Dwelling Spaces/Urban Places
Immensity is within ourselves.
—Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space
Urban alleys. Urine and crime. Trash and broken glass. Dumpsters. Junkies. Syringes, needle-bent and rusted. Feral cats, pigeons, rats. Stinks and rots. Feces of unknown origin. Persons of unknown origin, curled under trash bags, drunk, or dead.
In cities like Portland, Denver, and Detroit, and in Seattle, where I live, a grassroots movement is growing toward reclaiming urban alleys. Alleys are neighborhood spaces begging to be developed as neighborhood spaces. Alleys could be comely and green. Shops could open onto alleys lined with flowerboxes. Alleys could provide walkways for pedestrians, walkways festooned with prayer flags, mobiles, or hanging gardens.
Reclaiming begins with naming. Named alleys in Seattle: Firehouse Alley, Kings Cross Alley, Canton Alley, Jazz Alley (not an alley), Ally 24, Nord Alley. A path in my small garden wends its way between fern and fence and winds under the paper birch tree. I name it Aphid Alley.
“Does beauty have a form?” asks Peter Zumthor in his book on built spaces, Thinking Architecture. Does beauty exist outside our own minds? Or is it all in our heads? It is, of course, at least in part in our heads. When we experience beauty, our neurons are doing something. The only question is, what? But, does beauty exist only in the eye of the beholder? Are there buildings that have beauty built into them, apart from the eyes and neurons of beholders? I nominate the Chapel of St. Ignatius on the campus of Seattle University. Architect: Steven Holl. Go there and experience light streaming down from on high, alcoves of shadow—the consolations and desolations, as St. Ignatius would put it. Go there and experience a near-mystical sense of calm. Go to that place of beauty. Sit in a pew. Ask yourself: Is beauty in the eye of the beholder? Really?
Clutter brings me down. Does the clutter I’ve created create my unhappiness or does it index a pre-existing condition? Both, I think. Clutter at my house—I live by myself—indexes stress: too much to do in my home office, more to do than I can do without angst, without forgetting things, without shrieking. The house becomes cluttered and clutter makes it worse. Serenity arrives with uncluttered rooms, uncrowded rooms, simple rooms with paintings on the walls. It’s possible, as the visionary architect Christopher Alexander insists, that spaces configured to enhance human serenity and creativity do enhance human serenity and creativity. I’m a bibliophile, but must books be stacked every which way on the rug? I’m a writer, but must papers and notes bury my writer’s desk as if it were a recycle bin? I wear socks but must my sock drawer look like the sock monster’s litter box?
I admit that I’ve succumbed, along with three million otherwise sane people, to Marie Kondo’s philosophy of tidiness. Her core point (explicated in The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up and in Spark Joy): if you touch and hold an item from amongst your clutter and it brings joy, keep it. If you touch and hold an item and it fails to bring joy (or makes you cringe), dump it. She wants you to tidy by category, not by room. Start with clothes. Gather all your clothes into a heap, from wherever they may be stuffed or closeted or festooned about the house. Then pick up each garment and hold it. Does it bring joy?
This is too much. I can’t do it. The clothes category would take me three days. But I do dump my sock drawer on the floor. Holey socks—ragbag. Mateless socks—ragbag. Socks I detest—bag going to charity for sockless persons. And what of socks that bring joy. Can socks bring joy? Here’s a well-kept secret: success in life depends on high self-esteem and high self-esteem depends on wearing a pair of clean thick soft stretchy matched cotton socks.
Thus the dream house must possess every virtue. However spacious, it must also be a cottage, a dovecote, a nest, a chrysalis (Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space).
Buildings and especially houses, with a graceful transition between the street and the inside, are more tranquil than those which open directly off the street (Christopher Alexander, et al., No. 112, Pattern Language). A walkway to the front door that is in harmony with people making the transition from a public to a private space curves. It does not proceed in a straight concrete line through clipped grass. It’s visible from the street but secluded, partly concealed, perhaps by bushes and flowerbeds. It begins as an invitation and ends in a mystery, as if a house were a book to be opened.
