IV. DON AND KAREN’S GATE
“This is going to be great.” Already the champagne is wearing away, but the giddiness remains. The last of the house-warming guests has just left for the return drive to Boston, 75 miles distant. The ensuing calm, long promised, blankets even the boys’ bantering half way up the meadowed hill. The hill in turn offers the house — recently completed, but coyly suggesting long presence and longer pedigree — to visitor and valley alike. That the house wears traces of its newness like a crown of thorns is only a temporary setback: a bleaching stain for the shingles and woodwork has been obtained, and an instant patina is still to be applied to the overhanging copper gutters and trim.
The party has been as much of a going-away as a house-warming: Don and Karen have rented out their townhouse in the Back Bay to a long-term tenant. Their move has been made possible by Don and Karen’s abilities as, respectively, portfolio manager and corporate lawyer. “We’ve made a lot and want to use it to live our lives,” says fiftyish Don. At any rate, his work does not require his presence to be transacted. Karen has obtained a position as a lecturer in government at a private college in the township of Lesser Needham (formerly Jerusha), some 12 miles distant. The township has good schools for the boys and, around its preserved green, a deli, organic green grocer, bakery, coffee bar, and FedEx drop-box. Karen and Don waited to purchase their site until Karen’s position was sure, and she has already been commuting and teaching for a semester; this arrangement has also allowed Karen to supervise the final stages of construction.
But work and career are not really the central impetus behind their flight from urban to rural. Don and Karen have accepted the city as a naturally competitive workplace — their success is a measure of the precision of that understanding. Where the city has failed them is in the increasingly evident application of the inconsistent frameworks of competition upon the lives of their two boys and the cumulative life of their family. “When Evan (their youngest, now six) interviewed for pre-school, he knew Mozart wrote songs, and he could tie his own shoe, but I guess they didn’t take him because he stole another child’s block and wouldn’t give it back.”
Don and Karen are not romantics. They have known all along they would leave Boston after the boys started growing. Their move has been in the works since before they agreed to become parents, or purchase the townhouse, or even rent their first place together, a duplex in Cambridge. It was formed in the nascent stages of their relationship, when exploring each other’s individual pasts was a form of projecting their common future. “We both grew up without fear, and the relatively small houses Don and I grew up in felt huge,” notes Karen, “but in those days being outside was safe.” With the arrival of the boys the compactness of the townhouse suddenly became a detriment. It’s not that the house was too small — although a walk-in closet substituted for the nursery – but its range was too limited. “I couldn’t send the boys into the street, and they were climbing the walls. It really was a nice place, but I suppose compromise is a pleasure reserved for adults.”
It is telling that Karen is actually describing a perception based on her own childhood, and less on her children’s reality. Probably the fundamental source of her and Don’s decision to move is located that deeply. If they are talented realists in their own world as adults, Don and Karen are curious idealists when imagining that world at the time of their own youths, much less imagining their own parents’ problems. This in part explains their decision not to divide their time between country and city: “I think it would be really tough on the boys.”
All in all they are not pioneers. The 27 acres of woodland and field they have purchased was found for them by a real estate agent specializing in such relocations, in an area of Massachusetts they first saw while visiting friends who’d made a similar move. They are, however, like the pioneers in one sense: they will have to rely primarily on their own company. They are not, however, alarmed by this prospect. They feel the city has conditioned their lives for this challenge superbly, and one of their reasons for moving is the desire to strip away the settings of (they feel) false socialization — elevators, lobbies, business lunches, cocktail parties — into which the city arbitrarily thrusts them.
If they are fleeing the city, they do not see it that way. Don and Karen have exerted tremendous energy in planning and researching their commitment. While they are looking forward to the problem of the form of their work and family-life, they are more certain about a series of projects they have in mind for their land. Foremost is a garden, the agenda of which is not only to grow vegetables. “In Boston there are places where you can get unreal food, and you never once wonder where it came from,” says Don, and he finishes the thought with a half-joke: “I suppose if you substitute money for food in that equation you’ll have some sense of my work.”
