NEW YORK TIMES MAGAZINE
The austerity of some architects’ living spaces could try the patience of a saint, let alone a spouse. By Lucie Young.
Belinda Luscombe waited nine months for a toilet to be installed in the home she describes as ‘a quite well- appointed parking garage’. Her husband, Jeremy Edmiston, an architect, began remodeling their New York loft last June, but did not provide this necessity until February. (For months, the couple used a bathroom down the hall.) ‘We couldn’t just buy a toilet; we had to special-order it from California,’ says Luscombe, a staff writer at Time Magazine. She didn’t know what she would get when it finally arrived.
‘I didn’t even get to choose a tap fitting, as I am blessed with no taste,’ she explains. ‘But when I saw a picture of it, I said it reminded me of a penitentiary toilet. That was all the encouragement he needed.’
Such are the trials of living with an architect who favors the minimalist brand of modern architecture. Even if a minimalist interior has a toilet, there are often no fin-de siecle comforts to snuggle into, no signs of life as we know it, only picture-perfect simplicity – or “voluntary poverty”, as one architect calls it. These shrines to emptiness, stripped of curtains, carpets and sometimes even doors and walls, have enormous appeal in an age suffering from information overload. They suggest monastic serenity, in which the inhabitants get to star as St Augustine or, perhaps, Audrey Hepburn in “The Nun’s Story.” They are heroic stage sets for a rich fantasy life in which we are all neater, calmer, better groomed and more spiritual: our true, new and improved selves.
But while these spaces appeal intellectually, they may make the heart sink, especially if you have lived in one with the architectural demigod who designed it. Consider, for example, Yvonne Gallis, the wife of Charles-Edouard Jeanneret, the architectural giant better known as Le Corbusier. Not buying into her famous Swiss husband’s influential ideas about the home as “a machine for living,” Gallis filled the couple’s 1930’s apartment with gewgaws, knickknacks and assorted bits of clutter.
The modern icon Frank Lloyd Wright had more success with his first wife Catherine, who not only put up with her husband’s passion for moving the furniture around on weekends, but also unquestioningly wore the dun-colored clothes he designed so she would not clash with their home’s decor. (Her reward for all her trouble was to be left for the wife of one of Wright’s clients).
Although a few contemporary architects throw up their hands and let spouses tinker with the furnishings, most, like Wright, are fairly fanatical about what goes inside their homes.
Peter Gluck, for instance, made his wife, Carol, a professor of Japanese history at Columbia University, wait longer than Belinda Luscombe. For 22 years, Carol Gluck managed without a coffee table in the couple’s Manhattan apartment while her husband agonized over choosing the right one. In the meantime, she laid out teacups on the living-room rug. As architects go, Peter Gluck is a rigorous modernist rather than a minimalist – although it would be rather hard for anyone other than an architect to tell. When the couple met 34 years ago, she had curtains on her windows. Two years later, when they married and moved in together, these decorative furbelows were left behind. Peter Gluck likes to keep the walls bare, too. ‘I can’t live with lots of insignificant paintings tacked all over the walls,’ he says, ‘not if the wall has some architectural significance.’
Needless to say, storage space is vital to the minimalist life style (or at least to the appearance that one is living that life style). After all, even minimalists must contain the flotsam of everyday life. Naomi Gornick, director of the master’s program in design management at Brunel University, in Surrey, England, and the wife of the London-based architect Bruce Gornick (he is ‘a throw back to the Bauhaus,’ she says), has found that her existence revolves around squirreling away all visual distractions.
‘I have a secret activity in the house, where my job is to hide the papers,’ she says. ‘Consequently, some of the rooms are like Rumpelstiltskin’s, and visitors can’t go into them’.
But bulging storerooms, attics and cupboards are a constant reminder to the architects that chaos is braying at the door and mere nanoseconds from invading their pure clean interior spaces. To radical minimalists, even the cupboards themselves have to go. Heather Faulding, a New York architect, rented a storage unit so that her husband Vernon Steward, could get his junk out of their house. ‘He was an ambassador at the UN,’ she says with a sigh. ‘We’ve got tchotchkes from the entire universe.’ Steward recently sent much of what he calls his ’emotional rubbish’ to the auction house to defray the cost of keeping the rest of it in limbo.
Claudio Silvestrin, a man who proudly calls himself ‘the most rigorous of the minimalist architects’ makes Heather Faulding look like a clutter bug. He, his wife, Tessa Robins, and their two children live in a remodeled 1840’s Victorian house in North London. Their possessions are so paired down that he owns only two pairs of shoes; Robins has only six. ‘If I don’t wear something for two years, and it’s not of functional value, I get rid of it,’ she says very matter-of-factly.
Robins is actually a dream companion for the top banana in the bare-bones department. A minimalist sculptor herself, she is often more painstaking than her husband about maintaining their environment. ‘Claudio likes to put his change on the mantelpiece, and I take it off,’ she says. ‘I have to remind him it doesn’t go there.’
Other architects have been less fortunate. John Pawson, who created Calvin Klein’s fanatically spare flagship store in Manhattan, is married to Catherine Pawson, an interior designer with a passion for chintzes. When they first began living together, their London flat was an obstacle course of skirted tables, overstuffed chairs and picture frames lined up five deep on assorted surfaces.
Three years ago, the couple moved, and John Pawson got his turn at home-making. The result was a shop-perfect paean to Spartan living, with a 24-foot long stone bench in the living room and something akin to a giant baptismal font in the bathroom. He also installed a dining table, bed and floorboards that were all fashioned from the same unadorned slabs of Douglas Fir. Cozy was not the word. His wife told the Sunday Times of London that she found the interior very controlling. ‘It dictates everything to you – flowers, food, even how you look – I’ve had to start buying a wardrobe that looks right in the house.’
Gisue Hariri, an Iranian born architect who practices in New York, maintains that ‘all architects are control freaks’. She explains: ‘All the houses we do are very controlled. But a lot of beautiful architecture is not catered towards homemaking’. This may come as a surprise to anyone who has hired an architect to remodel a loft or build a summerhouse. But not to Aaron Betsky, the curator of architecture and design at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. ‘Modern architecture is not about living,’ he says. ‘It’s about articulating values. The campaign of modern architecture is to wipe out personal and private space. Architects have bought into the myth of building a modern utopia where we will all wander about freely without clothes and possessions.’
Inhabiting such a utopia is neither practical nor desirable for most of us. The average person cannot live by architecture alone. No matter how fantastic the space, we need things – reminders of where we have been, emotional souvenirs we associate with people and places.
We also need comfort. Perfection in architecture offers little shelter and can be a brutal environment to live in, especially for a child. Marco Pasanella, an interior and furniture designer who is the son of Giovanni Pasanella, a highly successful New York architect, recalls his childhood home as a triumph of tastefulness. ‘Everything was so beautiful and perfect,’ he says. ‘It was only we who weren’t.’