Grass streets between rows of white-tented stalls. This is the farmer’s market in the Wallingford neighborhood, in Meridian Park, in Seattle. It materializes on Wednesdays, May to September, three to seven o-clock. The stall tables are loaded with apples and apple pies, cheeses and breads, sea salts, squash, rhubarb, carrots, turnips, romaine lettuce, thumb lettuce, Bibb lettuce, blueberries. Jars of honey and jars of jam. A string band plays and a toddler dances while its grownups stand around talking. A Frisbee flies through the air. Families picnic, people stroll, lovers hold hands. An aproned man plies ice cream from his ice-cream cart. The producer is local, the farm small, the beef grass-fed. The vegetables are organic (mostly), the chickens raised cage-free. The community is friendly. The farmer’s market stands as an answer to the supermarket that purveys the product of agribusiness, that corporate entity that milks 7,000 cows, each shut in a stanchion for life, each standing on concrete for life, each tail cut off for ease of milking.
This morning before putting in a day’s work at my desk, I rake the dirt-moss path that curves from the side of my small house to the secret garden in back. The path leads from the street in front with its sirens and cars and garbage trucks to my backyard pocket-park of native plants, bugs, and butterflies. Most of the plants are young—a cascara tree, deer fern, sword fern, maidenhair fern, ocean spray, filbert, huckleberry, strawberry, a sapling serviceberry, a mock orange, the rain-garden lush with sedges and rushes, goat’s beard, oak ferns, blue-petaled asters, wild ginger.
Can we create spaces that shelter us from dreadful news? News of war, bombings, mass rapes, child slavery, plastic pollution, melting ice sheets, a poet to be beheaded for some poem he wrote? I want the news but I don’t want the anxiety that news brings with it.
When I enter the garden, anxiety evaporates. I dig or plant or weed or make a path. I place stones—green serpentine, obsidian, a hunk of alabaster, a granite cobble. I study my baby giant fern, a threatened species of the Pacific Northwest, to see how well it’s grown since yesterday. These plants live their slower lives alongside my life. They give me oxygen. They feed the bugs and bees and Bewick’s wrens. They make a space of peace and contemplation.
A place to live. A place to lie down. A place to sleep, safe and sound. A place to put your slippers. A bedroom, and not only a bedroom but a bed. A toilet. A box of clean sanitary napkins or tampons for when you are having your period. A bathtub and hot water to bathe in. A table to write on in the morning. In Seattle, in January 2016, the annual one-night census of homeless people counted 4,505 people sleeping outdoors, on the street, under the bridge. In Seattle, in 2015, 66 homeless people died on the street.
I’ve never sat in an inglenook. I’ve never seen one. But I’ve seen photographs and I want one. It’s a type of nook. First you must have a fireplace. I do have a fireplace. The inglenook is a den-like three-sided alcove. The fireplace is at the back. On two sides are built-in benches, with perhaps a built-in bookcase above one or both of the benches. The benches have cushions. Though it opens out into the larger room, the inglenook may be further defined by turned-wood posts framing the open side. In the inglenook, you may find woven pillows and a fire. Here’s a place to read or quietly talk. The inglenook stands for conversation, contemplation, quiet cogitation, an after-dinner wine, a thick book. No wonder it’s gone obsolete.
Jobs in Cubicles
People need to work alone. So says Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain. Open office plans, where the desks are in sight and sound of one another, make for a worker who fears being overheard, who fears his or her screen being scrutinized by who knows whom, who is interrupted needlessly and often, who is subjected to noise and extraneous chitchat. Cain reports on a study called Coding War Games: Two researchers studied more than 600 programmers in 92 companies. These programmers were to design, code, and test a program using their ordinary workspace during business hours. The result: The gap between the good ones and the mediocre to lousy ones was stunning. And it had nothing to do with certified brilliance or experience or salary or wits. It had to do with the following: the programmers who worked in a private work space, a work space under their own control—in companies that provided this—did ten times better than the worst performers and 2.5 times better than the median. Still, the open-office workspace is growing in appeal. Did I mention that the most creative and productive people work in a space controlled by themselves, a private space where they can work alone, without interruption?
My ideal kitchen contains a rocking chair and a wood-burning pot-bellied stove, not for cooking but to provide a crackling fire for the reader or writer who is reading or writing while rocking while the stew simmers on the cookstove. My ideal kitchen has room to cook in and room to write in while cooking. My ideal kitchen has a big oak table for good talk over good coffee. My ideal kitchen smells of bread rising. My ideal kitchen has tall open casement windows giving onto the garden with a summer breeze lifting the gauze curtain, a plant on the wide wooden windowsill, a rug on the floor. This ideal kitchen was painted by the Swedish painter Karl Larsson in 1898. It’s a watercolor titled The Kitchen. The Kitchen is my ideal kitchen.