Their commitment to the land includes other, long-term projects: Karen has initiated a clearing and planting program to develop the woods as a songbird habitat, and Don intends to return the depleted stream which passes through the property to its original trout-bearing form, and he has hired a specialist to help with the complex design and engineering involved. The passion Don brings to this planning is the cause of merriment (but also a certain degree of jealousy) among his partners, who needle Don about the desire to make more nature just so that it can be more precisely controlled. They call Don’s stream “the organ donor.”
Implicit in their teasing is the outline of a fundamental contradiction, but Don does not understand it as such. For him a contradiction inhibits action. If any single attribute characterizes Karen and Don it is this: they are — as individuals, partners, parents and politicians — fundamentally pragmatic. For them problems are by definition resolve-able, a mind-set in which unanswerable questions have little or at best limited value. “It’s not that I don’t care for philosophy,” says Don with mild embarrassment when questioned, “it’s just always been an out-of-body experience for me.”
Don and Karen will be working with two sets of tools: those with which to act on their distant landscapes — cable-modem, computer, FAX, cell phone — and those with which to engage the immediate landscape of their present — hoes, pruners, tillers, rakes, shovels, spades and shears, all either artisanal and local, or imported from Europe. These two sets of tools, seemingly at odds, are intimately linked. It is through the use of the first group that the use of the second is afforded and sustained, a curious reversal of progress. Also embedded in the fact of these tools there is this. Although he would be the last to admit it, Don, while not outwardly self-conscious, is still uneasy about a certain aspect of his wealth. If the many generations of Tinkhams before him — all farmers — labored directly, physically, toward the positive actualization of a new landscape, he is perhaps the first to profit merely from the structural reorganization of that landscape on paper, a fact his grandfather, who passed away on the farm in Texas to which Don’s own father has now retired, never let him forget: “what precisely do you make?” Years later, Don still rationalizes his grandfather’s chiding as jealousy, yet he remains affected by it, and he will admit to Karen that his family’s attitude played a large part in his choice not to return to Texas after business school.
In this regard, Don privately understands that his work on the stream and in the garden will serve as a linkage to his past, and a form of payment for his white-collar success, even, after a bottle of wine, for the avaricious excesses of the Baby Boomers. For Don the tools — the most expensive available, each object almost a fetish — already embody in totemic isolation something of the value he desires for all of this new life.
Don and Karen are less driven by worry than by optimism. They are looking to root themselves solidly, and have every reason to be excited about their land and their work on and in it. For the record, it should be said that Don and Karen are also aware their labors will increase the economic value of the new property, but that is of secondary importance, for it only indicates their world is — as it should be — in order. As perverse as it may seem, they actually see their work restoring the landscape as a form of community service. That the locus of their labor is the countryside neatly solves a curious dilemma: it is community work in a community they can tolerate.
Don and Karen are the first in their families to hire an architect. It is their understanding that the architect’s role is to lay out the problems and possibilities of the house fairly, much as any consultant should. They began by accepting the architect’s initial proposal to present the variety of country houses. “I brought in everything — saltbox, Shaker, Lutyens, Palladio, Monticello, Mount Vernon, the Farnsworth House, the Case Study houses, Murcutt …” says the architect, “and of course they wanted nothing from Mies or Murcutt, but a little from each of the rest: Shaker pegs, Craftsman cabinetry, Prairie Style Windows, Cape Cod modeling — and some mid-century furniture, but that mostly for humor. What a witches’ brew.”
From the very first sketch to the very last nail an abundance of rooms has prevailed: foyer, hall, formal living, informal living, sunroom, formal dining, breakfast, kitchen, pantry, wine cellar, laundry(s), study, office, bedrooms (4), playroom, bathrooms, vanities, attic. If, oddly, these are the ingredients for a fairly formal house, Don and Karen are not really such formal people, particularly with their children. This has been the source of some confusion for their architect. While Don and Karen have insisted on an orderly and correct house, they have nonetheless frequently undermined their architect’s definition of architectural correctness with their undogmatic understanding of what architecture should do.
