Architecture

Modern Inconveniences

A design writer and self-confessed slob seeks transformation in a year of living minimally

From the November 2011 magazine
Photograph by Nancy Bleck
A lived-in “moderny” home in Vancouver challenges the aesthetic ideals of mid-century modernism.

In his 1908 essay “Ornament and Crime,” Viennese architect Adolf Loos waxed magnanimous: “I have made the following discovery and I pass it on to the world: The evolution of culture is synonymous with the removal of ornament from utilitarian objects.” Italics his.

A century later, my LinkedIn profile photo displays the perfect image of cultural evolution: a lithe figure poised languidly in a gleaming, modern kitchen, with nary an ornament in sight. Silhouetted against a huge, aluminum-framed window, I betray no soccer mom frippery, no deluxe range hoods, knick-knack shelves, or wayward papers. This is the house, and the self-image, I like to project to my colleagues.

No, the person in the picture is not me. It’s a photographer’s model, the type of human prop for the slick New York magazine in which my house was featured, but that’s beside the point, isn’t it? The cool, modernist backdrop is what matters. This is the kind of house I’ve been writing about for the past twenty years, and that I’ve finally had the chance to live in.

The opportunity beckoned in 2009 when, as I scanned the Internet for our next family home, up popped a specimen more rare than sunshine in Vancouver: a modernist house for rent. The posting showed a gorgeous, grey-tiled bathroom, the shower stall and toilet encased in glass, which segued openly and unblushingly into a bedroom. One corner of a pillowcase led the eye to the bed’s built-in cabinetry, which held a neat stack of books. Here was a house that reflected a clean, tidy soul—at least that’s the subtext of the current writing on modernism. In babbling lifestyle magazines and ponderous academic journals, we hover around the idea that minimalism is a moral imperative that can transform our lives. And since anyone can now afford to stuff a house with cheap bric-a-brac, the look of stark nothingness has become virtuous, in the same way that the advent of inexpensive food made it cool to be skinny. But architecture is about more than being cool. We design experts champion a way of life. Like a surprising number of my peers in this glamorous industry, I’m a slovenly sort. What if this modern house could change my life? What greater opportunity to test our collective thesis?

On our initial tour, we approached the front entrance by climbing up a metal staircase, over a Zen garden that surrounds the house like a moat. Huge windows flood every inch of the interior with light. White cabinets dominate the main floor, and the walls and ceilings, devoid of baseboards or cornices, seem to float around them. The kitchen, living, and dining zones flow into each other. With no fridge or range in sight, it’s unclear just where the kitchen is. But—yay!—no tyrannical predefining of the use of a space, as we design writers might say.

My inner critic starts drafting a story in my mind: Note how, halfway into the kitchen area, the floor unexpectedly steps down and the ceiling rises up, which generates space for a sub-grade room and triggers a dynamically expansive spatial narrative. But in short order, my twee critic’s mindset yields to plebeian, housewifely considerations: No nooks or baseboards to dust! Built-in cabinets to hold all our crap! As we stroll around, nine-year-old Natalie’s eyes bug out, and twelve-year-old Julia digs her fingers into my arm. The second we step off the property, my daughters plead with me to rent it, because, they chime in unison, “it’s so-o-o cool.”

One would hardly describe the houses we have inhabited so far as cool. My spouse and I are serial renters, taking a short-term lease on a different furnished house every year while we wait in vain for Vancouver real estate prices to settle down. This approach has its merits, because it enables us to hone in on which type of house works best for us. But all the homes we have rented hark back to the traditional, with their peaked roofs, mullioned windows, crown mouldings, and overstuffed armchairs. Now, lo, a rental house that emphatically defied all those cozy semiotics. My mate’s eyes glimmered with the hope of a reprieve from the squalor I had generated in other abodes. Our daughters’ eyes shone with the promise of a home that looked like a rocket ship.

We signed a one-year lease on what the children immediately dubbed the “moderny house”—a childish expression that’s apropos for contemporary modernism: an adjective, no longer a revolution. Still, now I could live the dream and go from slovenly to sleek, almost by osmosis.