Light on Two Sides of Every Room
When they have a choice, people will always gravitate to those rooms which have light on two sides, and leave the rooms which are lit from one side unused and empty. This pattern, perhaps more than any other single pattern, determines the success or failure of a room (Christopher Alexander, et al., No. 159, Pattern Language). And I’ve seen brand new houses that provide a living room with no windows giving onto a dining room with no windows giving onto a sunroom with a short wall of windows. The light at the end of the tunnel. On the other hand, my north Seattle carpenter-built cottage, built in 1926, has big double-hung windows on two sides of each of the four rooms. Carpenters used to know that every room must have air and light on two sides.
A bridge defines a space, transforms a landscape, puts a name on a place. “I’ll meet you at Montlake Bridge.” The Montlake Bridge is one of more than 150 bridges located in Seattle, our city of bridges. It’s a double-leaf bascule bridge, a drawbridge with Gothic-style towers to match the Gothic-style architecture of nearby University of Washington. It was built in 1925, the last bridge built to span the Lake Washington Ship Canal. The Montlake Bridge bridges Montlake Cut, and it bridges the centuries going back to the origin of its design and technology—the moats of Medieval castles. I like to walk across Montlake Bridge. I like looking down at the kayaks and motorboats and sailboats traveling under the bridge in Montlake Cut.
Should dwellings have nooks? Do we need nooks? Do we need breakfast nooks or reading nooks or window nooks? Is a nook anything like a cave and did our ancestors in fact live in nature’s nook—the mouth of a cave? In The Ethical Function of Architecture, Karsten Harries meditates on Frank Lloyd Wright’s philosophy of open, expansive spaces, with glass for wall, without closet or corner or attic or cellar, with no door to slam should you wish to slam a door, spaces, in Wright’s words, that may enable our “escape from the prettified cavern of our present domestic life as also from the cave of our past” (quoted in Harries, p. 208). How opposite to Gaston Bachelard’s conception of the corner: “every corner in a house … every inch of secluded space in which we like to hide, or withdraw into ourselves, is a symbol of solitude for the imagination.” The corner, Bachelard suggests, is the “chamber of being” (The Poetics of Space, pp. 136, 138). And Harries concurs: “Our psyche, too, has its attics, cellars, and closets” (p. 208). And I concur. I require corners and cubbies, the lidded box in which I may discover an old letter, a bronze ring, a pile of embroidered handkerchiefs, ironed and folded, left to me by my grandmother. I require nooks. Where’s my inglenook?
What objects should you live with in your abode? In Pattern Language Christopher Alexander and team insist that instead of adhering to cultural notions of nice décor, instead of applying magazine aesthetics or interior decorator aesthetics, or L. L. Bean aesthetics or Pottery Barn aesthetics, we should live with objects that express our story, our history, our inclinations and predilections. My story began on a farm and my décor includes my father’s flat-bar-iron hive tool. My story began as a quiet girl child who owned her own pencil box and my décor includes that child’s pencil box, a cigar box painted black and decorated with a flower decal. My story began with a twelve-year-old who adored Vincent Van Gogh and my décor includes a reproduction of a Van Gogh self-portrait.
In the United States, at the end of 2014, more than two million Americans were incarcerated in state or federal prisons or in local jails (U.S. Department of Justice statistics). We incarcerate more persons than does any other country in the world, nearly twice as many as Nation No. 2 in this regard—China (Institute for Criminal Policy Research). Now, who are these bad people? Many are nonviolent drug offenders caught in the sticky net of mandatory sentencing laws. And who else? A Washington Post blog entry is titled, “A Shocking Number of Mentally Ill Americans End Up in Prison Instead of Treatment.” In New York, this article relates, a man with schizophrenia spent thirteen of his fifteen-year prison sentence in solitary confinement. Some 20 percent of incarcerated persons, between 200,000 and 300,000, are mentally ill (“Ill-Equipped,” Human Rights Watch).
The Supreme Court, in Brown v. Plata, ruled that the overcrowding in California’s prison system amounted to cruel and unusual punishment. Inmates are packed into gyms. In one such a gym an inmate was beaten to death, a fact it took guards hours to discover. Some inmates, while waiting for a bed in a mental health facility, are placed inside cages the size of telephone booths—a photograph issued as part of the opinion in Brown v. Plata shows such a cage in which one man was forced to stand for twenty-four hours in a pool of his own urine.