The source of their approach to the relationship of form and meaning is not really unusual. Their two previous houses (the rented duplex in Cambridge, followed by the townhouse in the Back Bay) were inhabited with the sure knowledge that each would eventually be left behind. While this inhibited a certain commitment — particularly to neighbors and neighborhood — it did not mean their tenures in those houses were unpleasant. Pleasure was never, to be sure, really the issue. Those houses were way-stations — someone else’s place — inhabited without the open-ended sense of permanence that is the definitive characteristic of Don and Karen’s conception of house as home.
Still, those houses did not lack for pleasure, which entered in the wistful form of small and often unexpected surprises: a bay window in which it was wonderful to eat breakfast, a gutter that formed a giant icicle outside the porch door, a kitchen that turned out to work despite its peculiar geometry. All in all, these surprises suggested that Don and Karen’s undogmatic view of reality could be extended to include the value of form. In fact, they have incorporated this lesson into their new house, but there is a marked difference in how they intend to inhabit. If their earlier houses offered pleasure as a surprise, their new house must offer surprise as a certainty, and to this end they have frequently undermined their architect’s desire for formal consistency by demanding proofs beyond promises.
The plan and elevations finally agreed upon are an elegant, asymmetrical mix, freely recalling various heritages in massing, materiality, and scale and nature of detail. Each nameable room has been developed about an architectural theme elaborated from their initial range of sources. “We really wanted a Shaker master-bedroom,” says Don. “Unifying the elevations and massing was pure hell,” moans the architect, “but what was really tough was trying to get them to understand that all those different rooms and styles and events didn’t go together. We talked about it for hours, but they just didn’t want to get it.”
What the architect means is this. Each of the various houses referenced in the design of this new house carried with it a cosmology of sorts, constructed in the singular and intimate relationship of all aspects of its specific form to a particular pattern of beliefs, experiences and behaviors. In such an arrangement, even the smallest part is evidence of the consistency of the larger whole, and vice versa. It is the inconsistency of the whole of the new house that troubles the architect, who fears the value of the consistent parts will be contradicted as a consequence.
But Don and Karen do not see it that way: “He [their architect] tried mightily to convince us that false history was somehow bad, but as far as we could see, the models he desired, which were mostly Modern, were just as nostalgic.” It is not that Don and Karen’s house lacks a cosmology, it just isn’t unitary. In this regard their house can be said to be supremely pragmatic. If the room-less, flowing, split-level efficient houses of their grandparents’ generation were designed to be completely functional in the realms of the mundane, Don and Karen’s house — because it so efficiently renders the options as possibilities — hopes to be completely functional in the realms of the sublime. They may seem to have made an extreme decision in moving. But Don and Karen are not extremists, and they justify the intentional fiction of the house’s age on the following grounds: it is to temper the severity of change.
If their house lacks a simple unitary cosmology, the same could not be said of Don and Karen as people. Where then is the locus of their unitary cosmology? Difficult to say; if Don and Karen do not self-convincingly believe in a present God, still they have no use for atheism. It is perhaps telling that they use the term “we” to describe even their individual accomplishments to others (somewhat like the Pope). Although they have kept their last names they also see themselves, without contradiction, as a single entity, like an orbital pairing of stars.
But it would be false to say that Don or Karen each understand themselves, as individuals, with anything like wholeness. “To be honest, I’m just not sure what is exactly expected of me as a husband and a father and provider and human these days,” says Don with a serious smile. Karen echoes similar sentiments for herself. They blame the haphazard and inconsistent demands of the city for this inability to keep each of their various roles from warring with the others. Ultimately what they hope for most from their flight is a chance to put it all together as one, and they see this opportunity as a birthright of the non-urban landscape.
Don and Karen’s overriding concern with — and responsibility to — the imprecise form and politics of their own relationship has had a curious effect on their relationships with friends. When pressed, Don and Karen would bemoan their inability to develop the kinds of fellow-traveling friendships they remember from their adolescences, yet simultaneously they would admit to requiring a vague and unspoken sense of superiority over their current acquaintances. This in part accounts for their decision to hold today’s party outside. From a distance the house, so (finally) well composed in aspect, masks the formal and stylistic and scalar debates within its walls, and in this manner the house itself says good-bye. “Thank God it didn’t rain.”