A century ago, families worried about poverty and the plague, not clutter and kitsch. Death lurked in the swag curtains and fetid air of the Victorian parlour. “The machine we live in is an old crate of a plane riddled with tuberculosis,” wrote Le Corbusier in his 1923 manifesto, Vers une architecture. Modernism, he argued, would bring us health, happiness, liberty, and family unity. The book’s accompanying images of airplanes, race cars, steel bridge framework, and prairie grain silos championed the industrial as aesthetic by its very nature: in an era of food shortages, war, and disease, technology offered more hope than tradition could.

Modernism no longer holds a monopoly on the virtues of economy and hygiene. Any vinyl-windowed townhome can deliver that. Instead, the movement’s enduring appeal comes from its lean, smooth look, which offers a sense of purity or, rather, the modern paradigm of purity: coolness.

It’s no coincidence that the ascent of modernism coincided with the diminuendo of religion. We are born slimy and forever seek to cleanse ourselves; we grow old and forever seek to halt our bodily decay. The modernist interior seems to stop time, crystallizing our environment in a preternaturally youthful pose. This may be why the masses have embraced the simulacrum of modernism—in shelter porn websites like apartmenttherapy.com, or in the ubiquitous open concept stainless steel kitchens of new condo developments—even as they remain oblivious to its original aspirations of social progress. We savour the showrooms at Ikea outlets while ignoring the sprawling dreck of suburbia that surrounds them. We trawl the pages of Dwell magazine, admiring that freeze-frame shot of toddlers at play in a spotless living room, while our real-life offspring smear their snot on the walls. Who wouldn’t choose the illusion of perfection over the mess of reality?

Our year of living modernly dawned with hope. The white planes of our ceilings and cabinetry conveyed a passive, effortless cleanliness. We had spent years living amid our middle-class detritus, despite my neat freak partner’s best efforts to keep the space tidy. Magazines, school permission forms, cartons of diet soft drinks, plastic bobble-head critters, and more had sprouted from the crannies and countertops. Now all of it vanished into built-in cupboards. I loved those rows of white cabinets that anchored every room. They looked just like Robert Rauschenberg’s 1951 White Paintings series of a dozen white canvases, pure and clean and mind clearing. The cabinets slowly filled up with stuff, while the visible interior of our modernist house stayed visually spare—an architectural variant of The Picture of Dorian Gray.

The irony of hiding our mess was rich, given that the modernist faith is based on fidelity to our time and culture (no fake Tudor beams, no ersatz Tuscan tiles). Was it honest to project an image of minimalism when, along with everyone else in town, we remained maximalists?

The facade didn’t take long to crack. A single errant paper dropped on the black granite counters quickly multiplied. The cupboards needed wiping twice a day, since even one fingerprint would mar their pure white surfaces. I had forgotten what Rauschenberg had discovered in his series: that there’s really no such thing as “white”—at least not for long. As soon as the artist mounted his exhibition, a shadow would fall, a stray insect would land on a canvas, the dust would collect.

With each room proudly open to the others, there was no place for clutter to hide, even for a few minutes. This makes the architecture honest, I thought; it will force me to be neat. But soon enough, the cycle of doing something and then removing all traces of it came to feel like running on a hamster wheel. As Corbu proclaimed almost a century ago, a house is a machine for living in. It’s a machine I was inept at operating. Aynsley and Tim, the original owner-occupants of our house, had managed to keep it neat, which laid bare the pathology of my own slovenliness. Aynsley tried heroically to reassure me of my normalcy, by arguing that they were the sickos, not us. “We are OCD, really obsessive-compulsive,” she offered, “so don’t feel bad.”

Those huge windows showcased all manner of our domestic banalities, especially at night or on winter mornings, when our lives were framed in the glow from the overhead pot lights. “You looked so under the weather the other morning,” one or another concerned neighbour would say, after seeing me through the glass during her early-morning dog walk. Modern houses are not places to be sick, tired, or feeble. The human psyche is like that of any other animal, in that we like to curl up, out of sight and preferably with a large puff pillow, when we’re feeling frail.

