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September 2006 Message from Dan

Greetings Readers, Friends, and Other Visitors:

I’m building a house. Or at least I’m thinking about building a house. Or at least I’m talking to an architect about thinking about building a house.

For some of you who’ve been through this already, you hear the kettle drums and horns and perhaps the slam of a gong and almost certainly the ca-chink of a cash register behind that simple statement. Perhaps the soundtrack for such an announcement should be “Fanfare for the Common Man” suddenly cut off by the sound of a trumpet being sawed in half. Or maybe the sound of a trumpeter being sawed in half.

Writers shouldn’t be allowed to design and build their own houses. That’s all there is to it. From Mark Twain to Herman Wouk’s character Youngblood Hawke, allowing a novelist to design his or her own house has been tantamount to sending a child out to buy a ticket for the first sailing of the Titanic, and not just because writers are famous for being morons when it comes to finances. Perhaps the problem is that designing a house is far too much like planning and writing a novel. You’ve probably heard the comparisons – from finding the proper site for a home (choosing the genre and form and setting of the novel), to designing the layout of the house (so very much like plotting a book, literally from the foundation up), to doing the wiring and plumbing (those hidden but essential skills such as dialogue and narration and flashback and description that allow for the basic function of a tale), and then to the final finishes such as interior design and landscaping (the prose style and distinct narrative techniques which the reader notices first.)

Yep. Designing and building a home is way too much like writing a novel.

In my case – our case – the house in question may be built on the site of my current “cabin” on the property called Windwalker at 8,400 feet of altitude along the Continental Divide in the Colorado Rockies. This creates certain unique challenges, not the least of which is the fact that the half-mile driveway in to the secluded site often is blocked by snowdrifts for days or even weeks during the endless mountain winter. And then, of course, even if one gets in to the house there will be the winter itself – that period between Nov. 1 and June 1. Even though there is much sunlight in the Colorado Rockies – and much beauty during the snowy months – the winters up there are long.

Obviously, then, it’s time to design two houses – one at Windwalker and the other in Hawaii. (The great thing about being a writer is that one’s work is ultimately portable.)


It wasn’t fair to include Mark Twain in the examples of writers who’ve blithely driven their ships onto the coral reefs of home building. True, his custom house in Hartford was built at great expense and later sat empty for several years while the Clemens family was in Europe trying to sell the place from a distance, but their reasons for selling were personal – the death of Sam’s and Livy’s 24-year-old daughter Susy and the fact that Twain had bankrupted himself.

Susy had stayed behind in the U.S. while Sam, his wife Livy, and their other daughter Clara were on a world tour – a tour brought on by the financial necessity of Mark Twain’s foolish investments in several follies, but foremost in his backing of the Paige typesetter, an unworkable device that he hoped would revolutionize printing but which instead simply bankrupted him to the tune of more than $300,000 in debt. That was real money in those days.

So Suzy stayed behind, fell ill, and died in the Hartford house on August 18, 1896.

Livy and Clara were informed of Susy’s sudden death as they steamed westward from England to be with Susy, whom they had been told in an earlier telegram would definitely recover from the illness. They were two days out from New York when the captain broke the news to them by handing Clara a news cable with the headline “MARK TWAIN’S ELDEST DAUGHTER DIES OF SPINAL MENINGITIS.” Twain had stayed behind in England to look for a new house for them – they could no longer afford to live in Hartford – and was alone when he receive a cable announcing Susy’s death.

“It is one of the mysteries of our nature that a man, all unprepared, can receive a thunder-stroke like that and live,” he wrote later.

In a letter to his closest friend, Joe Twichell, Twain wrote:

Ah, well, Susy died at home. She had that privilege. Her dying eyes rested upon nothing that was strange to them, but only upon things which they had known & loved always & which made her young years glad; . . . . This was happy fortune – I am thankful that it was vouchsafed to her. If she had died in another house – well, I think I could not have borne that. To us our house was not unsentient matter – it had a heart & a soul & eyes to see us with, & approvals & solicitudes & deep sympathies; it was of us, & we were in its confidence, & lived in its grace & in the peace its face did not light up & speak out its eloquent welcome -- & we could not enter it unmoved. And could we now? oh, now, in spirit we should enter it unshod.

Many years ago when I was still a relatively young sixth-grade teacher in Colorado, I finagled a trip to a conference of the National Council of Teachers of English that was being held in Hartford and during the first break in the proceedings, I was on a bus and riding out to Twain’s home.

