

    David: Thanks for sending this to me. Finally got around to reading it. Four months procrastination -- could be worse. In any case, it is a interesting and amusing essay.

    Especially loved the part about the armadillo. I once was an hour late to work in NYC because of an attempt to "rescue" a dog that wandered onto the subway at Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn. No one else volunteered to escort the intrepid pup back to its starting point, and I was afraid to leave the dog with a station attendant in Manhattan (If you were a Brooklyn dog owner, would you think to call a Manhattan shelter to locate your missing dog?)

    In any case, good karma to you for trying to help the critter! (Too bad about the car...) ox