In 2016, Albert Woodfox was released from prison after forty-three years in solitary confinement. He spent those decades in a six-by-nine-foot cell at the Louisiana State Penitentiary, known as Angola. He was convicted of the murder of a twenty-three-year-old prison guard in 1972, a conviction that was overturned twice, after which the state reindicted him. He was released after a plea-bargain in which he pled guilty to lesser charges. (After reading a few articles on Woodfox, I doubt he was guilty.) To be kept in a cage for decades. Solitary Watch speaks of a moral catastrophe: 80,000 to 100,000 persons living out their lives in solitary confinement, “the box” to use the inmate term. Many scream all night, smear the walls with feces. They have become mentally deranged if they weren’t mentally ill before this catastrophe befell them. Hell, according to the title of a book on solitary confinement, published in 2016 by the New Press, “is a very small place.”
Why is it that our America, our “land of the free,” incarcerates so many Americans?
To what extent does the quality of a space affect the quality of a life lived within that space?
Is concern with clutter the ultimate bourgeois obsession?
Does beauty matter? If so, how? Should beauty be a matter of interest to everyone? Should it be of interest to builders, developers, contractors?
Where can people sing, and drink, and shout and drink, and let go of their sorrows? (Question asked in “90. Beer Hall,” Pattern Language.)
How do traditional spaces such as peasant huts, old farmhouses, castles, and cottages index the lives that were lived within them? How do our individual dwellings index our individual lives? Do they?
Should a house have an attic and a cellar, corners and nooks where one can hide things and oneself? (Karsten Harries, The Ethical Function of Architecture, p. 208)
The architect, fashion designer, and social critic Bernard Rudofsky (1905–1988) was an acid-tongued, derisive critic of American streets, but his ideas, both radical and traditional, remain penetrating and useful. He vented his umbrage at the bulldozed sameness of American streets during the 1960s, at the height of the age of the automobile—that “stinking toy.” His long out-of-print book Streets for People (1969) champions the canopied street, the portico, the promenade (pedestrian street), the staired street, the pedestrian bridge or viaduct, the covered square, mosaic floors, mosaic pavements (made of cobblestone or marble or brick), public fountains, street cafés. Rudofsky praises street hawkers, buskers, street orators. He photographed all his street ideas, mostly in Italy and on the Greek islands. Rudofsky was born in Austria and grew up in Europe and had a European outlook. He moved to New York in 1942 and became a United States citizen in 1948. He’s gone but his ideas are growing more synchronous with our burgeoning notions of sustainable neighborhoods, community gardens, the indispensable coffeehouse on every street corner, that third place, not work, not home, but the community place, the meeting place.
Space in Art
We don’t realize how the making of every artwork, even miniatures, is an arrangement of spaces. Any one of us can move furnishings in a room without inhibition. We can do the same things with forms and colors on a canvas, with words on a page, with movements and sounds in space. Even the most experienced artists can overlook how their expressions are spaces to be arranged. Paintings, poems, stories, dances, sounds, and every form of performance can be viewed as spaces which generate different kinds of energies (Shaun McNiff, Trust the Process, 152).
I’m an identical twin. As identical twins we were more than close; we were two bodies with one personality, two mouths with one voice, four eyes with a single vision. And we never felt crowded. Not at all. Until we did.
Vision: Seattle’s urban forest is a thriving and sustainable mix of tree species and ages that creates a contiguous and healthy ecosystem that is valued and cared for by the City and all of its citizens as an essential environmental, economic, and community asset. (City of Seattle, Urban Forest Management Plan, 5-year Implementation Strategy (2010–2014)). That’s the vision. The goal: 30 percent canopy by 2017. It’s challenging. Development degrades the urban forest with its higher density, new, bigger, boxlike buildings whose construction requires cutting down trees. Development includes wealthy homes replacing cottages in my Seattle neighborhood with the construction of many-roomed houses that take up most of the property’s footprint where, before, trees grew. Still the city and its agencies—City Light, Seattle Department of Transportation, the Parks Department, and others—are planting trees. Citizens and volunteers are planting trees and native shrubbery, restoring parks overrun with drug paraphernalia and the pernicious invasive weed English ivy. I have planted, in the past five years, five trees: two cascaras, one serviceberry, one paper birch, and one incense cedar. They are still tiny. They would not even be picked up in an aerial survey. May they grow.
