Some days I rumble through life patting myself on the back with the mindfulness that I’m in an elite class of artisans on an exclusive mission to enlighten the world about the power of architecture with a capital A. Other days I question how much any of this really matters.
Many of our Side Yard readers know that my parents emigrated from the Netherlands to Oregon in 1957. They were dirt poor and barely knew a word of English. Like so many of these stories, Mom and Dad worked numerous menial jobs to scrape up enough money to buy a small “white house” (that’s what my dad called it because he thought it sounded presidential) with a porch and four columns in Portland. It was 1960, and they were beginning to connect with the American Dream. Mom and Dad raised a family and lived in that house for 54 years until Dad’s dementia finally pushed them into an assisted-living home a few weeks ago. I keep telling them, both 92, that statistically speaking, they are one of the oldest married couples in the history of mankind.
As we moved their more important items to the new apartment (downsizing), the impact of the white house on my life began to crystalize. There was virtually nothing architecturally significant about it; the porch and four columns were pretty nifty, but the plan was clumsy and there was no real awareness in the design of the views toward Mount Hood or nearby Mount Tabor Park. The house didn’t even lend itself well to all the parties I remember growing up with (old school Dutch parties: women in the kitchen preparing Dutch food, men in the living room eating Dutch food and telling World War II stories). Worst of all, my parents’ interior design style could only be described as “gorpy Hollandish.”
The Dutch have a word that is very difficult to translate into English but encompasses the heart of the culture: gezellig. Most Americans can’t even pronounce it without spitting on the person in front of them. It sort of means cozy-friendly-comfortable-enjoyment-with-people-you-love . . . sort of. Think of it this way: Amsterdam is gezellig. Rotterdam is not.
What has struck me most throughout this poignant time is how my parents’ house—our house—served as a setting for a long, rich history of generous hospitality to every culture, race, religion, political bent (as long as it was Democrat!), nationality and preference imaginable—this before tolerance was hip. And my parents would always say, gezellig! Our house truly had doors that never closed. We always had people in our home, sometimes families staying for months. We were on top of each other, but I was completely unaware. It was just gezellig.
As an architect, I’m almost embarrassed to admit this rich tapestry of engagement was supported by a small, mundane, nondescript and under-designed house. In high school I was dreadfully ashamed of it (and our old-fashioned heritage). As news of my parents’ move to the assisted-living home started going viral, old friends, family and neighbors responded from around the world with a wave of stories and well wishes to the old gezellig Dutch couple. And not a single person mentioned anything about the house! No one noted that it was a stripped-down neoclassical-revival style. No critique of the floor plans, sections or elevations. No one even alluded to a “sense of place.” Despite itself, the house just happened to be a stage for a tremendously rich family and public life. Gezellig!
It got me thinking that as exceptional as we architects often consider ourselves, most of the world lives, breathes, celebrates and opens its doors in undesigned places. I lived for three years in the World Heritage city of Santiago De Compostela in northern Spain, and one day it occurred to me that virtually all of the magnificent historic splendor of that place was not designed by architects. Moreover, the “designed” parts of the city were typically much less interesting. Sure, buildings like the Seattle Central Library (see my take on this in “The Building I Wish I Loved . . . More” in ARCADE Issue 31.1) or the EMP help put cities on the architectural tourist-map, but my experience has been that most great, livable, urban places are made up of the space between and around inconspicuous edges.
During the holiday season we are going to cram our extended family into my parents’ gorpy Hollandish apartment. My father’s dementia will greatly reduce the length and vigor of our gathering, but we will have the traditional assortment of comfort foods, songs, stories and jokes. During our time, I look forward to taking a few minutes to consider the prominent role of the architecture that many of us design: gracious backdrops to the rich tapestry of life and hospitality.