The place was a delight and a revelation in home design.

I remember how well-lighted it was for a home built during the mode of high-Victorian gloominess. I remember the writing room for Twain – a place he rarely used, preferring to write in the large and bright billiard room on the top floor instead – and I recall his custom-made stained-glass windows there carrying his “crest of arms”, i.e. two pool cues crossed over a foam-topped mug of beer at the bottom with smoking cigars on either side of the cues. I remember seeing the actual typewriter he wrote on there (Twain loved gadgets and was either the first or among the first American writers to compose on a typewriter) and the complex system of speaking tubes and lights that would summon servants or allow the family members to bellow at each other from any point in the huge house.

There was a phone booth built into the wall of the living room – the Twains were among the first Americans to have a telephone, although I’m not sure who they phoned – and still penned on the wall of the alcove were Twain’s notes as to what various noises on the phone meant. (“Distant thunder = ringing” etc). There was a sun room built off the very Victorian-feeling living room or parlor, I remember, and it could be separated from the main room by a curtain; naturally Twain’s girls and their friends constantly used it as a stage to perform amateur theatricals and reviews for the family.

I remember the long mantel over the fireplace and adjoining shelves along which the inevitable Victorian knick-knacks were lined up – Victorians were fiends for collecting and displaying tzotchkes – but I also remember that his daughters, especially Susy, insisted that Twain tell a story almost every night in which each of the knick-knacks were mentioned and had to be important to the plot, moving left to right in sequence of the objects, but Twain was never allowed to tell the same story or have the same purpose for the objects. That’s enough to keep a writer on his toes.

The Hartford house was part of a planned community – Harriet Beecher Stowe’s home was just a few minutes’ walk across wide lawns and they often met and chatted in a gazebo halfway between – and the house was large, 105 by 62 feet, three storeys tall, with 19 rooms, an octagonal tower on the west side, a covered veranda around the south end, and a three-story high entrance hallway. Mark Twain’s eccentric contributions were everywhere, including a high porch patterned after the pilot deck of a steamboat and a window through the fireplace that allowed them all to see snow outside at the same time they were enjoying the fire. Constructed of burnished brick and wood, protected by steeply sloping roofs and wide overhangs, the house has been described as “a combination manor house, steamboat, and castle.”

The house was designed by New York architect Edward Tuckerman and the estimated cost when they began building in April, 1873, was between $55,000 and $60,000, including the land. It was a fortune for the day, but it was purchased at the height of Mark Twain’s popularity, even though in later years he was to say it was “all bought with Livy’s money.” (She had inherited some wealth.)

In the empty basement of the home when I visited it so long ago stood Mark’s attempt at a shortcut to real wealth, the Paige typesetter – the one finished prototype, which never worked worth a damn – that cost Twain his savings and his home.

Years after my visit to Twain’s Hartford house, I read a passage in the diary of William Deans Howell – editor, author, and long-time friend of Mark Twain – in which he described staying at the house and, sometime in the early morning hours, hearing odd sounds in the corridor outside his guest room. Flinging open the door, Howells encountered Sam Clemens – no Mark Twain here, just the aging Sam from Hannibal in his nightshirt with bare knees and old socks, hair in wild disarray, carrying a pool cue and wandering the dark house, as Howells wrote, “in search of a play mate.”


One difference between architects and writers is that it’s usually a mistake for a writer to take his or her theoretical “readers” into account while working on a novel (other than working hard to give them the best prose possible), but most good architects confer and collaborate with their clients.

In the case of the Boulder, Colorado architectural firm I’m dealing with, one of their first steps is to have the person wanting to build a home fill out an extensive six-page, single-spaced, small-font questionnaire – appending photos from magazines, diagrams, measurements, lists of art to be displayed, and other extra information – on a wide variety of data they need in order to understand their client’s preferences and vision for a home. When a couple are the clients, they receive identical forms and are asked to fill them out separately – no discussion allowed. I guess it’s amusing how frequently a couple’s tastes and vision of their dream home wildly diverge.

Everyone should answer – at least mentally – many of these questions sometime in his or her adult life, even if you’re never planning to build a home. Besides forcing you to take a serious look at how you spend your time in your home and in every single room of your home, and how you might like to change some aspects of that, it makes you consider such things as –

“What character and style should your home have?”

“What things are important to include in this home?”

“What feeling do you want to have as you view this home from a distance . . . as you approach it . . . from the inside?

