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This article by Barbara Fox was prepared for the April 28, 2004

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From Memories, Your Next House

The first house we bought was on a steep hill.

One side of the driveway was an embankment with a three-foot stone wall. The other was a sheer drop, protected by a one-foot stone wall. In the winter we did not attempt to shovel the driveway. We just clambered up from the bottom of the hill (precarious when you are seven months pregnant and carrying groceries) and waited until the thaw. Or we gunned the motor up the hill and hoped we could get back down.

One memorable day my car ended up at the bottom of the hill, planted cross ways on the stone wall, and was blessedly rescued by two Mormon missionaries who happened to be passing by.

Only the young, you say, would make such a foolish house purchase. Or else it was a beautiful house. Or it came at a bargain price. Yes, yes, and yes, but those aren’t the real reasons.

The real reason for our purchase was that my husband grew up in a house on a steep hill with a curvy driveway. And they didn’t shovel in the winter. It was a family point of honor that if you had a car, you could get up the hill past that icy curve. Your childhood environment, as it turns out, is a major factor in what kinds of living spaces you will like as an adult. A house or a room that made you uncomfortable as a child – you will avoid that design as an adult. A staircase, a chair, a porch that you loved as a child – you will resonate with it later in life.

Architects and savvy real estate agents began to formally take childhood experiences into account in the 1960s, when Gaston Bachelard began to write about the poetics of space. Princeton-based author Toby Israel’s recent book, "Some Place Like Home: Using Design Psychology to Create Ideal Places," breaks new ground. She does in-depth interviews with three architects – Michael Graves, Andres Duany, and Charles Jencks – digging into the emotional roots of their early environments, finding out "how places from the past contain the seeds of future choices, for home locations, dwellings, and interior design."

On the practical side, Israel’s book provides self-help worksheets. Take her questions, interview yourself, and come up with your own "emotion-based environmental roots" analysis. Use this to buy your next house – or remodel your current abode – and you will most likely be happy with the results.

A 1973 graduate of Trinity College in Hartford, with a PhD from City University of New York, Israel taught in Great Britain in the 1990s and most recently worked at Looney Ricks Kiss (LRK) on Vandeventer Street. She spoke at the American Institute of Architects in Philadelphia on Tuesday, April 27, and her next scheduled engagement is on Friday, September 17, at Grounds for Sculpture.

Israel refers to Bachelard’s "land of that Motionless Childhood," motionless because it stays in place while our lives move on, and also refers to Clare Cooper Marcus’s "House as Mirror of Self." She urges the reader to "go into the storehouse of memory and come as close as possible to retrieving the poetry of lost home." Reflecting on these memories can help us make better decisions. "With clearer vision, we can strive to create homes and other places that mirror our most fulfilled selves."

Israel offers a Design Psychology Toolbox, exercises to do and questions to ask yourself. For instance, in what way(s), if any, do you think your personality is reflected in your present home? In what way(s), if any, do you think your home reflects anyone else’s personality?

Overall, do you feel comfortable that your home reflects who you really are? If not, what changes would you make?

Ponder how your family’s environmental experiences differed from generation to generation. What sense of home do you want to pass down to future generations as part of your legacy of place?

Create a time line of city settings you lived in from birth to present and calculate how many years you have lived in each of the following settings: city, town, village, suburb, or countryside.

Looking at the timeline, decide what kind of setting you lived in most from ages infant to eighteen, and judge if you like that kind of setting. Are you happy in your current setting?

Other tools include ways to draw mental maps and go through self guided visualizations of favorite childhood places.

Israel applies her design therapist’s eye to the selection and furnishing of her own house in Princeton. She describes how she and a team of architects from Witherspoon Street-based KSS Architects (including Michael Shatkin, Merilee Meacock, and Peter Mattioni) applied her tools to designing a charter school in Jersey City.

But what gives Israel’s book its special eclat are the in-depth interviews with celebrity architects, lavishly illustrated with color plates. Israel was turned down in her interview request by the likes of Denise Scott-Brown and Frank Gehry. Of the three who did agree, Andres Duany is a New Urbanist planner who advocates "walkable" communities, Charles Jencks is a noted critic, and Michael Graves is, of course, Princeton’s own reigning prince of Post Modernism, the antithesis to look-alike big box buildings. The architects had editorial control over the final version of their interviews.

Though Graves is relaxed and accommodating to interviewers, he generally veers away from discussions of his personal life. But over the course of six hours Israel’s probing questions helped Graves to discover new insights about himself, and Graves’s groupies will be fascinated by his candid replies. He tells of his grandmother’s wonderfully creaky old Carpenter Gothic house:

"It was an extremely pleasant house – made pleasant by my grandmother. There was a pump in the kitchen, and dark, floral wall paper. Always waiting for us the huge Thanksgiving-style dinner my grandmother prepared. I can remember my grandmother telling us stories, cooking. It was all very loving. "

The most startling insight was that his visits to the Cleveland stockyards, where his father, grandfather, and uncle worked, has been a significant influence on his design for libraries in San Juan Capistrano, and Denver, and even his own Princeton home.

