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book review: Nature Form & Spirit

Interview: John Connell

InspiredhouseIn a few days, we'll be running a complete review of John Connell's excellent new book, Creating the Inspired House. However, to whet your appetite, I'd like to share a short conversation I was able to have with Mr. Connell earlier today (or rather, a few questions I was able to ask him through his publicist). Connell's experience with and insight into residential architecture and home design are reason enough to take a look at the new book, but I think you'll agree that the in-depth home profiles & wonderful photography make the new book really stand out - but you'll have to wait until next week to read the full review.

Until then, I leave you with Mr. Connell's excellent comments - read on...

E-mail interview, November 8 2004
HH: Hewn & Hammered; JC: John Connell


HH: It is obvious, given the amount of attention you give to Craftsman homes and other styles that come out of the Arts & Crafts movement, that you have a special fondness for this aesthetic. Given the subject of your book, however - the tasking (or retasking) of spaces in relation to the lifestyles they contain - do you think that there are particular elements of living space design that A&C movement architects ignored or didn't develop fully? Or were they right for the time, and have requirements simply changed so drastically that this sort of repurposing of space is necessary?

JC: Timelessness is a character of all great design, but houses must necessarily reflect the time and culture of which they're born. The A&C style was born on the cusp of the Industrial Revolution and we live today in the almost complete aftermath of that time. People simply don't convene as families or socialize as communities in the same way. Separate rooms for separate functions is a concept that has only survived in the bedrooms and bathrooms (and even those two are now merging). But to be fair, there are still many people who buy or build Craftsman style homes because they want to live that way. They want to take a stand against the Great Rooms, the Open Plan, the Communal Kitchen and the cavernous double height spaces. Whether the houses get "repurposed" or simply tuned up is all a matter of the homeowners expressing their individual desires through the fabric of the house.

HH: What do you think are the general elements of a humanistic architecture? certainly a house is the sum of all its parts and a home is that house and its humans, but what very general physical characteristics do you think need to be developed for a house to be a home?

JC
: The physical characteristics will inlcude anything that signals an individual's commitment to place. It could be the landscaping, the kitchen design or the garage. It could be the use of unusual materials or the finishes. I suppose a "home" is any structure that clearly indicates the signature of the inhabitants, but there are any number of opportunities for a homeowner to go a little further. I raised my family in a house that had exposed rafter ends. When we renovated the East side, I cut the portrait sillouette of our dog into the outermost rafter. This clearly not something you do if you're worried about resale value. Still, I couldn't say that rafter-ends are the key place to look if you want to know whether a structure is a "home."

HH: What structural and aesthetic elements of homebuilding and design do you think are most overlooked today by the large real estate developers and homebuilders?

JC: The two most overlooked areas of design and construction are the building's connection of to the site and to the sky. That little (or not so little) zone between the first floor and the actual earthen grade can make the difference between a house that looks comfortable in its setting and one that looks like it was brought in on a Sikorsky sky-crane. And there are even more design possiblities where the walls meet the roof. The underside of the soffit, the rafter ends, the whole eave line and everything that goes on above them are the things of the sky and the spirit. When we tilt our heads up to look at these parts of a house, we are too often disappointe, when we could be transported.

HH: Do you think it is possible to build houses - affordably and in numbers sufficient to accomodate quickly-growing communities - that can truly be homes with little alteration by their occupants, or is it impossible to generalize?

JC: Well it's always possible to generalize so long as you're willing to go along with what that entails.  I think a house becomes a home in direct proportion to how much alteration the occupants embrace. When you elimate that process, you end up with the automotive industry. How many untouched, stock automobiles say anything about the owners beyond what the advertising suggests? Can elements of the design/build process be industrialized or must the process be totally personal?  Huge areas of the design/build process can be industrialized, maybe even all of it. That doesn't mean it has to be inflexible or impersonal. Today, they are developing roll formers that can be moved onto a site and spit out steel studded houses according to any CAD drawing you care to run. They're incredible. If industrialization means mass-produced and one size fits all, then there are fewer aspects of a home that can be subject to the process. But that's a very narrow view of "industrialization."

HH: I noticed that most of the homes profiled in the book show very little unnecessary decoration - certain styles of furnishing are absent, and the William Morris credo of "have nothing in your house that is not either beautiful or useful" is almost taken to the level of "have nothing in your house that is not BOTH beautiful and useful." Do you think we have an emotional or spiritual need for art objects in our house?

JC: Absolutely. Both. How much do you try to integrate art and craft in your own home and your own projects?  I try to make both art and craft synomous with the houses I design and the one I live in.  But that's just me

Keep an eye out for a full review of Mr. Connell's newest book, Creating the Inspired House, next week. Thank you, Mr. Connell!

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