In the first ten installments of this series, we commissioned architects to design spaces for fantastical stories from Hans Christian Andersen to Jorge Luis Borges. This time we asked author and musician Willy Vlautin if he might suggest something from his catalog. “Sadly all my characters live in pretty bad places,” he responded. “The reason great architects are alive is to not build the sorta houses my people end up in.” But that’s precisely why we thought his work was perfect for this fairy-tale series. Vlautin’s novels and songs are populated by humble people hard up for luck but not giving up on the plot — everyday heroes who still hope for a happy ending, even though the odds are against them. There’s magic in that.
Take, for example, the insanely brilliant, gothic concept album, The High Country, by Vlautin’s band Richmond Fontaine. Its arc has a fairy-tale feel — a love story in which things go from bad to worse, but the narrator keeps a close eye on the good and vulnerable heroes. Listen to it for a strong dose of isolation, bad luck, abuse, fear, and beauty. And in Vlautin’s most recent novel, The Free, houses provide dubious but necessary shelter from those who might (or who have) hurt you. Home is a hospital room, an abandoned house, the place you run and run and run toward; home is what you hope to find somewhere amid all the wreckage.
Everyday heroes who still hope for a happy ending, even though the odds are against them. There’s magic in that.
Ultimately, we settled on “St. Ides, Parked Cars, and Other People’s Homes,” from the Richmond Fontaine album Thirteen Cities, a record of hopeless yearning. Vlautin describes “St. Ides” as a song about “looking into beautiful homes.” It is the most spare track on the album, performed solo by Vlautin on vocals and acoustic guitar. As he wrote it, he “imagined looking in at a Craftsman-style home in Portland, at night with the lights all on, a front porch, inside you can see the stained wood trim. A happy successful family.”
We assigned the tale to Andy’s firm, Bernheimer Architecture. Listening to the song, Andy immediately thought of Powers of Ten, the short film by Charles and Ray Eames which famously meditates on the individual in the cosmic scale. The film has a supernatural, scientific precision. Thinking formally along similar lines, Andy and his collaborator Ariel Gonzalez-Millan imagined a sequence of images that begin from a distance and zoom in until the particular home and its fictional inhabitant come into focus. Like Powers of Ten, the series examines scale, anonymity, individuality, pattern, and uniqueness amid the overwhelming generality of life.
First, we see suburbia from an aerial perspective. Next, we see the neighborhood, as a car pulls up in front of a house. Then the view gets a bit closer, and again the car stops before a house; it doesn’t matter which one, as they are seemingly all the same. Finally, we see a close-up of an anonymous character in a posture of mourning. Here, the architects were riffing off St. Ides in the song’s title. (Which is not a real saint as far as we can tell, just the name of the malt liquor; one of the emblems of Vlautin’s brilliant poetics is that the title is not ironic, only sad.) Andy says this figure was inspired by St. Rita, the patron saint of loneliness and impossible causes. Thus, the house that was supposed to belong to the narrator and his lover is, on closer view, a place of missed opportunity and sadness. We are looking inside the window from the narrator’s perspective, but we don’t know if this is actually what he sees or merely a fictional projection. The image is both specific and ambiguous.
The design reminds me of The Poetics of Space (1958), in which Gaston Bachelard describes what “house” means to the artist: how a house is a refuge for the small dreamer, the artist. Our dreams (whether songs, designs, poems, or stories) move through rooms (whether attics, basements, or porches). For Bachelard, the house represents safety, real or desired.
We hope you enjoy the song and the designs for it — as well as a few moments of yearning.
— Kate Bernheimer
Three Questions for Bernheimer Architecture
What was it about “St. Ides, Parked Cars, and Other People’s Homes” that led you to identify it as a fairy tale that called out for architectural design?
Willy Vlautin’s song is spare, beautiful, but also felt like a container, into which any number of lives might be placed. As he described a house (which is so common an element in fairy tales) it seemed apparent that the song was about a yearning, a regret, an unexpected ending that might not have been expected. Like a fairy tale.
When you design actual homes for people to live in, does a sense of yearning come into play?
That depends on the client. Often the houses lack that which is yearned for, since those yearnings can be quite expensive.
In many old fairy tales, homes (whether cottages, huts, castles, or caves) have taken on an iconic quality that makes them especially powerful. Is there something about being an architect that is fairy-tale like — is an architect an artist working the iconic?
Because “house” is not always a synonym for “home” there is seldom a correlation between a house design and the iconography you describe. Additionally, the pragmatic technical necessities of executing a physical building are constraints that keep us from being fabulists. To think in literary and perhaps aspirational terms, we often yearn for a touch of magical realism, and for moments of accidental or coincidental art. Especially when designing within a typology as common as a “house.”
Wait, did you just say that fabulists do not face pragmatic technical necessities? That’s funny, because a dear colleague of mine once said, and I’m paraphrasing, basically that fabulists are too lazy to write science fiction. I take issue with that, of course — but I guess that’s for our Fabulist vs Science Fiction Architecture Series, which is as-yet only aspirational.