His memories of the stockyards fall into the category of a "transcendent place," not a place that represents family, love, and affection, but a place remembered as "an unforgettable living presence in itself, exciting all five senses and inspiring exuberance, calm, or awe." Graves described it:

"An exaggerated building with great elevated passageways all made of wood which crisscrossed in the air, more like Piranesi, though I didn’t know that at the time. It was not just the passageways, but that you looked down on the animals in their pens. There was a character to it that I’ve never seen since," said Graves.

"I talk about character a lot. I wasn’t so aware of it when I was in school. Now I’m more aware of what that experience meant; it was dramatic. This was an exaggerated building. For me it was the recognition of character. It affected how I later came to regard Modernity – particularly its lack of breadth."

"Understand that I’m from a place in the Midwest without much culture, without much building," said Graves. He has no warm feelings for the nondescript houses of the Indianapolis suburbs. "The library, the church were real buildings, but they were so ordinary that you wouldn’t think twice about them. The profundity of the stockyards was a result of its contrast compared to my house, school, shopping center, etc."

Though the suburbs offered good streets for bicycling, but that was about all. "It had biases," said Graves, "in that we didn’t go to theater, exhibitions, galleries. We didn’t travel. We weren’t deprived. We just didn’t do those things."

The depth of his youthful naivete can be indicated by the fact that when he went to architecture school in Cincinnati, he had never even heard of Frank Lloyd Wright. When he went to Harvard for a master’s degree, he was the only one in the class who had never been to Europe. And when he spent two years in Italy, he describes it as a return to his (non literal) roots. "Graves clearly acknowledged his own development while in Rome," writes Israel. "He was able to let go of Modernism’s ‘moralism’ and let color replace whiteness. In Rome, culture and conviviality joined hands for Graves on both a personal and an architectural level."

A short teaching stint at Princeton University turned into a lifelong stay. Princeton offered the safe streets of the Indianapolis suburb, but it had more cultural opportunities.

"I liked it OK, but 30 years ago it was a different place. The university wasn’t co-ed. Nor was it as popular as it is today. Since then, the explosion of everything in the immediate area has brought a kind of roundness to the town’s life which is quite satisfying. It’s a university town, a commercial center with a variety of people. Princeton is like a small, contained city, but avoiding all the negatives of a big city. It’s a good base. In some ways it’s like Verona, rather insular yet manageable, though Princeton has greater choices."

His house in Princeton is a former Princeton University warehouse for furniture. Israel says that with its 44 narrow rooms, it bears similarities to the stockyards, with its line of narrow pens. Graves admitted there might be a connection, that he might have been subliminally attracted to the warehouse for that reason, but he was more enthusiastic about a different conclusion, that both the warehouse and the stockyards attracted him because they had character. Said Graves: "The interest in character, itself, is something I see as a distinguishing character of my work."

He also thinks he was strongly influenced by his stay in Italy. When he found the warehouse it was in ruins but, said Graves, "had a certain integrity. It didn’t seem to be styled. I find out later why that character came through; it was built by Italian masons. They built it as a Tuscan warehouse, a Tuscan barn."

When it comes to his struggle to make a house a home – about the financial pressures Graves had when he was young, the collapse of two marriages, his current lack of leisure time, and his bachelor existence — Israel quotes Graves in some detail.

On a larger scale Israel criticizes the lack of psychological training for today’s designers. In particular, she castigates Peter Eisenman for his design for the World Trade Center, office towers "which would appear to be collapsing – buckling at the news. If, in a moment of insanity, such buildings were actually to be built, they would enshrine and extend our trauma rather than heal the American psyche."

For most of us, though, this book is a rich source of speculative conversation on one’s own environmental memories and those of one’s friends. It could certainly be useful in making decisions on what houses to buy or how to decorate, and it has fueled my own plans.

Because if the house on a hill was my husband’s fond memory, mine was of a childhood spent in an small farmhouse set close to its newer neighbors on each side, and the farmhouse had an L-shaped porch, complete with swing. Oh, how I loved to sit on that swing and watch the cars and people pass. Every other house I’ve lived in since then has had a porch of some kind.

Until we moved to the house on the hill. And several years after we moved into the house on the hill, we built a deck on the front That could pass for a porch. Now I know why. Now that I have "gone into my storehouse of memory and retrieved the poetry of my Motionless Childhood," I realize that I really needed that porch.

Does my current house, an aging Cape Cod where we have lived for more than 20 years, possess a porch? No, and to tell you the truth, I never really resonated with that house. So if you see trucks parked in front of it, and you see workmen digging footings on our front lawn, you’ll know that Design Psychology triumphed again.

– Barbara Fox

Toby Israel Consulting Inc., 429 Walnut Lane, Princeton 08540. 609-683-1317; fax, 609-683-4332. Www.designpsychology.org.

"Some Place Like Home" ( $45, Wiley-Academy, 2003) is on sale at Micawber’s and Graves Design Studio Store. It may also be purchased from the the author’s website.


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