Dr. H and her House
In Toronto in the 1970s, Colin and I started together in the Architecture school. He was about 18; I was much older, having attended other various universities for over three years, and finally decided to study architecture.
Even at 18, Colin seemed rather pensive. He was friendly enough, but did not talk very much. He seemed to prefer being in his own thoughts. I understood he was very good at mathematics, and had already won several distinguished prizes. From the very first day, we seemed to get along very well. At the
time, he appeared to appreciate my humour, which I suspect at that time was rather sardonic. In turn, I appreciated his solitude and meditation.
We carried on our friendship through the ensuing years, and one holiday I was invited to visit his family, or actually his mother. He had no siblings; his father had passed away years earlier, just at the end of the war. Everybody called his mother Dr. H, so I too adopted that address. Dr. H was a professor of geography in Ottawa. I and Colin subsequently spent some long weekends in Ottawa in her apartment. It was on Sparks Street, a pre-war apartment built in the 1920s, spacious and with many rooms.
In the middle of our second year of study, Colin decided he really could not see himself as an architect. He perceived that being an architect required spending a huge amount of time with people, and he did not wish to do that. We had long walks in the city and even longer discussions about his dilemma. In the end, he decided he really wanted to devote himself to mathematics, and he persuaded me to write a long letter to Dr. H. Fortunately, Dr. H seemed to anticipate his move, and consented to his decision.
Even after he was in the Mathematics department, we still had our long walks and the occasional lunch together. In due course, I finished my architecture degree and began working for a well-known firm. At almost the same time, Colin finished his Master’s degree and left to spend a year in Germany on his PhD. At the age of 27, upon his return, he became the youngest professor in the university.
We did not meet as often as we wished then. He was deeply involved in his research, and I was welcomed into a group of 8 or 9 loosely connected people who were eager to be avant-garde designers and who spent a great deal of time talking in cafés and bars. We gravitated to one café in particular; it was newly opened in a somewhat bohemian part of Toronto. Of course, Post-modernism was a favourite subject of our discussions. Phenomenology was another. We competed in the art of pithy observations about people such as Sartre, and silly one-liners we thought were meaningful: “Good designers never pimp the space,” “…ontological structure of human experience,” “…non-linear recognition of place.” We had heated debates about Merleau-Ponty, Martin Heidegger, Edmund Husserl, and of course, Gaston Bachelard and the poetics of space. We all had vague ideas about phenomenology and tried desperately to link them to architecture design.
Colin and I met from time to time. I was interested in his research, even though my understanding of it was hazy, but I was pleased for the recognition he received for it. We would have dinners of noodles and dumplings in a small hole-in-the-wall Chinese restaurant. One such night, Colin mentioned that his mother was planning her retirement from the university, and had a plan to move back to “her homestead”. The homestead consisted of a piece of farmland near the lake. Dr. H owned the land and shoreline and was thinking of building a small house for her retirement. Colin suggested I should undertake the task of designing this retirement home. I was absolutely thrilled, as a young architect, to have a chance at such a dream project.
We arranged that I should meet Dr. H in Ottawa the following Saturday in her house there. The snow was still on the ground in late February. Friday night after work, I jumped in my old red Triumph TR4A about 6 pm. The drive would be about 5 hours, and I would stay in a small motel outside Ottawa for the rest of the night. The next morning, I would have plenty of time to get to my appointment. It was a long 5-hour drive. The highway between Toronto and Ottawa was cleared of snow, flat and straight. I focused on the driving, but at the same time I was thinking about how to present myself to Dr. H. I thought it would be best to present some theory of architecture, based on post-modernism, phenomenology, and all the latest architecture publications. I considered that a few quotations from Bachelard would be appropriate, after which I would present a design idea. I went over this presentation in my mind several times. I had a shower and went to bed, feeling prepared for my presentation and rather pleased with myself and this line of thinking.