The questions require you to do an inventory of what kind of surroundings, furniture, views, art, textures, and aesthetic elements you have versus what you might want to have. All this is an obvious first step to designing your own home, of course, or even of buying any new home, and most would-be builders have already thought about such things, but it is amazing how we sometimes need a formal way to look around at ourselves and our habits and tastes. Many of us have had that experience where one is traveling for a long period of time and you come home and suddenly everything so familiar about one’s home and contents seems objectively strange, detached from our ownership and involvement. Sometimes – as is the case with furniture one might have and simply keep because you have it and it still functions -- we’ve outgrown something without noticing it.

Years ago I had dinner at Orange County bookstore owners Ed and Pat Thomas’s house with Dean and Gerda Koontz at the time the Koontzes were just finished building a new house. The conversation was enlightening.

If Dean were to be believed (which he usually is) and if my memory serves (which it rarely does), their architect had a Salvador Dali mustache and a Swiss-German accent and tended to belong to the Frank Lloyd Wright “genius school” of architecture where the clients can request, if they insist, but where the genius, in the end, knows best.

The Koontzes had asked for a large house – about 7,000 sq. ft. as I remember (probably incorrectly) – but when they received the actual plans from Salvador, plans that they were delighted with, the room sizes seemed a little off, so Dean got out a ruler, figured the scale, and started measuring. Instead of 7,000 sq. ft. the house parsed out to something like 18,000 sq. ft. When they brought this to Architect Dali’s attention, he waved his hand and said, “You need more room.”

Dean and Gerda hadn’t wanted servants, but they realized that it might be perfect if they hired an older couple – a German couple is what I remember them saying – to serve as live-in helpers, occasional chauffeur, occasional cook and housekeeper, etc. They asked for a suite for these live-in helpers – “something up under the eaves.” They got an entire wing.

Finally, I do remember clearly that Dean wanted a nice space, also probably “up under the eaves somewhere,” for his many books. A real library instead of just bookshelves everywhere. Finding a place for books in the home is a problem for all serious readers, but sometimes a serious problem for authors. The things do tend to accumulate, especially when both spouses read. Dean wanted a little library tucked away somewhere.

Instead, the library in the plans (and in the final house) was multi-storied, about the length of the Superdome, just off the foyer, and visible through large glass doors. Dean pointed out to Dali that this isn’t what he’d had in mind.

“Nonsense,” announced the architect. “Your books are what allowed you to build this house. They have to be right there off the foyer for everyone to see upon entering.”

And so they are. (Which goes to show, I imagine, not that Dean Koontz could be intimidated by an architect . . . I doubt if he’s ever been intimidated by anyone . . . but, rather, that an architect’s real genius is in sensing what his clients really want and need.)

Which reminds me of one of Frank Lloyd Wright’s clients who had just taken occupancy of their beautiful flat-roofed home when, after the first light rain, a thousand drips appeared, dripping on the grand piano, the beautiful floors, and the Wright-designed furniture. When the patron called the architect in a panic, Wright’s comment was succinct – “That’s what happens when you leave a work of art out in the rain.”


Perhaps writers have such an obsessive love-hate affair with their homes because most of them . . . most of us . . . spend most of our lives in and near our houses. (And writers’ spouses, unless they work outside the home themselves, spend most of their lives with the writer-spouse always hanging around . . . something to be taken into account if you find yourself falling in love with a writer.)

We all know that a new home is sometimes the most visible element in our attempts to create a new life – after a divorce, after a serious raise in salary, after retirement – or after a tragedy. For our dear friends David and Donna Morrell (David, of course, was the author of First Blood, the anti-war novel in which Rambo first appeared), it was a family tragedy that sent them on the path to a new home and a new life.

David and Donna’s home in Santa Fe is one of the loveliest private spaces I’ve ever been in. Filled with art and photographs and books, blessed by light and amazing views from the house’s ridgeline looking south to the high desert between Santa Fe and Albuquerque, the home still manages such a sense of spare simplicity – what the Japanese call wabi, sabi, and shibumi (of which I will write later) – that it creates a sort of Zen-like space and feeling.

David and Donna didn’t always live in Santa Fe. Because David was a professor of English at the University of Iowa even while he was beginning to write for publication, they had lived in Iowa City for years. In November of 1986, their fifteen-year-old son Matthew complained of a pain in his chest. The problem was diagnosed as Ewing’s sarcoma, a rare form of bone cancer that had created this tumor in an unusual place for this kind of sarcoma – under Matthew’s ribs rather than in its more common site of an arm or leg. For six months Matthew fought bravely. On June 27, 1987, during a serious operation that almost certainly would have saved Matthew’s life if a chunk of debris from dead staph and strep that had collected in the boy’s heart had not plugged a major artery, Matthew Morrell died of cardiac arrest.

