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Silted Up

I have been thinking about space and volume, how we our design processes idealize them, and how seldom that ideal is actually experienced. When we do happen upon a great space – interior or exterior, designed or natural – we slow down, remark upon it, note how it works and go quiet. The Pantheon, the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern, any Palladian rotunda, The Mall in Washington DC, The Rainier vista on a clear day, the great Mosque in Cordoba, the landscape of stupa at the top of Borobudur are memorable due to their perfection, each in its own way. They are also empty…of stuff. Could this be why they stand out?

Our rooms are filled with stuff, our streets and plazas with furnishings and sculpture, our days with a continuous chatter of sound, sights and activity. Very little of it is in concert. I wonder if that has always been the case, or if it is a recent phenomenon – do we continue to teach and use once-legitimate design strategies that are doomed to compromise? Or perhaps it has always been thus, and our design ideals have simply been a method used to forge order amidst chaos, to make the built world decipherable. Studio culture is removed, abstract, controlled, cool.bouncy castle sales

My mother recently moved, which brought these thoughts to the forefront. She had been living in my old farmhouse in Vermont, and as she emptied the house the rooms became volumes of ordered space.  I know the place will need furniture, but I am tempted to leave it empty. Who doesn’t know that pleasure – of entering a new apartment before the boxes arrive and again,when moving out, the sweet melancholy when the boxes are gone, and you linger. It is lovely to walk through unencumbered rooms, and in Vermont my appreciation of the exterior views – the distant hills and fog rolling through the river valley is heightened through the experience of open interior space, and volume. A carefully considered room is a marvelous foil for the brain.

A model incorporating both memorable spatial experiences and an accomplished method for storing stuff is Sir John Soane’s Museum in London. I met the curator Peter Thornton in 1986. Thornton had previously overseen historic homes in the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. In that role he discovered the restoration strategies for pre-nineteenth-century historic buildings were not being applied as well to their furnishings, an inconsistency that he set out to resolve. Through the study of historic paintings, etchings, sketches and written descriptions he proved that most rooms in great houses were designed to be quite open, and convertible. Furniture was simple, and it was typically either moved to the side or removed from rooms when not being used. Think of a harpsichord sitting on a portable base – move it in for a recital, move it out for dinner. Some chairs were designed as an integral part of wall decoration, with upholstery matching upper wall panels above a plain wainscot. The chairs had to be against the walls in order for the room to be complete, explaining to some extent why the backs of old chairs appear so poorly considered – they were brought out to seat owners and guests who rarely saw their backs. Rather than expensive furniture, considerable resources were invested in clothing, table linens, and hand-made portable furnishings such as candelabra. Beds were conspicuously different – where they existed they tended to be large, expensive and immoveable.

The houses that Dr. Thornton was in charge of had been filled with furniture from later periods.  He explained to me that among other things the rise of leisure classes, more larger homes, the design of dresses that allowed sitting and the mass-production of furniture led rooms away from being flexible with little furniture to having fixed purposes – the dining room, the parlor, the game room, the music room are examples. Furniture became fixed- think now of an immoveable piano rather than that lightweight and portable harpsichord – and there was considerably more of it. The Palm Court of an Edwardian hotel comes to mind. Dr. Thornton referred to this process as “silting up”. His book, Authentic Décor: The Domestic Interior 1620 – 1920 changed the way I looked at design, and my practice.

Palm Court

We work very hard to make our houses and offices showrooms of stuff – the toasters, wind-up toys, books, clock-radios and stereos, tables and chairs and china and tools and artwork and shelving, and anything designed by Ray and Charles Eames. This makes sense – that stuff makes us happy (I am not qualified to say why) and most of us don’t stay in one place, so investing too much in the bricks and mortar of our lives isn’t sensible – yet that is what we apparently care about the most as architects. We take great pains to understand the hierarchies and relationships of space (s), and to resolve them. We dream and draw plans, sections and elevations of composed space with proportions to die for, and then we…

…fill them, or let our clients fill them with all sorts of stuff that we never drew, and in ways that we would not have predicted. There are times when it hurts. Imagine the Pantheon filled with rubber duckies. Actually, that sounds sort of fabulous…but you get my drift. At a minimum it would be quite a distraction.

A world-record collection of rubber duckies.

The trouble is, we love our stuff! It comes from our mom, or was given to us by our first boy/girlfriend, or we collect (I admit it – wind-up robots are a weakness for me), we won it in a race, or we made it, or it inspires something in us or makes us feel unique (which you are), or it came from Aunt Gertrude and your siblings will be angry if you try to get rid of it. It travels with us, and as we get older there is more. And more. And more.

Some of Dale Chihuly’s collection of stuff

So should we be thinking, teaching, learning, working differently? Does it make sense for us to continue to learn from, to be inspired by, and to mimic the historic examples that we can all name when our work is going to be dominated by collections of stuff those examples never anticipated? Look carefully at Palladio, and tell me where I can store my raincoat. Examine the plan of the Mosque in Cordoba and tell me where you would put cleaning supplies. Frank Lloyd Wright, Louis Kahn, Mies, the early modernists of the Pacific Northwest – where would they put all the stuff we carry with us today?

I don’t have answers, but last night when I stubbed my toe on the sofa while carefully reaching to turn off the light over my collection of birthday cards that balance on the top of a pile of large books…I wondered if this is how a curator feels, or if I am halfway to being featured on “Hoarders”. Those empty rooms in Vermont came to mind, perhaps mocking me.

I long for the quiet, composed, and resolved in our environment, and the older I get the less patient I am with it being “silting up”. My things make me happy – I have no issue with consumerism and collecting, but I’ll be thinking about how to develop a built environment that is both informed and strengthened by stuff rather than weakened or simply decorated by it.

Kimo Griggs, Associate Professor, is an architect and fabricator, teaching design studios and workshop-based coursework in materials, making, and digital-design-and manufacturing technologies. Kimo’s research and professional activities have long been focused on the intersection of craft, materials and manufacturing technologies. This trajectory has included the development of hands-on, workshop-based coursework incorporating these elements, with a particular emphasis on digital-design-and-manufacturing technologies.

Some of my daughter Wesley’s collection of stuff

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