The House as Gate
Though this is Don and Karen’s third house, still in a peculiar way it is their first. As far back as they can remember, they have gone about the business of their lives with the unspoken assumption that they were working towards a starting point, a gate of sorts, beyond which they would, at once, be free and in control, much as a child imagines that one day it will suddenly — discontinuously — become an adult. Their new house stands as a concrete testimony to the end of this period of not living, and to the beginning of a new life. If Don and Karen have conspired towards a house, then in this they differ from prior Tinkhams, all of whom conspired with a house to pursue their world-building ends.
Karen remembers an anecdote from an anthropology course regarding an Inuit tradition of anger release. The angry party leaves the claustrophobia of the confining igloo and — in a perfectly straight line — strides out across the ice until the anger has dissipated. At that point the path is marked with a stick, and the Inuit turns and trudges back. 1 In this same way Karen feels the new house marks the end of that part of her and Don’s life fueled by anger.
It could be said that the house is therefore an ends rather than a means, but that is not completely true. Unsure of the form of their new life, Don and Karen are nonetheless convinced of its impending content. Perhaps the house could therefore best be understood as parenthetical brackets set together, but opening outward rather than inward, enclosing nothing. If this suggests the house will never be finished despite its nearing physical completion, then that is testimony to the brilliance of Don and Karen’s planning. They will inhabit their house as freely as one might live in a ruin, searching, in the set patterns of form, for an as yet undetermined pattern of behaviors for themselves as individuals and family. “We aren’t Shakers, and we don’t want the house to tell us who we should be,” says Karen, “we just want it to stand still while we figure ourselves out.”
House and Landscape
If the house is surrounded by Nature in its glory, Don and Karen would be the first to admit this is an illusion. In fact the land has twice been farmstead, twice gone fallow, first during the westward expansion following the Civil War, then in the restructuring of the economy of agriculture in the 1970s. The illusion of Nature is a result of substantial planning, tending and expenditure.
This is not a contradiction for Don and Karen, who are quite certain there are now no landscapes free of the impact of humans. “If you start worrying about what is real, really natural, then you’ll go crazy. Real is what you need it to be,” says Don. And for Don and Karen’s purposes, Nature must act not as an amoral force, but must serve as a moralizing base condition. It is their fundamental pragmatism that contradicts the contradiction of appearance and occurrence. So Don fly-fishes for trout by the catch-and-release method, and Karen smashes the eggs of parasitic cowbirds found covertly laid in the unsuspecting and increasingly rare nests of vireos and warblers.
And that is why they are not concerned about the apparent contradiction in the age and cosmologies of their house: these too must provide a moralizing base condition, and the locus of this base condition is to be found in appearance. In this regard Don and Karen are pioneers. They do not accept the various evident contradictions of their realities as meaningful. They refuse to be the passive recipients of any badly structured reality defined by a world existing outside of their need. In this they differ from all of their ancestors. They are making their Eden on earth, and will not be expelled from the Garden because they are writing the ground rules. The first of their laws is this: appearance is a reality unto itself, without dialectic recourse to occurrence.
Their architect is concerned that the house so made is adding to the increased unreality of the world, to its seeming tendency to become a full-scale model of itself. But is the architect right? Or is the architect just confused? For fully a century we have desired to see a space acknowledging the rich Modern awareness that the means we use to measure and map and describe space are ultimately irrational. 2 But haven’t the disappointingly literal efforts to model such a space — all the many Merzbauen — somehow fallen short?
Of course, in set theory, ultimate irrationality isn’t a consequence of a contradiction between similar terms, but between the term and the framework making all terms meaningful. There cannot, for example, be a set of all sets — that set would have to include itself, an impossibility. So in architecture such a contradiction would not occur in spatial terms alone. It would occur between space and the framework that allows us to understand space as meaningful; and it would not present itself as a contradiction, as something that inhibits action. Rather it would — as in set theory — be hidden by the fact that the contradiction itself allows for action. If we have hoped to see that space in our architectures, we have missed the evidence mounting before our eyes. Don and Karen have solved the problem by refusing to accept it as a problem at all. We may think of them as conservative, but they are conserving nothing, least of all our secret hope that architecture is a conduit to the real.