A flat painting shaped on a square or rectangular canvas is an old-fashioned or even quaint thing and painting itself has become quaint as constructions with odd shapes, canvasses with objects stuck on and poking out, installations, and video art have become postmodernly popular. Well. I like paintings. I like the square or rectangle because it is a window into another world, a doorway into a magical space created in the mind. The artworks hanging on my walls include a rectangular abstraction, with parallel lines of perspective slanting down the canvas into a center band that is wide at the bottom and gets narrower toward the top. Actually, it’s not a painting. It’s a color photograph of a suspension bridge, printed on canvas. It’s the Tacoma Narrows Bridge, shot by the artist M. Anne Sweet from the top of the high tower. The lines are suspender cables, the vertical wires hung from the main cables to hold up the road. The center band is the road. In the space of my living room I have hung a suspension bridge.
A window place is an area within an interior with a window to look out of. It could be a window seat. At Hedgebrook, the writer’s retreat for women located on Whidbey Island near Useless Bay in Washington state, every cottage has a window seat with a cushion, with pillows, with the woods right outside the window. A window seat in which to contemplate words. But, according to Pattern Language, a window place does not have to be a window seat. It’s a chair set next to a window with a view out. While reading Pattern Language, I keep getting up to rearrange the furniture in my house. I now have four window places, one for each room.
(Pronounced See BOWEL ba) This place was the abode of the dead, the underworld in the ancient Maya religion. It was a court ruled by twelve death gods, the Lords of Xibalda. There was a ruler and eleven others whose duties involved visiting the living with specific forms of agony and death. There was a pus demon and a stabbing demon. Two of the Lords (demons) were charged with causing people to die on a road while coughing blood. Xibalba was a large place, perhaps a city, with a crossroads at which each of the roads spoke to the hapless traveler, confusing him or her. Xibalba had houses full of darkness or danger (knives that stabbed all by themselves, hungry jaguars).
And how common across human cultures is that realm we call Hell, the underworld, abode of Satan, Hades. The Hell Realm, as Buddhist psychotherapist Mark Epstein explicates in Thoughts Without a Thinker, may emanate from projecting our unwanted feelings of fear and rage into the world. If we could accept the fear and rage as part of our interior space, as part of the immensity within ourselves, and then descend to battle our demons, that would alter both our internal world and the hell we create in the outer world of war, torture, and cruelty. So it is that in the Popol Vul, the ancient sacred book of Quiché Maya people, the Hero Twins, Hunahpu and Xbalanque, descend into Xibalba and are tricked and tested and they defeat their demons one by one.
The grass front yard may be the world’s most useless space. Who would spend time there? It does not serve as a transitional space for people moving between public and private worlds. It’s too glaringly exposed to the street, altogether too public, even if situated on private property. Also, the clipped grass lawn is a monocrop, taking up more than forty million acres in the continental United States. It has contributed to the extinction of native pollinators—bees and butterflies. It does little to nurture the human community, which tends to retreat to the back yard for barbecue or badminton. For these reasons, there’s a growing movement to take out grass and put in native flowers, native trees, native ferns, mosses and bushes and yes, native grasses. I have joined the movement.
This concept, which I glimpsed in Pattern Language, is as follows. If there’s a landscape of great majesty or beauty—a mountain, say, or the sea—and you can constantly gaze at it through some large picture window, you don’t see it anymore. It becomes part of the furniture. But if you can glimpse the snow-covered peak or the blue sea through a small window or through a slit in the garden wall as you move from one part of the house to another, its beauty stays with you. Its majesty becomes part of your dreaming mind. It connects you with the earth, with the place that gave us life, that gave us ourselves, that enables us to live, that gives us a place, a home in the universe.
Priscilla Long is a Seattle-based author, teacher of writing, and writer of science, poetry, history, fiction, and creative nonfiction. New in 2016: Fire and Stone: Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? (University of Georgia Press) and Minding the Muse: A Handbook for Painters, Composers, Writers, and Other Creators (Coffeetown Press). Her poetry book is Crossing Over: Poems (University of New Mexico Press). She is author of The Writer’s Portable Mentor: A Guide to Art, Craft, and the Writing Life and a scholarly history book, Where the Sun Never Shines: A History of America’s Bloody Coal Industry (Paragon House, 1989). Her science column appeared for ninety-two weeks on the website of The American Scholar. Her MFA is from the University of Washington, and she serves as Founding and Consulting Editor of www.historylink.org, the online encyclopedia of Washington state history.