A Handle, on Building

Winter is interior, a strangely longed-for time of retreat and withdrawal. Shortened daylight and intense cold drive us in, and inward. We compress or distill our attention and inevitably think back to our past. We are small and in the close bed of memory. And we are inside, in the spaces that house us. If we are well-housed, we celebrate the architecture that frames us; if it is inadequate, it also impresses itself on us.
Peter Zumthor is an accomplished Swiss architect, and it’s his book, Thinking Architecture, that I’ve just read (Birkhäuser GmbH, Basel, 2010, first published in 1998). Here he states his basic principles of building. It is building that is his focus, believing that the real core of architectural work is in the act of constructing, a sensibility and conviction that began with his early training as a cabinet maker in his father’s shop. Or more probably, beginning in childhood, and subsequently, with memory. “There was a time,” he wrote, “when I experienced architecture without thinking about it. Sometimes I can almost feel a particular door handle in my hand, a piece of metal shaped like the back of a spoon. I used to take hold of it when I went into my aunt’s garden.”

Seizing a door handle and crossing a threshold is indeed the stuff and invitation of memory, and I have taken it too, on countless occasions. Such a rich and simple device a door handle is.

In the late ’60s my father decided to add a small screened porch to the cottage he’d had built in 1950. The porch’s width came to be determined almost arbitrarily, by a window in the kitchen wall and the stone fireplace further along. The opening to the screen porch would be between these two elements. Even within these constraints there was room to build the porch wider, but that wasn’t the case. And to avoid encroaching too far into the play area around the cottage the addition would be built out only so far. Longer, I suppose, it would have appeared as merely a screened corridor. (As I think of it that would have been fine–we would sit in a row like guests on the front porch of a small seaside hotel.) What my father arranged to have built was a small rectangle with screened windows on three sides. With privacy in mind, the openings were placed at a height where, if you were seated, the walls rose even with the top of your head. So, while the cottage faced a fine lake, what was framed in the screened windows was our upward gaze. We looked out at the topmost third of the trees around the property’s edges, and at the sky beyond. Only the screen door, which was entirely screen, top to bottom, allowed a full view: deck, long grasses, small birds dipping in and darting from various hanging feeders, and a vertical swipe of lake. On the door’s exterior–a cast metal handle, shaped like a flattened bow and finished in black enamel.

Everyone I love has slipped three fingers behind that handle and placed their thumb on top–my kids, my parents, friends, grandparents. In my mind–like a sequence of film stills: different heads, different heights, varying postures, one after another they reached, paused, pulled and entered this small, odd porch. Their hands have rubbed the paint, exposing the grey metal beneath, which is now satiny from use. When the screen needed to be replaced and the door repainted, the handle was removed, left untouched and returned, its patina even more particular against the fresh paint. When years of pelting rain softened the wood to the point of rot and a new door was required, my instructions were to remove the handle, save the screws and place all exactly as before, on the new door, a request which was met with a quizzical shrug. Like Proust’s madeleine on his tongue, that door handle in my hand is both a prompt for memory and a reassurance against time’s wash. Readily available in hardware stores across western Canada in the 1960s, the handle would have been regarded for its utility alone. This was not the cast brass door handle sculpture designed by Ludwig Wittgenstein for his sister Margarethe Stonborough’s mansion in Vienna in 1928 where, Bernhard Leitner noted, “Formal simplicity in Wittgenstein’s case means aesthetic complexity.” (The Wittgenstein House, Princeton Architectural Press, 2000). Mine was just a handle.

The handle, in Peter Zumthor’s telling, opened to his aunt’s garden, through a stone path and into a darkened, wood-panelled interior, which led finally to her kitchen–traditional and unremarkable, as he remembers it, but which has come to be kitchen for him. “Memories like these contain the deepest architectural experience that I know. They are the reservoirs of architectural atmospheres and images that I explore.” He is after the poetic in his work, he is engaged with materials and seeks to use them honestly, calling up American poet William Carlos Williams’s conviction that there are “no ideas but in things,” and he says his passionate desire is “to design buildings that in time, grow naturally into being a part of the form and history of their place.” Solidity and sense of place, the rootedness and certainty of a building properly set in its geography, are Zumthor’s response to a world where he sees signs and symbols obscuring the real, which, he feels, remains hidden. His use of materials is antidote, like the artists whom he admires, who were working in the ’60s and ’70s with plain stuff. Some were part of the Arte Povera movement. Their method of assembly–often loose, stacked and joined, in a manner with which Zumthor could readily identify–was simple and direct. The object was itself, its meaning evident, offering the same quiet satisfaction you would derive from noting well worn and carefully folded quilts stacked on a shelf. Useful, necessary, basic.