The next morning by 10 o’clock I was in Dr. H’s apartment. I looked around at the room I was in, Dr. H’s study. It was a room of generous proportions, lined with bookshelves, with a large, ornate desk, comfortable leather chairs, three tall windows looking down to the busy street, a beautiful Persian rug, and another large table covered with large, open books of maps and documents. Dr. H was sitting in her chair behind the desk. The desk was covered with various small objects, perhaps souvenirs from her travels. I was sitting in one of the large leather chairs, facing Dr. H.
Dr. H smiled, greeted me, and asked about Colin; then she leaned back in her chair and waited for me to say something. I used the opportunity to launch into my prepared presentation. She listened patiently to the end. When I had finished, Dr. H looked at me with some intensity, smiled, and said, “I don’t know what you are talking about. And I don’t think you know what you are talking about.”
When I was a child, I used to fly kites. When the kite flew into an area where there was no movement of air, it dropped straight down to the ground. At that moment, I felt like that kite. And curiously, at the same time, I felt relieved that somebody had pointed out I didn’t know what I was talking about. I understood that indeed I didn’t know what I was talking about, and now I was free of having to struggle with the big ideas of the European philosophers and the clichés and interpretations of my fellow designers.
Dr. H kindly said, “Let’s have some tea, and start our little project.” She had a wonderful way of organizing our meeting and making me feel at ease. She suggested she begin by explaining her current style of living in the apartment, and later we could envision what her new life near the lake would be. She asked me to take notes of all her aspects of living, in full detail down to where she stored her food, how she organized her books, what activities filled her days. I took pages and pages of notes. Then Dr. H kindly mentioned that Colin had told her I was good at translating ideas into images and that I could sketch. So, she proposed my task would be to study my notes carefully, and then interpret them in images and sketches. I could offer various projections and alternative approaches. Then in the next stage, we would select the appropriate directions and make decisions. The sketches would form the basis for our discussion.
For the next two weeks, I studied my notes to understand Dr. H’s daily living, and I made numerous sketches for alternative approaches. In fact, I accumulated four large notebooks of sketches and notes. Dr. H called and informed me that she would be in Toronto the following weekend. She would be staying with Colin. In the meantime, she instructed me to go visit the site of her property, which was about 50 miles north of Toronto. She described the directions carefully.
On the next Monday, I was asked by the head of the architecture firm that employed me to visit a construction site. The site meeting was short, problems were solved, and since it wasn’t far from Dr. H’s property, I had a chance to visit her land. To get there, I had to go over a small creek and along a road running on the north side of the property. There was a defunct postbox leaning to one side, which was the beginning of the property. I parked my car on a small patch of gravel. The land gently sloped to the lakefront to the south. About 30 yards away from the water, the edge of the land dropped about 12 feet. Trees lined both the east and west boundaries. In between were groups of oak and birch. It was a wonderful building site: good drainage, good orientation, fertile soil of sand and clay.
I reported my visit to the site to Dr. H on the phone. We arranged a meeting at 10 am Saturday at Colin’s place since Colin had to be at the university all that day. I took all the sketches I had prepared along with all my notes, and we spent the whole day discussing the sketches and various approaches. Dr. H’s comments were useful and stimulating, and as a result we identified a new direction. She suggested that the next day, Sunday, we could go up to the site and meet George, the builder.
We went out to a restaurant for dinner when Colin came home. During the meal, I learned that Dr. H was very involved with a group of geographers at Syracuse University, which was the beginning of the formation of a School of Cultural Geography. Her recent research had focused on the feelings of displaced people, such as people who relocated to mining towns, and the meaning of the place to them.
