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Like an X-ray

This essay by Anna Kate Blair was the open category winner of the 2017 Warren Trust Awards for Architectural Writing.

This house sits at the top of a steep slope on the northern side of Waiheke Island; cliffs plunge down from the lawn to a small rocky beach. It is a box of glass and steel wrapped by sliding groups of cedar planks that cluster on the southern side. It sits low, nestling in rather than interrupting the contours of the land, and the wind silently sweeps over it. I can, from almost every angle, see through the house.

“It’s safe to say that it’s a northerly,” says my father, moving a glass panel on the side that looks out towards Little Barrier Island, often lost in the haze above the horizon. He opens, instead, a panel on the southern side, and the magazines on the coffee table stop rustling.

This house is designed to resist the wind, with sliding panels of glass or cedar on every side, and it is easy to see the water from every room due to the open plan of the interior and the transparency of all but the southern façade. It is not a large house, but it is rational and intelligently designed; it deals elegantly with the site’s challenges and takes full advantage of  the views. I wake up each morning and open my eyes to the sea and sky.

I have returned to Waiheke after finishing a PhD in architectural history. I left behind wooden baches painted in post-war colours and returned to find a coastline covered in houses that looked like eyes, with low rectangular façades of glass under steel eyelids, watching the sea. It is and is not a homecoming, because this house has replaced the bach in which I waited, five years ago, for my student visa.

The old house represented security and history to me, although one of the reasons it was demolished was the threat that it might tumble off the cliff. The house had a steeply pitched roof with gables; it was navy blue on the outside, and when the late afternoon sun spilled through the small windows, the wooden interior melted into honey. The shadows were inky, and the house buzzed with a dusty chiaroscuro. The house seemed almost alive, like an animal, shivering in winter, bracing against the wind and howling. It was the kind of house that I  wanted to protect, not the kind of house that would protect me.

I suggested, that winter, the architecture firm that would design the next house. I knew my father and stepmother wanted a house that almost wasn’t a house, free of internal divisions and open to the landscape beyond, an antipodean relative to Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House. This new house is that house, as I expected. We are protected now by steel and 17-metre foundations. We do not even hear the wind.

I had expected the end of graduate school to be a point of celebration, but it has instead manifested, for me, as a collapse. I identified with this house when it was under construction, but the finished house is confident, unapologetically new; I feel precarious without my scaffolding. I have been evaluated on my potential for five years, and I am afraid that I might not live up to it. This feels like a frontier, and in a way, it is: the land drops away behind the flax, and when Little Barrier dissolves in the haze, it seems as if there is nothing beyond us but the horizon.

I am not sure if this house is entirely, officially complete. We moved in December and arranged our Christmas tree on cardboard boxes so we didn’t scuff the floor before the architects photographed it. They have not given it a name, although we expect they will. I wait for it to join the other houses on their website or in the magazines. I wonder if something is always lost when a project is finished, when the future ceases to be dreamt and becomes real.

Despite my identity crisis, I am still clearly an architectural historian, reading our responses to the house through history and theory. My family think of this house as a machine for seeing, whereas I view it as part of a tradition of architecture that is displayed. I think of Mies van der Rohe’s response, in 1929, to the question of what would be inside his German Pavilion in Barcelona: “Nothing.”

It was the pavilion itself that was being exhibited.

The history of glass is full of traded glances and stares. The Casa del Fascio in Como, Italy, one of the first buildings I studied at university, is enticing because it is duplicitous, suggesting openness of government through a transparent façade. Konstantin Melnikov’s USSR Pavilion at the 1925 Paris Exposition used the curtain wall to insist on exposure, revealing the exhibition inside to those who did not enter.

“The window,” wrote Jacques Lacan, later, “is straightaway a gaze.” It makes the world outside a cinema; it makes the house itself a stage. I am in the habit of seeing transparent houses, like this one, in magazines. It is not unreasonable to feel displayed.

I am not usually nervous about transparency, but rather an advocate for it. I love these modernists and their sheets of glass with a fierceness that has been heightened by thinking about them for years. I am aware that Edith Farnsworth, like us, did not know where to place her garbage can; I am aware that she felt under examination in her house, describing it as “like an x-ray”. I wonder, though, if too many readers take these words as an objective assessment of the house and not as a subjective statement of self. It is the tension between living and looking that animates such structures.

Glass means different things to different people. I think this house, to my father and stepmother, represents freedom, anticipates an expansion of time and space. They are planning to retire; they do not share my fear of the world outside the windows. They are not self-conscious. It is a different phase, I suppose, or perhaps it is a disposition: neither would prefer a dreamt space to a real one.

In the middle of the day, the weather gets wilder and the rain comes in lashes; the glass seems thicker and distorted. There are spider webs of water across the window, lines of thread trembling with drops. We think of rainstorms as limiting vision, but these torrents make evident the existence of the surface, make the wall into something solid, a support on which water clings and glides.

I am pleased to find a curtain in this house; it is soft and silken, hanging heavily on a curved track that skates around the façade’s hard corners. This curtain is the colour of milk; draping and oscillating, it forms a cocoon around my bedroom. I feel supported by this fabric, which accepts my vulnerability, giving me permission to hide. The glass walls suggest invincibility, but the curtain admits need.

It creates a little mystery, too, which can feel like freedom. I am applying for post-doctoral fellowships, now, and I find myself split in two, with one self arguing that my research is valuable while another self, exhausted, picks apart every line in every application, searching for weaknesses and prodding at them until I want to cry. I am exhausted from imagining scrutiny.

I have my own canon of modern curtains, too, and this one, in this house, feels indebted to Lilly Reich, who worked with Mies van der Rohe on many projects, moving the emphasis away from vision and toward touch. In the Velvet and Silk Café of 1927 in Berlin, silk and velvet hung from metal rods; Reich placed a thick rug on the floor of the Barcelona Pavilion two years later. The eyes invite people to move closer and lower, invoking questions about weight and texture, summoning the body, encouraging the hands.

It seems at first that the curtain is a refusal of all that this house represents; it resists, rather than celebrates, the ideology of openness. Both curtains and curtain walls, though, are soft
boundaries, creating uncertain edges, porous places where space at once flows freely and is constrained. They mark limits, tactile or visual, beyond which we cannot touch or cannot see.

We must negotiate these. In this house, though, both curtain and glass panel can be pushed aside; few boundaries are fixed or absolute.

It is, of course, always more complicated, rougher and dreamier, to inhabit a building than to assess it. I wonder if I can follow the example of this house, copy its confidence, graduate with its polish. Is there any material more idealistic, more ambitious and difficult, than glass? It is at once bold and self-effacing. It is uncompromising; it thirsts for fullness of vision. I would like to do this, too, but softly, with a curtain, embracing surfaces and thresholds in all their multiplicity and fluttering inconsistency.

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