When we felt spry, though, nothing was better than our sleek house for emitting a cool social vibe. Our home entertaining, rarely more ambitious than pouring a few glasses of plonk for drop-in friends, instantly took on the gloss of a vodka commercial. Strolling outside one night, I watched my mate and a couple of friends sitting at the black granite table with glasses of red wine, engrossed in conversation. At the side of the house, a young couple walking their dog squatted down to peer through our flush-to-the-ground window. The tableau was perfect. Enviable.

A half century ago, design magazines like Western Homes and Living vaunted the latest high-tech home appliances, part of a grand display of wholesome family life. Our house, like many of its ilk in today’s design magazines, was acclaimed for concealing its state-of-the-art appliances. The built-in range had a steel fan that rose out of the granite counter like the cone of silence on Get Smart—and worked about as reliably. The fridge, dishwasher, telephone, television, and stereo system were all squirrelled away behind those inscrutable white doors. On many occasions, we had to open two or three cabinets before we finally stumbled across the appliance we were searching for. Fifty years ago, appliances were status symbols, proudly visible. And now they are invisible. They might be harder to find, but the smooth backdrop looks much better on magazine covers.

By the way, about all those articles in the design magazines: you’re right not to take them too seriously. What have I written professionally about BattersbyHowat, for instance, the architects of my own modern home? Nothing out of the ordinary: for Dwell readers, I praised their “meticulous attention to siting and the clean-lined aesthetic of their work.” And I meant it. But how does that translate into a life well lived? Those words describe some house I had spent just a few hours in, which is the norm in the design critic field. Most of us have specialized training or education in design; we study the plans and materials, we walk through the house and around the site, we note the most distinctive architectural features, and, on our more ambitious days, we ponder the larger meaning of it all. We do our jobs as diligently as we can, but we can’t tell you what a house is like to live in. After all, we rarely prepare a meal or spend the night, let alone settle down to live there.

I’m pretty sure that if our house had been a story assignment rather than a year-long rental, I would have raved about how the mid-kitchen change in grade triggered that dynamically expansive spatial narrative. As it was, this unexpected step in the floor triggered a series of spectacular wipeouts. My mate and I started calling it the death step. Our daughters started calling our place the hurty house.

With its dearth of interior walls and its open-riser stairway, the house carried conversations from one end to the other. We could discuss a family issue in the top-floor master bedroom, and our tweener would chime in from her room on the bottom floor. This was a good thing—except when it wasn’t. And that beautiful open bathroom, that gorgeous bog with its transparent glass walls, suited occupants who are comfortable with intra-household exhibitionism. The exposed human body is honest and virtuous, Adolf Loos would say. But I began to miss the reassuring privacy of those tyrannical barriers we call walls, doors, and curtains.

Sometimes we need hiding places; sometimes we yearn to dissolve into the woodwork, to blend into the wallpaper. As the postmodernist writer J. G. Ballard once observed, “Most people, myself included, find it difficult to be clear-eyed at all times and rise to the demands of a pure and unadorned geometry. Architecture supplies us with camouflage.”

When you don’t need camouflage, the modernist house can be the most beautiful dwelling on earth. Like any digital medium, though, it’s either on or off—either pristine or a pigsty—with no in-between. That bowl of leftovers or that empty pizza box, any bit of human residue, shatters the illusion of purity. The conventional house, filled with nooks and crannies, may look dumpier, but it is more forgiving of human entropy.

Our desire to be clean and pure may be hard-wired; it’s also a moving target. A few years after Rauschenberg unveiled his White Paintings, he created the Combines series of chaotic mixed media canvases, a radical departure from those pure expanses of white. It’s art any slob would love. My favourite is Rebus, a 1955 work on three panels, for which the Museum of Modern Art in New York paid around $30 million a few years ago. The canvas boasts an irregular stack of paint patches with bits of paper and fabric mixed in. It doesn’t look pure at all. It looks a lot like my bedroom.

As our lease drew to a close, we packed up and moved out, reluctantly, despite everything. We still loved the moderny house, the way you still love that gorgeous man who’s just no good for you. Those white cupboards disgorged eight large black plastic garbage bags of debris, which we cinched with twist-ties, hauled outside, and placed against the huge glass window wall, across from the Zen garden. The loose ends of the bags fluttered in the breeze, toward the meticulously pruned dogwood and sedum.

As we locked up, I couldn’t help but think how beautifully the garbage bags responded to the site.