“heat from a single woodstove”

in progress

In the night I was awake, thinking about Blue Portugal, the collection of essays I’ve recently completed. Almost completed, because there is space for one more, to be written after I visit my grandfather’s village in September. Last month I wrote about printing the manuscript and sitting down to edit it. I did that. I made my marks in red pen on the black text and then I entered the changes. Then I moved on to other work. (I’ve begun another novella and mostly I can’t stop thinking about it in that excited way that new work suspends one in, a state of heightened consciousness.)

But last night, awake, because I realized that one essay, “blueprint”, needs something more. But what? I resisted the urge to get up and come down in the dark to see what might be done because my life is very busy right now and I felt I needed to be my bed, under the quilt, beside my sleeping husband. I needed rest, not the excitement of sitting at my desk with the little lamp shining a light on my text. I talked myself back to sleep. But just before I fell into the warm tunnel of sleep, I scribbled a note on paper on my bedside table. An asterix and the words, Look to see what Robert Venturi has to say about his mother’s house. And now, at my desk, I have the book beside me: Mother’s House: The Evolution of Vanna Venturi’s House in Chestnut Hill, edited by Frederic Schwartz. It’s a book I read with avid curiousity when I was writing the first draft of “blueprint”. How the anticipated function of a building influences its design. I particularly enjoyed Venturi’s own essays in the book, one of them about designing a house for his mother in the early 1960s, the other considering the influence of the building 25 years later.

In the night, it seemed to be that the book might provide a small element for my own essay which I’ve felt needed an epigraph, a sign-post, an architectural note to the reader (and to me). And this morning, here it is, from Venturi’s essay, “Residence in Chestnut Hill”;

These complex combinations do not achieve the easy harmony of a few motifs based on exclusion – based, that is, on “less is more.” Instead, they achieve the difficult unity of a medium number of diverse parts based on inclusion and on acknowledgement of the diversity of experience.

He is summing up how he reconciled the compositional elements of the house he designed and built for his mother Vanna, the diagonals, the rectangular spaces, the scale, what architectural critics have called “the casual asymmetries”, the spacial requirements wedded to function and form. And how this passage speaks to me of what I’ve tried to do in an essay that remembers John’s work at a drafting table as he worked on plans for this house, that tries to figure out a blueprint from my grandparents’ papers, and arranges, throughout the work, a small showing of the cyanotypes of Anna Atkins.

floor plan

In my essay, I have a section of questions and answers. I asked the questions and John wrote out detailed and (to me) fascinating answers about the process for creating the rudimentary plans for our house.

3. When you look at the plans now, how do you feel? What do you remember about drawing them?

They make me proud a little. I did what I had to do to build a good house.

Our needs were perhaps simpler (and more economically restrained) than Vanna Venturi’s but reading a little of my essay this morning makes me realize that function and form are yoked in the most interesting ways, in architecture as well as writing.

Aesthetically the change in height indoors was a way to break up large open plan spacing, and to differentiate between rooms but still allow easy distribution of heat from a single woodstove, for example.