Guestwords: What to Tell Your Architect
I was 4 years old when my mother remarried and we all moved into an old house with a spooky basement and attic. Sometimes I heard frightening sounds coming from the top of the attic stairs.
My mother had an explanation — she said that our house had a connection with a neighbor’s house and the noises were really from that house. This explanation made no sense, but I never questioned her logic. I began thinking about how our houses might be interconnected — underground tunnels?
I built cardboard models of the homes on our street. Where were these phantom connections? I fantasized about eating my way through licorice passageways going from one house to the next. After years of constructing cardboard models, it was now time for me to leave home. I wanted to be an architect.
The summer before I enrolled in the architecture program at the Rhode Island School of Design, Le Corbusier’s Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts was under construction at Harvard University. I went to Boston and spent an afternoon running up and down the ramps that led around and through this amazing building. Circulation was key. It was the first and would be the last Le Corbusier project in the United States.
Later that summer, I interned for an architect who had worked with Le Corbusier in Paris. My assignment was to design the finishing details of a home for a psychiatrist who practiced shock therapy . . . and lost a few patients in the process. This doctor abhorred dirt, and we designed accordingly. The interior was a seamless surface formed with poured concrete, including all the furnishings — a concrete bed, concrete chairs, and concrete sofas all coated with resin mixed with multicolor plastic chips. No soft surface. Was there a hidden stash of cushions?
Water connections were installed in each area so that the entire interior could be hosed down — no need to sweep, vacuum, or mop. The residue water ran down into a filtering trough that surrounded a centrally located swimming pool. The entire home was designed as an open plan and sloped to the drains. A design feat!
Half walls on which I painted artworks screened the private spaces. I was given paintings to copy — a Picasso went behind the master bed and an Ellsworth Kelly hid the kitchen/dining area.
I had just finished painting a shuffleboard on the driveway and while cleaning up I accidently knocked over a can of paint. White paint ran down the black asphalt. It’s impossible to clean paint from blacktop, so I resorted to painting the spill black. I was finished painting when our client called to say he was coming for an inspection. I was asked to turn on the vibrating walkway that led to the front door. Yes, a vibrating walkway was installed so the dirt from visitors would be shaken off. I already told you that our client had an extreme fear of dirt.
That fall I entered the architecture program at RISD. One of my roommates had a collection of richly illustrated old British medical books about phobias. At night we would examine the pictures, discuss the drawing techniques, and be shocked and titillated by the array of mental disorders.
Soon I’d have no time to research phobias. We were now designing large public buildings: a shopping center, a sports complex, an office building, and a school in the Appalachian Mountains. Each week I spent hours studying construction and building codes — so many possibilities for disaster. For example, what if my office building was fully occupied and a fire broke out in an elevator shaft or hallway? Were my fire exits sufficient? What if there was an occupancy overload? A nightmare! (I woke up before any trapped people were injured or died.)
After my student days of prerequisite public building projects, I tried to avoid designing large buildings for real, though sometimes this couldn’t be avoided. My first jobs were to design a hotel and exhibition galleries in London, but I turned down a job to design the lighting for a major airport.
A few years later I was a practicing architect working in a Manhattan office. I was asked to document the West Village buildings abutting the West Side Highway. This required that I take pictures of the area while hanging out of a helicopter. Have I mentioned my extreme fear of heights? Before that day, I would fall to the floor in high places — that is, if I allowed myself to be in a high place. Should I ask a client about his phobias before accepting the job? Clients’ phobias were not addressed in architecture school.
I have since designed for some very fearful clients. They come with a litany of phobias, but extreme claustrophobia is a popular one. One client told me his daughter suffered from claustrophobia but failed to mention he also had a fear of enclosed spaces. Taking this into consideration, I designed all spaces and passageways with an open feeling. Interestingly, this client objected to the openness of my plans. Back to the drawing board. New plans were drawn but they were also rejected — too expensive. Cost was mentioned several more times but we all knew the real problem — the preservation of phobias.
Do we create our phobias? Is architecture also psychotherapy? The famous architect Frank Gehry recently designed a home for a very wealthy client, and there was no budget. After several years, the client finally approved of a design . . . but overnight he changed his mind. A fear of commitment? A second design, then a third. Mounting architect fees.
One day the client blurted out that this was the best psychotherapy he had ever had, and there was no longer a reason to build his dream home.
Judy Freeman lives in the Clearwater Beach section of Springs and is the architectural and planning consultant for the Clearwater Beach Association.