(Note – David wrote about Matthew’s illness and the strangely miraculous events that followed their son’s death in his short, unbelievably intense book called Fireflies, published by E.P. Dutton in 1988. Stephen King wrote in a letter –

           Dear David,
Fireflies left me feeling shaken, uplifted, and terribly moved. I don’t think you’ve ever written a better book in
your life . . . . You are to be congratulated for your courage and for succeeding so splendidly. It is a complete success.

Many parents who’ve suffered the ultimate loss of having a child die have had the same reaction to David’s book, as have many of the rest of us who’ve been spared that tragedy. It is a powerful book.)

But back to houses and homes.

David and Donna decided to stay in Iowa City until Matt’s class graduated from high school. The year that their son’s friends graduated came and they still hadn’t decided on where they wanted to move or what texture the next stage of their life should take, and then one day David was watching an episode of PBS’s “This Old House” in which Bob Villa, Norm Abrams, and the guys were remodeling a home in Santa Fe. (The historical sense is so strong in Santa Fe that any sort of remodeling can be a nightmare in terms of meeting all the review board and city requirements.) David had never seen the adobe aesthetic like this before – how homogeneous the red-adobe homes looked in their natural settings under the blue New Mexico sky – and he shouted, “Donna, come in here and look at this.”

Their next free weekend they flew to Santa Fe and within days had found and purchased a home on precisely the budget they’d set. (Their realtor later became a close friend.) The house actually had been designed for a woman who was restricted to a wheelchair, so it had quite a few interior quirks to work out – for instance, all of the bedrooms opened onto an exterior-wall hallway through sliding doors so that one had the sense of being in a motel. But David and Donna kept some of the more charming quirks and changed others – turning a small, separate garage into an ideal writing space for David, adding a new garage in a more convenient location, adding new levels and steps and doors and angles and a media room and a pool and guest rooms. The result, as I’ve mentioned, is an absolutely delightful home where even the inherited quirks in design have been transformed into the wabi ideal of “imperfections creating perfection.”

And, while Matt is always with them in their thoughts, with a new home began a new chapter in their lives.


A lot of us male writers designing our own homes are, I suspect, a bit too much like boys planning their private treehouse. It’s hard for some of us grown-up-boy writers to avoid sticking secret rooms and passageways in our house designs.

I’ve visited Stephen King’s summer house, a very pleasant but unpresumptuous second home on a lake in central Maine, but I’ve never been to his home in Bangor. Still, many of us know that his main writing area in the expanded Bangor home is a hidden room with access through a secret door on a landing.

I don’t know if King has any other secret rooms in his home (I would hope so), but I do know that our mutual friend Harlan Ellison has seven secret rooms in his house. (Or is it eight now? It’s so easy to lose track.) There is a secret room made up of black rock and black carpet to simulate a cave. There are secret rooms, humidity controlled, in which archival racks of sliding shelves hold thousands of classic comic books and other collectibles. There is a hidden door opening on a low secret passage leading to a ladder opening on a hidden tower in which . . . but to tell more would be to ruin the fun.

The first time I visited Ellison Wonderland more than 20 years ago was the day I realized that most of us live in our homes more like tourists who keep their stuff in their suitcases during their entire stay somewhere (somewhere called . . . life), making little real mark on our environment. Entering many people’s homes is like coming into some place they’ve rented and expect to leave soon. Entering Harlan’s home is like entering Harlan’s mind. Actually, you don’t have to enter the house to get the first taste of Harlan’s mind.

Finding his little street may be a challenge, but picking out Harlan’s home once you’re on the street should be easy. Just look for the Martian temple. Do you think I’m kidding? Just check out this photo I pulled from the ‘Net –

Then, after you’ve parked at the curb and are heading for his front door – only a few steps from the street – you enter the next layer of Harlan Ellison’s cerebral cortex. Is it the 1949 Packard parked in the carport? No. Is it the beautiful, elaborately carved custom front door? Not yet. No, as you enter the small entry courtyard area next to the carport, the glint of sunlight on razorwire catches your attention and you glance up toward the roof of the carport and the deck up there outside his writing office, all protected by the razorwire, and you notice the gargoyles. And then you notice that the gargoyles look familiar . . . wait, isn’t that . . .?? It is. Phyllis Schafley. And the monstrosity next to it is Spiro Agnew. So Richard Nixon has to be . . . ah, there he is, that grinning saurian thing.