The constancy of materials in unadorned, enclosing spaces creates quiet and room, a place that can be home. Not necessarily a house, but what O.F. Bollnow identifies, in Human Space as the spatial centre from which we can dialectically venture out and to which we can always return (Hyphen Press, London, 2011, first published in 1963 by W. Kohlhammer, Stuttgart). This dwelling, which Bollnow elaborates to mean a place, like a house, is also the inhabitation of space and time, of pausing, and residing, “a place where one stays, or ‘stance.’” If we can stay and rest in a dwelling, it is because we feel secure, and in this pause and vacant space can dream, daydream and remember. For Zumthor, memory and daydreams are a source out of which his work comes, but first there is sleep. Architecture is an envelope and background for life, he says, a container for living and working and “for the silence of sleep.” This is his sense and conviction, and he must also know well Gaston Bachelard’s Poetics of Space (Orion Press, New York, 1964). “And so beyond all positive values of protection,” Bachelard wrote, “the house we were born in becomes imbued with the dream values which remain after the house is gone. Centers of boredom, centers of solitude, centers of daydream group together to constitute the oneiric house which is more lasting than the scattered memories of our birthplace.”

The habitable but unavailable, longed-for dream space is the storehouse and reservoir that impels us forward to seek it, or replicate it in fragments, in virtually everything we do, either as paradigm or dialectic, as model or warning.

We are looking for the idea of the real; the home that resides in memory and imagination, which provides sufficient quiet and safety and in which we can daydream and be silent and generate the thoughts from which to make something of value, and real.

Zumthor reads the poets Wallace Stevens and William Carlos Williams, he reads Italo Calvino and he likes the directness of American painter Edward Hopper. He reaffirms his sense that “it is only between the reality of things and the imagination that the spark of the work of art is kindled.” He quotes Martin Heidegger on what dwelling is, which parallels Bollnow’s including ideas of habitation and stance, and he comes back to William Carlos Williams’s assertion that an image in the writing generates the idea of the thing’s meaning. “No idea but in things.”

There is an idea that seems to recur in Peter Zumthor’s book–an idea of a building being silent, not speaking, of being so right in its siting and materials that it appears part of the history of the place in which it resides, or will come to, in time. It is an odd engagement in, and reversal of, superfluity. Zumthor refers to Calvino’s study of the Italian poet Giacomo Leopardi, who found particular beauty in literature, where it was vague, open and indeterminate. This was achieved, Calvino explained, through meticulous thoroughness and rigorous attention to every minute detail. The same effortful ease is also evident in the design and construction of Wittgenstein’s house for his sister. “Wittgenstein shows the highest simplicity,” Leitner noted in his book and gives the “impression of modesty, a modesty that is barely affordable.” Similarly, the Dandy, a figure Baudelaire studied and admired, wears only his perfection and not the effort of his achievement. In The Painter of Modern Life he wrote “One and all stem from the same origin, all share the same characteristic of opposition and revolt; all are representatives of what is best in human pride, of that need which is too rare in the modern generation, to combat and destroy triviality.” To illustrate further, he added, “It is the pleasure of causing surprise in others, and the proud satisfaction of never showing any yourself.”

This achievement of simple perfection, of apparent simplicity earned through honed focus and unrelenting effort, produces finally, a quiet, admirable lustre. What is necessary to pull it off is through-going self-consciousness and the ability to skillfully draw back from excess. The impetus may be daydreams; the application is full wakefulness.

Peter Zumthor writes about teaching architecture, and learning, by which I think he means knowing and experiencing. He says again, as he did at the book’s opening, that we experience architecture before we hear the word and that the beginning of our understanding lies in our childhood, in our biography. We are once again in Bachelard’s oneiric home but also, more concretely, in direct and traceable experience. Of the frame around us we ask security, light, time, and space for daydreaming. It’s serious work, constructing a home.

Volume 31, Number 1: Willem de Kooning

This article originally appeared in Border Crossings #121, published February 2012.

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