A few years ago, I had a beautiful moment. My 18 month old son is racing around the house that my grandparents built in 1955 (and sold in 1998). Aiden runs in and out of the “u” shaped living spaces cutting through the sun-room that filled in part of the original courtyard. He is accompanied by the 2 year old son of the current owners. They are immediate friends and give me a glimpse of what it might look like if my nephews and son occupied this house as the fourth generation. It also connects with me on a deep level – I was that little person running under foot, the youngest grandchild catching the last few years of the good days of my extended family.
My grandfather died when I was 5, and it shattered the family. His four children spread out across the country barely speaking to each other for the next decade. I have fluttery memories of those idyllic days, but mostly learned from photos about the weekends at the lake, the epic holiday meals, and other moments of togetherness. My aunt said to me, “it was problematic, but it was whole.”
I’ve doodled the plan of the house many times. As I trained to become an architect, it dawned on me how smart and clear the parti of the house is – a U shaped plan whose interior glazing focuses on the private backyard, the exterior facades turning their back on the streets and neighboring apartment buildings. The first leg of the U is large living room focused on a hearth. The base of the U is a multipurpose space containing dining and an activity space that evolved with the family – toys, records, then TV. Parallel to this space is a long galley kitchen with a breakfast counter mediating between them. The final leg of the U is the private wing – bedrooms, bathrooms, and stairs to the second story clinic, accessible to patients from the exterior.
The house always seemed to embody everything that was truly good about my mother’s family which is not easily divided from what was hurtful, scary, and sad. The house represents my Grandparents’ forward looking design aesthetic in the minimalist detailing and sleek furniture. It catalogs their epic travels, displaying the museum quality art collection from Africa and the South Pacific. It embodies their exquisite taste in food that the prominent kitchen and dining room often featured. And in the clinic, it stood for their innovative professional work.
So after this beautiful moment of my giggling toddler pushing a Fisher Price lawn mower across the immaculate 60 year old cork flooring, I thought that the house would be an amazing lens through which to think about memory and architecture. I would interview family members, the architect, piece together what we knew about the design process and key details of the house. I started this process and have paused as needed. There are interesting architectural discoveries, but it is not easy to separate those ideas from the personal weight they carry. A work in progress.