But the full shock awaits you inside.

I’ve heard different tallies for Harlan Ellison’s book and art collection: 100,000 books and 15,000 works of art? 200,000 books and 28,000 works of art? Depends upon who’s counting, I imagine – although Harlan and his minions have every single book, painting, poster, and collectible carefully catalogued – but let’s agree that there’s one hell of a lot of art and reading material in Harlan Ellison’s house.

Actually, during the terrible Northridge earthquake at 4:30 a.m. on January 17, 1994 – (no jokes or humor in this paragraph, folks) – a friend of mine, Ed Bryant, was staying at Harlan’s home, which, you should remember, is just below Mulholland Drive along the high ridge separating the Los Angeles basin from the San Fernando Valley, and Ed, thrown out of bed by the violent tremors, had to swim out of the house,. Everyone who escaped had to swim . . . swim through books and art and broken glass that filled the hallways to a depth of four feet.

Harlan himself was working at that early hour in his mezzanine writing area, above the long billiard room (shades of Mark Twain!) which is accessed through the low, beautiful hobbit door which is just the right size for Harlan but usually makes guests duck low, and at the first serious tremor he started to run down the stairway to the billiard room (somewhere near which is a secret door which opens into a room designed as a cave which I made the mistake of sleeping in during my first stay with Harlan, but that’s another story) when the real earthquake hit, traveling up to the ridgetop with a force equal, engineers later figured, of a negative six gravities . . . .

Harlan was launched up and over the stairway railing in the sudden darkness and then fell ten feet to the floor, his head missing the edge of the huge billiard table by less than an inch. Books and artwork were falling by the thousands. The billiard room is windowless and there was no light at 4:30 a.m.. Harlan lost consciousness for a few seconds and when he came to and started swimming his way up through the the books and papers – including thousands of pages of manuscript for the legendary and still-unpublished The Last Dangerous Visions which had been stacked up all around the mezzanine railing twenty feet above him – suddenly a heavy framed and glassed poster fell in the pitch blackness and struck him in the face, breaking his nose, giving him a serious concussion, and knocking him out again.

The Last Dangerous Visions and a ton of other literary and artistic treasures, now fluttering detritus, continued to fall until he was buried alive.

Harlan survived. (And he’s never appreciated my suggestion that death from being suffocated by a ton of The Last Dangerous Visions pages, now twenty years overdue to the publisher, would have been the most fittingly ironic obituary in the history of obituaries.) A few days after the earthquake he was standing at his sliding glass doors to the patio watching a raging storm outside and had just stepped away when the heavy metal canopy over the patio, weakened by the earthquake, gave way and smashed through the doors, destroying everything in its path. Again, Harlan survived.

Every collectible broken during the earthquake was painstakingly repaired or replaced. Some seemed irreplaceable – such as a unique, handcrafted cookie jar that I believe was given to him by Robin Williams – but Williams came through with a replacement that same week. Now every work of art is earthquake-proofed double-anchored, all the tens and hundreds of thousands of books now held in place by tasteful and expensive yachting bungee cords, every part of Ellison Wonderland itself patched and repaired and strengthened for the next earthquake.

The house may look like a Martian temple on the outside, but inside it’s a physical, three-dimensional celebration of the mind and unbounded imagination of Harlan Ellison. I’ve never encountered a home quite like it, even among the very, very wealthy or the very, very artistic. Oscar Wilde once said – “Put your talent into your work but your genius into your life.” Harlan Ellison’s home, Ellison Wonderland, is a strong argument that this man has put his genius into both his work and his life at home.


There’s an interesting alternative to completely unpacking your life and mind in your home. This is the disciplined, restrained Japanese aesthetic of home and interior design sometimes referred to under the terms wabi, sabi, and shibumi.

I confess to always having been attracted to the lean, almost ascetic classical Japanese style, as well as to its 19th Century American styling counterpart, the Shaker look.

In Japanese philosophy, wabi historically meant “wretched, miserable, and forlorn,” referring to the sad state of the human condition itself. That has been transformed through its encounter with Zen and with a hundred generations of human habitation to a sensibility celebrating naturalness, humility, modesty of choice, and an austerity of design that avoids severity through simple beauty.