On Sunday, Dr. H, Colin and I traveled to the site in Dr. H’s car, a Jaguar XJ6. We walked the whole site. Dr. H was in high spirits and was talking about the early human settlement there by the Huron tribes, followed by the waves of subsequent immigrant settlers, the returned soldiers from the Napoleonic wars, and the Chinese railroad workers. She gave meaning to the site. Suddenly, it wasn’t a blank piece of land waiting to be made into something with the execution of a series of my drawings. Through her words, the land had meaning; its significance was as a landscape of historical human activity, to which the land was witness. Dr. H asked me to listen to the site: the wind in the pine trees, the water lapping on the shore, the birds all around. I watched the changing light in the short day and felt it was a living site. We were there in winter, but I could see in my mind the changes the seasons would bring.
As the light faded, a pick-up truck came down the road on the far side of the property. A smallish man in his 40s, wearing denim overalls, stepped out and walked toward us. I assumed he must be George. Dr. H quickly briefed me: He was from the fifth generation of a family of joiners and builders; his grandfather came from Norway to settle in the area; they were once shipbuilders who had become builders of homes.
After introductions, Dr. H skillfully defined our project. I took an instant liking to George. He was a reserved man but generous, quick to offer his expertise and knowledge. While we were standing in the middle of the site, Dr. H gave an interesting narrative. I mention it here because I am still struggling with its meaning.
She said, “If you place a box in the middle of the site, then the box has six sides. The six sides form the volume on the inside, and the sides—let’s call them ‘separators’—have a dual responsibility. They all face different things, but they also enclose the inside. For example, one separator faces the lake and has to respond to it, but the inward side has to respond to the void. Similarly, the separator facing the road has to respond to the road. The separator facing the oak trees has to respond to the oak trees, and the one facing the birch trees responds to that. The top separator responds to the sky, and the bottom separator responds to the earth. The all respond to the inside. The meaning of the box comes from the responses of these separators.”
I realized from her words the interior is the interior and the outside is the outside. I understood that my design would not be about bringing the outside in. She said, “If I want to be outside, I will take a chair outside and see from there.” I tried hard to understand the implications and applications of this idea of the box and to make them manifest in my design of her house. I came to use her box as the theoretical framework of my design for her.
On the way home, I was very quiet. To some extent I was a little frightened about my task. When I said goodbye to Dr. H, she seemed to sense my mood. She took my arm, and said, “Work on it. It will turn out all right.”
On Monday I went to the office and asked my boss for a leave of 2 weeks. She said no. The most she could give me was one week. That week, I worked almost continuously. I drew, I made models, and I must have phoned George 10 times. He seemed to like me, and didn’t mind my calling him daily.
In April, the snow had mostly disappeared and the bare ground was brown. I drove to Ottawa with my drawings and models to present them to Dr. H. She examined each model carefully and made comments and minor modifications. After a bit more discussion, she said she was pleased with our result, and said, “Go ahead.”
Driving home, I felt spring was in the air. The landscape and the light seemed to soften. At home, I called George to tell him the news. I would begin the working drawings, and we could start construction in May. He projected we could have the building completed by the end of September.
The next few weeks I used every moment I could spare to prepare the working drawings, with help from George. All summer I went back and forth to the site. I saw nothing of my architectural philosophy group, but sometimes Colin accompanied me on a drive to see how the construction was coming along. Dr. H was in Europe, attending conferences.
Just as George had promised, the house was finished by the end of September. It was a modest house, snug in the site with trees surrounding the area; the house, the garage, and the guest house formed a small complex. In October, Dr. H formally retired from the university and moved into the house. The leaves had changed colour and the ground was getting hard as the nights grew cold. She was pleased with her new home, especially the study. George had done all the joinery: bookshelves, cabinets, window seat. After Dr. H settled in her house, I was frequently invited to have lunches and dinners there. I met her relatives and friends.
After one dinner, when I was saying goodbye in the hall, I told her I had accepted a job in a small town in a remote corner of the province. She gave me an inquisitive look. I said I needed a quiet place to read and think and re-educate myself. She said, “Let me know your progress.” “Absolutely, “I replied. “I also will need help from you.” That night was clear, with a full moon, as I drove home. Fresh snow blanketed the landscape. * Top photo: Oddfellows' Hall Toronto ca 1970.jpg