Architecture is one of my pet obsessions, particularly residential architecture. Good houses are art, but even dime a dozen tract homes enclose, protect, and create psychological space for their inhabitants. I imbue houses with personalities and spirits. I imagine that their walls hold the collective residue of all the sadness and joy of their human occupants. Their staircases witness people trudging down to schooldays, workdays, rushing down to holiday mornings, nervously leaving for college and job interviews, being carried down to ambulances and funeral parlors, ascending for passionate nights in bed or and taking babies up to new nurseries. Older homes see generations of these coming and goings.
Nothing is sadder than a demolished house. All the hopes, dreams, fights, births, deaths — just snuffed and leveled. As though none of it meant anything at all. There’s a disturbing tendency to buy an older home and, if its less than 3,000 square feet, to raze it in favor of a much larger new home which then squats, bloated and pretentious, hogging the entire lot. When did people start needing so much damn space? I do love contemporary architecture very much, but so much of it is just bad conformist junk , that I mourn the “tiny” structures that proudly held families and dogs and cats and holidays and now aren’t good enough. * The wrecking ball is so impersonal.
A few weeks ago, I realized that a home had been torn down. It once belonged to a friend of mine and it was lovely: a 1920s pastel stucco with archways and wood floors, a small wedding cake of a house that had a garden in back. I knew my friend no longer owned the home, but I circled the block in disbelief to make sure I had the right address, unable to comprehend that it had been replaced so quickly with new construction.
I know nothing about the original circumstances or owners of this house. But in the days I knew it, there were so many fun times in that place, so many parties, boisterous love for one another, and drunken foolishness. I’ve got photos of myself dancing with abandon on a happy night when two of my friends became a lifetime couple. This house witnessed the misery of its owner when his partner left, his dogged fight back from the breakup, and his joyful dancing in the street one night that caused his stick-up-the-ass neighbors to call the police. And that’s just my own solipsistic, here’s -what- I -know memories. That’s a mere smudge of the emotional torrents that house saw. My dad remembers going to lifeguard parties in that house back in the 1950s. It may have seen some sadness, but I can say with certainty that this residence witnessed and inspired lots of happiness.
A house destroyed is an exercise in mortality. We see our memories — or if we’re the architect, our work — destroyed and realize that nothing is permanent. Nobody will now experience the smells, light, sounds, colors, and textures of living in this place. Especially if you grew up there . . . hey, your reality is now dust, and cosmically you just don’t matter that much.
Artist Rachel Whiteread addressed this Gone With the Wind syndrome with her 1993 work “House.” Basically, she created a full sized concrete cast of an East London row house that was slated for demolition. The grey husk sat in London for some time, looking like a sarcophagus, and winning the 1993 Turner Prize, annually presented for a significant British artist under the age of 50. Whiteread specializes in treating contemporary culture as artifact, producing resin, plaster, and concrete casts of things like rooms, bathtubs, mattresses, and houses, turning domestic fixtures into archaeological objects. The casts of these discarded objects are strangely haunting. They attest to the presence of the people who left the room, just as fossils in the mud are vestiges of things once alive and crawling.
I wish there was a cast of my friend’s 1920’s house — the front steps, the archway, the patio that supported the people who were coming in and out for more food and drink, laughing and gossiping, and not thinking about a time when the house wouldn’t be there, or a time when they wouldn’t be there, either. A cast of my friend’s convertible in the carport would be nice. In this way, generations are immortalized and we’re the Grecian Urn, and Pompeii, and Tyrannosaurus Rex.
Probably I should take a longer view, and London is a good metaphor to use because it’s just so damn old. It seems like for every parking garage built, somebody uncovers a Shakespearian theater or a Roman road. There was and is life on all levels, at all times. Whatever new structure is being built where my friend’s house once stood (and I’m still not sure — condo, apartment, annex to a nearby new hotel, bigger home?), it will undoubtedly fulfill its basic architectural functions, physical and psychological shelter. The rest is up to people — and one day, this place, too, will have its own luster of memory. And my friend’s ghost house will be there, too, just underneath, with all our voices.
(*Yes, of course I cry at The Brave Little Toaster.)