In designing and furnishing a home, wabi – at every juncture of choice – would follow the path away from pretension or ostentation. Colors would be muted to create a sense of peace. Rather than set out fifty objets d’art on display, you would put one very fine piece – perhaps an aged vase or an old basket – on a beautiful, old surface so that the beauty of the single item could be encountered and pondered. Clutter would be avoided at all cost; under the self-discipline of wabi, clutter is not only considered that bane of sophisticated modernist architects and interior designers – “excess eye noise” – but is recognized as the enemy of peace of mind.

The word sabi means “rust” or “tranquility or antique look,” but in the wabi-sabi-shibumi asesthetic is referred to as that which is “mellowed by use, patinated by age, reticent and lacking in the assertiveness of the new.” Many of us tend to gravitate toward the sabi clothing in our closets – the jeans that have faded and mellowed into pure comfort, the aged bomber jacket, the old leather boots that have found the form of our feet. In home-design terms, the aesthetics of Santa Fe are often filled with wabi and sabi – the spareness of ornamentation, the careful choice of a 150-year-old door or shutters or table or chairs or wood flooring or simple santos to be set against the adobe wall, the self-discipline when it comes to color palettes.

Shibui (the adjective form) or shibumi (noun) originally meant an astringent taste, as of an unripe persimmon, but it’s widened through Japanese cultural thought and Zen philosophy to mean the ultimate in good taste through conscious reserve. This conscious reserve runs not only through what some philosophers call “surface aesthetics” – i.e. the choice of one’s surroundings, the ability to perceive beauty in rain drops or a cup of coffee – but also in one’s language, posture, behavior, demeanor, and very character.

In designing a home or choosing colors and furnishings, shibui would dictate slightly astringent colors – quietly rich but subdued (no red walls or bright blue sofas, please) – and an environment in which all effects such as art, design, light, and color are used sparingly. Color clashes are allowed, even encouraged, but always on the subtle plane of natural and aged materials and always with harmony as the goal.

Some years ago I went to Japan with the primary purpose of seeing and trying to understand the best of the world’s Zen gardens – those in Kyoto and elsewhere made of rock, gravel, boulders, moss, bent trees, ponds, stones, bridges, tea houses. It is like walking into a philosophy literally bent and shaped and pruned for centuries. I learned how the stepping stones in such a garden are irregularly placed so as to make you look down, to pay attention to the act of walking itself, and how there are always special stepping stones – view stones – which are designed to bring you up short and make you pause and reflect . . . not only on the view but on your own presence in the place and the effect your presence is having in terms of light, shadow, color and mass.

Wabi and sabi in their full philosophical robes are sobering. Essentially it requires our full understanding that everything in the world, organic and inorganic, is in the full grip of time. And time, as one eastern teacher long ago explained to me, “Is gentle on things but beats the shit out of people.” A fallen tree above treeline, grayed, decayed, riddled with insects and bird pecks and inhabited by little critters, covered with colored lichens, is the ultimate sabi example of beauty through mortality invested with the richness of time. A human corpse doesn’t have quite the same appeal.

“To embrace someone or something in time,” the same teacher once explained to me, “is to embrace their destruction. And your own.”


I don’t think I’m capable of designing or living in a true wabi-sabi-shibumi home. I like comfort too much. I like soft couches to sprawl on while watching a baseball game on satellite TV. I have too many books I want on shelves, too many works of original art I want to display at the same time.

One book that’s helped a lot of people change their mind about what they want in a home over the past few years is The Not So Big House by Sara Susanka (and the inevitable sequels such as Building the Not So Big House, Inside the Not So Big House, Outside the Not So Big House, and so forth.) Susanka, an architect, was one of the first to popularize the realization that for years home owners and buyers and builders have been emphasizing size at the expense of quality. The McMansions that have been popping up like kudzu all over the country – 7,000 sq. ft, 11,000 sq. ft, more and much more – tend to be cookie-cutter monstrosities, lacking in real build quality, true custom detail, and any reflection of the owner’s real sensibilities.

In her books, Susanka shows how a prospective home designer can swap square footage for quality – quality in craftsmanship, interesting angles and surfaces that are more expensive to build, materials, and energy efficiency. Most importantly, she and other architects like her help people see how they really live in a home. Does your “formal dining room” or old-fashioned “parlor-living room” stay unused most of the time? Does the family always huddle in the “family room” around the main TV? Are your places for entertaining and interacting with guests comfortable enough and private enough and separated enough from the blast of TV and other electronics? Do all members of the family have “away spaces” for themselves in which to read, relax, and find peace? What are the really special places in your home?

