Wednesday, November 11, 1998

Less is liberty

The smallest living spaces are more than loverly enough.

Posted By on Wed, Nov 11, 1998 at 12:00 AM

Cards on the table. I feel about architecture writing -- most of it -- like whoever it was that came up with the line about the little girl with the curl. Remember? "When she was good, she was very good; and when she was bad, she was horrid."

When architects decide to become writers, the good ones are often very good. I'm thinking of Rem Koolhaas, Michael Sorkin, Robert Venturi, for example. And the rest? When architecture writing goes bad, it's often so bad that other kinds of professional babble, even cultural studies, seem positively inviting by comparison.

Which makes it a special pleasure to read this intimate, thoughtful study of hut-building, A Hut of One's Own, written by Ann Cline, a professor of architecture at Miami University in Ohio. Nobody passes through the tenure-gullet of academe without being made to feel -- to some extent -- like what comes out the ass-end of any body, biological or collegiate. That experience possibly accounts, at least in part, for Cline's wish to find a "life outside the circle of architecture."

"It's standing outside that circle," Cline answers in an interview, when asked where she wants to locate her project, and why. "It's considering dwelling ... from another point of view aside from the more flamboyant or self-conscious maneuvers of architects. Which leads me to the hut, a piece of architecture that anyone can build."

What Cline has set out to do is as admirable as it is difficult: to write a professorially informed work, but in a way that general readers will be able to understand. For the most part, she has succeeded, so that little-girl-with-the-curl strictures do not apply.

The main reason a lot of people will want to read Cline's book -- aside from its being user friendly and beautifully illustrated -- is that the urge for hut-making is so universal and universally relevant. From the little kid playing "house" in an old packing crate, to Asian recluses and Christian church fathers, to 18th-century French courtiers, to inner-city immigrants and "homeless" people, to professors of architecture, the hut-making motives, obviously, differ. (Cline writes revealingly about her own huts -- one in a California back yard, a second inside the architecture building at Miami University, a third, much larger, outside.) But the power of the hut -- as a personal, separate space, outside the circle of "official" architecture -- is what remains consistent.

"Those structures are improvisational and often very inventive," Cline points out, when speaking about her respect for the huts cobbled together by unofficial architects, urban pioneers, the homeless. "Instead of the house tours that communities have of all of the grand houses, I would love there to be a house tour of such improvisational places ... There's a lot of urgency and invention that I find in such places. Architects have to try very hard to come up with something as fresh as that."

And it's this fresh power that Cline addresses in her thesis, which -- unlike most so-called "academic" questions -- is one that actually matters, especially now and especially here, in a society such as ours, where the ability of the individual to find peace, let alone a sense of personal belonging in the world, is so narrowly circumscribed.

"How, indeed, do we regain a world that is directly lived," Cline writes, "as it was for the Chinese recluses and the desert (church) fathers, or as it is now for some of today's homeless." Good question. And the answer? "I offer ... the hut and its rituals. Even if such huts and rituals are merely a world of 'make-believe' ... all the same they are 'an emotionally satisfying little world.' Moreover, whether in the teahouse ... or the casita, the boxcar, the folly, or the hameau, 'make-believe' becomes real because it is made."

Cline spends a great deal of time, usefully, taking about ritual, particularly her own extrapolations of the Japanese tea ritual and its relation to the power of modern-day hut-making: "In enclaves of make-believe, the isolated primitive hut, once associated with reclusion ... turns social ... The satisfactions of this make-believe world may not turn the world around, but it can radically alter our own position in the world. In a world of media surrogates, making believe may be all we have. Even so, it might be enough."

Commenting on her ideas for an "ethical avant-garde," Cline follows up, in interview, the idea of ritual and making believe: "If you look at a typical (art) gallery opening, people interact in ways that are supposed to appear casual, but that are often very studied. Instead, if you were to take just a few of those people and put them in a small space -- with a choreography of objects inside it -- and you were to give them actual lines that they spoke so that there wasn't any invention of self, and instead it was experiencing the character at the moment of the delivery of the line, I think you have the potential for a decorous, that is to say, an ethical interrelationship amongst people in which one is not called on to be better than anybody else, but merely to be a participant along with everybody else."

Cline's book is not to be confused with the present market-clutter of Buddha-lite flummery. She's a serious person, writing seriously about subjects -- ethics, salvation, authenticity -- that concern every thinking person. Her book is like the huts she describes, and like the people who have variously inhabited them -- eclectic, thoughtful, frequently profound.

I asked what she'd ask for if granted one wish as an author: "If I saw in the world as I moved about it evidence that tiny structures were being built, and that they were being built as sensitive, sensible places, rather than showy, jokey places, and that people were moving in and out of them, using these structures, and in joyful ways. Is that too big of a wish?"

Like Robinson Crusoe said, reflecting on his own adventures in hut-building, "I frequently rejoyc'd that ever I was brought to this place." Same goes for me and A Hut of One's Own.

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