I walked with a friend last week — a lockdown lap of the local park. In conversation we covered the well-worn territory of our work, its ups and downs. “If you could start over,” he asked, ‘what would you do?” “Architecture,” I said without pause, “I would be an architect.”
It’s true. As a kid I lay in bed at night sketching floor plans on little white cards. They were humble places — three bedrooms and one bath — reflecting my childhood. Our eleven squares of cream-brick veneer was all I knew. I discovered grander possibilities only when I was older.
I have just finished reading Dominic Bradbury’s beautiful book The Secret Life of the Modern House. Through nineteen chapters, Bradbury traces the last 150 years of evolution in house design. With extraordinary insight he charts the way our homes have been reinvented, reflecting changing tastes and ways of living. It’s a fascinating tale.
At the outset Bradbury reminded me of the words of the great modernist architect Le Corbusier, referring to the spirituality of the home. “To build one’s house is very much like making one’s will,” he said, “when the time does arrive, it is not the mason’s nor the craftsman’s moment, but the moment in which every man makes one poem in his life.”
I like that. We are all homemakers; we are all writers of our own residential poems. The homes we ‘build’ and within which we make our lives are among our most precious possessions. Whether we rent or own, our homes reflect us. They embody our aspirations and, in time, they house our deepest values. Poems indeed.
Of course, what irks me about Bradbury’s tale is what so commonly gets up my nose about domestic architecture more generally: it serves the rich. Of all the homes that Bradbury writes about — those that set trends and challenged traditional ways of thinking — there is barely one I could live in. At architecture’s cutting edge, it is as though only those who can afford it are gathered up in the sublime beauty of its poetry. The inference is that the rest of us are left with simple ditties that never quite make the grade.
Yes, I know. It is the breakthroughs in grand architecture that supposedly ‘trickle down’ into the design of more ordinary homes. Yet the absence of the ordinary in these great tellings of residential history risk missing the essence of our story. The truth is, my parents’ three bedrooms and one bath — the home in which I dreamed of my own future — was a poem as sublime and real as any other.