Some years ago I stumbled upon the secret bible of a lot of architects, a 1977 book called A Pattern Language: Towns, Building, Construction by Christopher Alexander, Sara Ishikawa, and Murray Silverstein of the Center for Environmental Structure of Berkeley, California. It also gives writing credits to Max Jacobson, Ingrid Fiksdahl-King, and Shlomo Angel. The book essentially is an analysis of the good and bad psychological effects of traditional architecture – city-wide as well as personal space – on the human psyche. There’s much one can quibble with in A Pattern Language but there are also insights that illuminate the folly of much of today’s home architecture and “lifestyles.” Dot-com entrepreneurs get a few measley million dollars to rub together and they’re off to Aspen to build a 9,000 sq. ft. house with cathedral ceilings only slightly lower than that at Chartes, vaulted trusses, and huge-echoing spaces. Then one can watch the architects and builders scrambling to provide the actual human spaces in which we actually feel comfortable interacting – cozy inglenooks, low-ceilinged alcoves, and so forth.

Visit a million-dollar new tract home and odds are overwhelming that the “master bedroom” will have enough carpeted area to hangar a blimp and a “walk-in closet” large enough to sublet to half a dozen boat families. The “master bath” would make the residents of Versailles blush at its sybarritic excesses and . . . this never made any sense to me . . . the bathroom is probably wide open (except for the toilet stuck in a shameful half-closet) to the bedroom. (Pardon my lack of romance, but who the hell wants to watch and hear his or her Significant Other brush teeth, shower, shave, or generally futz around in the loo while you’re trying to sleep?)

Long before A Pattern Language appeared, the great and still undisputed master of creating psychologically pleasing and enriching spaces, Frank Lloyd Wright, was busy at his craft.

I once stuck a reincarnated Frank Lloyd Wright in one of my novels – Endymion, in which Wright was the mentor to a female messiah named Aenea – mostly because I’ve spent half my life reading and musing about Wright and expect to stay interested in him and his work for the rest of my life. I hated for all that reading to go to waste.

I won’t go into all the fascinating foibles that made up Wright’s life and personality – a selfish spoiled brat of a true genius and visionary – but I will focus on perhaps his best-known structure, the home called Fallingwater, to give some hint of his insights into the deep-rooted and hardwired psychology of how our surroundings affect us.

Pity poor Edgar Kaufmann, the Pittsburgh businessman who commissioned Wright to build the home on his rural property during the depths of the Depression in 1936. Kaufmann and his family had visited the property hundreds of times and even had a rough cabin there, set across the stream facing the waterfall. They fully expected Frank Lloyd Wright to build their dream house in the same sane place, facing the waterfall so it could be the focus of their daily views. Instead, the mad architect made the house part of the waterfall.

We all know the essential images of the rural Pennsylvania house called Fallingwater – the home perched directly above the stream and waterfall, the generous use of stone and glass, those Wrightean overhanging eaves, windows, alcoves, recesses, and especially those conspicuous balconies cantilevered out over the low cliff and water. But Wright messed with our minds on so many levels that you almost have to take an architect’s tour of the house to understand how many games he was playing.

First one has to cross a narrow bridge to approach the house. From there, “behind” the house, all you can see is stone. Verticals of stone, tan tray pinwheels of stone, repeated rectilinears of stone, identical detail, identical coloration, all separated as one architect has said “by an identically dimensioned stratum of void.”

Another architect sums that bridge approach to the stone backside of Fallingwater this way –

Even from the bridge, then, the house offers an extraordinary linkage with our inherent habitational preferences. Within symbols of nature’s hazard reduplicated by its own audacious precariousness, it tells us with unequaled richness of its potential for refuge and prospect, and yet has given immediate clues of order.

Translation: Wright has reached into our primitive monkey hindbrain and messed with it. Suddenly we’re austrolopithecus africanus coming home from the dangerous hunt, safe again in our clan cave. But the cave is perched on a cliff – which is scary – but it’s safe within and we can see our predators and enemies coming from a long way off, so it’s okay.

To just get into the damned door of Fallingwater you have to weave through a literal maze of deep-set and hardwired iconic associations. The entrance is low – an old Wright trick to make you appreciate even normal head height in the main part of the building as if it were cathedral-like – and overhead is a concrete trellis that suggests a glade. You walk between two rock pylons only to find another rock face straight ahead. Home to the cave, but the entrance winds around. Immediately inside, you’re in an antechamber surrounded by more rock masses with rock still underfoot. The floor here is depressed. More cave iconography. You have to climb up and out of this antechamber and suddenly . . .

