Friday, February 18, 2005

Intimacy's Dwelling

The playwright John Guare and the designer Adele Chatfield-Taylor have apartments that share the same service hall. When they got married, her mother asked, "Well, now are you going to live together?" The reply: "Certainly not! Why let a little thing like matrimony ruin a big thing like good design?"
It's a humerous anecdote, but it also reveals a broader truth about the creative ways we can negotiate intimacy and preserve our relationships. Think of Frida Kahlo's Casa Chica, a small blue house that was joined to Diego Rivera's large pink Casa Grande by a third-floor bridge. Or the painter Vanessa Bell, who shared a nighttime house with Clive Bell and their children but lived and worked during the day with Duncan Grant, the father of her youngest child, at their Charleston House studio. (Virginia Woolf, Vanessa Bell's sister, called the studio "the masterppiece and joint memorial to their left-handed marriage.")
Relationships that work allow room for the imaginal requirements of all parties involved. Otherwise the unmet imagination will begin devising a fantasy of a way out-and the life it seeks will always be elsewhere. A "dream house" should be a house capable of dreaming-a dwelling with room for fantasy, centers of solitude, planes of boredom, a stable for the nightmare, and openings to attract the rooting psyche.
Too many people grow up in houses of wishful thinking instead. Couples who had insurmountable distances placed between them by Depression-era poverty or by the world wars, for example, were often linked by an intense shared fantasy of a peaceful and abundant life together. Happiness could be achieved if only the image were just so-the perfect mate, a perfect wedding, a perfect house.
This blueprint for happiness simply doesn't work, a possibility I was first alerted to when a Quaker Sunday school teacher drove a group of us to the outskirts of our town in New Jersey to look at a new housing development. Houses sat in a row, neat as a pin, exactly the same size. In contrast with nearby older, colonial houses on irregular, deep, and oddly landscaped lots-each featuring nooks for the imagination to dwell-these newer houses appeared lonely: isolated, inorganic, finished, and dead.
How could children, or relationships, so housed possibly survive, I wondered? Architects probably have files on housing design in the 1950's and corresponding divorce rates in the 1960's. Even today, at the start of the 21st century, housing and lifestyle markets continue to urge a stupefying conformity that curses marriage and partnerships of all kinds. Fortunatly, there are architects and dreamers who prevail in pushing the limits imposed by the stereotyped, boxed version of relationship-who succeed in creating spaces to imaginatively house ourselves with room for intimacy.
Architect Christopher Alexander, for example, (see other post on this blog titled: "Building as if Life mattered") attempts in his work to resolve the age-old Njord-Skadi dilemma in Scandinavian folklore: Njord loved the sea and Skadi the mountains. Each was restless and ill at ease in the place of the other, so they established a festival of meeting in between. Addressing the delicate problem of the balance of solitudes, Alexander asks, How large a field is required for companionship? And how much privacy does each person require?
The challenge is to design domains of intimacy rather than to construct close quarters. After all, intimacy, unlike closeness, is never repellent. One of the designs I have lived-in a marriage that works!-extends Alexander's plan in space and time to include a roving shared realm anchored by separate private dwellings. There is my husband's place (in Minneapolis) and my place (in St Paul), and then there are the places in the world where we meet.
Living in distinct dwellings makes it necessary to be taken in to each other's intimacy. Such a design asks me to consider how my house houses him, and how his house houses me. The arrangement is stable but with and added note of impermanence because of the ever-present question "Will you live together someday?"
Separate spaces posit triangles. Whether or not the triangle involves a third person, a third space destabilizes a potentially static "twoness" and generates movement. The desire behind this design was made literal in the '60's ideal of communal life: Everyone lived in separate dwellings linked by a communal hearth, paths from house to house etching triangles in the meadow.
Even if you don't live in a dwelling entirely distinct from your partner's, houses should have structures to enable separation: walls, large work surfaces, different levels, sectioned yards, outside porches or decks above ground, discrete lighting (reading lights for one), solid doors, and window seats. And, of course, elements that encourage touching: couches for two, softening colors, beds, small passageways between some rooms, intimate tables for eating, entryways to facilitate greeting.
Nourishing separate spaces might seem a little too radical for some people, especially those who are married. But, as the impertinent writer Phyllis Rose says, "Whith regard to marriage, we need more complex plots."

-Author Nor Hall has never lived with her husband of 15 years, Roger Hale. After all this time, they still have only the bare essentials-a toothbrush, a bathrobe, a pair of pajamas-at each other's houses. "Our relationship has none of the niggling day-to-day problematics of life,"Hall says. "Coming together is more stimulating." An earlier version of this article appeared in Marriages (Spring 1996) by James Hillman, Ginette Paris, Nor Hall, Rachel Pollack, et al.

-Found in The Utne Reader, November/December 2004 and titled there: "The Architecture of Intimacy"