POW! Walls of glass. Low ceilings, higher ceilings, low ceilings again. Everything is vista and expanse and glimpses of leafy treetop foliage . . . our home before caves! . . . a full 180-degree sweep out over the stream that runs under and through our cave-home here, out over the glen, vision and view and sky filling our entire peripheral vision as if the windows of the home were some paleolithic Cinerama screen.

Psychological studies in recent years show that all human beings – no matter their nationality or culture – tend to prefer the “ideal home” in a high place, at the edge of a forest, overlooking meadows or open areas. We’re talking evolution here, ladies and gentlemen. We’re talking about our hominid ancestors and need for refuge even while we have to see far – see our enemies, see our prey, see those beasties who are coming to eat us.

The interior of Fallingwater sends conflicting and invigorating signals of refuge and danger to our monkey brains: heavy slab ceilings giving a sense of discomfort, of great rock-weights pressing down, but oversized stone pillars reassuring us that the cave will not fall. A hearth and fireplace for warmth and reassurance. (Wright designed the huge iron “cauldron” that swings over the oversized fire – telling Kaufmann that they should “mull wine” in it, but not telling him that the Cherokee-red paint that he, Wright, so loved, was as toxic as arsenic. No matter . . . no one has ever used the sculptural work of art of the cauldron to cook or mull anything.) The corner-turned glass of the windows (no easy building trick in 1936 or today in 2006) allows us to see everything while still in our refuge, but the closer we get to the cantilevered balconies, the more dangerous and precarious the whole structure feels . . . there’s a sense that the whole mass of stone and glass may pitch forward into the stream at any time.

The rock strata of the house meld and dance with the rock strata of the cliff. The stream and waterfall have become part of the house and vice-versa. One lovely sort of trap door (secret rooms! secret passages!) opens to a railless modern stairway that goes nowhere except down to the rushing water above the waterfall. Bathe here if you wish, but good luck if you slip and go over the rushing edge.

Refuge and danger. Warm red hearth and dark black forest. A high place signifying the threat of falling balanced by a comfy cave with good views. Years before Frank Lloyd Wright designed Fallingwater for a bemused and tolerant Edgar Kaufmann, John Dewey had written –

There are stirred into activity resonances of dispositions acquired in primitive relationships of the living being to its surroundings.

Well . . . no kidding, Sherlock. We spend our entire lives reacting with our monkey brains and our deeper lizard brains to the public and private spaces in which we’re forced to spend our time. If I mention Orwell’s “1984,” a certain kind of dreary, hopeless, ur-wabi architecture comes to mind. Our Star Trekkian views of the future always show plasticky, swoopy, 1930’s-to-1960’s views of the future. The Jetsons on a stick. But we never catch up to that kind of future. The World’s Fair Futurama of 1939 is a brilliant view of a brilliant future – all 30-lane highways and 100-story apartment buildings – that will never arrive. Our monkey brains . . . which, to be honest, are the only brains we have worth using . . . reject that.

We love textures and human scale and color and sheltering places. We may disdain clutter, but we love our things and want to see them. We delight in sudden vistas and open views even while we like to be inside and warm with our family when it rains and snows outside. As much as we like our big views in the daylight, we don’t always want darkness pressing against glass panes trying to get in at night. Our deep brains tell us that there are things out there in the night that will eat us given half a chance. We are peaceful tree dwellers and murderous savannah runner-hunters who became cave dwellers out of necessity and we haven’t worked out all the hardwired paradoxes of that yet.


So this week Mark, the architect at the architects’ firm that I’m working with, finally popped the ultimate question – “So exactly what kind of home do you see yourself living in up there at Windwalker?”

I didn’t hesitate. “You know the movie North by Northwest with Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint?” I said.


“Well, I want that house that the Russian spy, James Mason lives in with Martin Landau,” I said. “Not the one near New York that he pretended to live in . . . that Georgion mansion . . . but his real home, the modern stone and glass house cantilevered out over a cliff right above and behind the four heads of Mt. Rushmore.”

“Dan,” Mark said patiently, “that house was a matte painting and some Hollywood sets. It never really existed.”

“Well . . . “ I riposted.

“Actually,” continued Mark, “that house in the movie was just a knock-off of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater.”

“Okay,” I said, settling the matter and pulling out my checkbook. “I’ll take that.”


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