I seldom watch instructional television. Listening to someone pedantically explain landscape painting, or watching an earnest woodworker cobble together a Colonial-style night table, has never caught my fancy. Still, whenever I come across a show on “home improvement” I must admit I usually end up watching.

This is a narrowly conceived genre. A series of programs follows the construction of a new house, or the renovation of an old one. As the weeks go by, the viewer is introduced to the various steps in the process: foundations, framing, plumbing, plastering, cabinetwork, and so on. The host acts as a sort of tour guide, introducing the various tradesmen and artisans who in turn step forward and explain the intricacies of their craft.

I suspect that, like most viewers, I am drawn to these programs for several reasons. Like three quarters of all Americans, I live in a house, in my case an old house, and people who live in old houses are always fiddling with improvements, modifications, and repairs. (This accounts for the impressive fact that approximately a third of the $182 billion that was spent on residential construction in the United States in 1990 was spent on renovations.) Like many other people, I occasionally do the work myself, and the programs are a useful source of information, not only about craftsmanship and technique but also about the unusual variety of new materials and new tools now available. Not that I rush out and buy the latest electronic level or pneumatic nailing gun, but it’s comforting to know that they exist should I ever get around to repairing the creaky tread on the staircase.

Despite their documentary character, however, these programs don’t necessarily reflect the real world of house building. For example, I have never seen a program that shows the homeowners idly standing around waiting for the absent contractor or plumber. The tradesmen on these shows are never surly or incompetent—they are cheerful, skilled, and eloquent. They never make mistakes. There are no delays. No one over-charges, or quibbles about a bill. Everyone is enthusiastic, especially the homeowners. The grouchiness that inevitably befalls anyone who is building a house, or undertaking an extensive renovation, never touches these cheerful souls. They never worry that they are spending too much money, or doing the wrong thing, or having the wrong thing done to them. This make-believe is a distinct attraction of these programs. When I was a boy, someone once gave me a stack of back issues of Popular Mechanics. I rarely built anything that was illustrated in the magazines, but I spentmany pleasant hours poring over their pages. The home improvement television shows are like that: an escape.

The two programs I have watched most frequently are This Old House and Hometime. This Old House originates in New England, and is clearly aimed at an upper-middle-class audience. You can tell this from the expensive materials its builders use and their disarmingly simple but obviously equally expensive craftsmanship. These handsome houses are what is known in the industry as custom-built. They have real cedar shingles, slate floors, and solid wood doors. The clients even hire architects, a sure indicator of their social standing. Hometime is different. The hosts are a remorselessly upbeat Midwestern couple who are shown doing much of the work themselves. They can do this because instead of old-fashioned craftsmanship, Hometime emphasizes off-the-Home Depot-shelf technology: vinyl siding, snap-on metal shutters, prefabricated plastic kitchen counters. Architects rarely make an appearance. Instead, the owners talk knowledgeably about this or that “look.” Still, Hometime is unpretentious and cheerfully lowbrow, and it has a useful perspective on the whole business of house building. There is a pragmatic—and, I imagine, Midwestern—sense of “getting the job done.” On the other hand, watching This Old House I sometimes have the feeling that home improvement is being presented as an end in itself, as if building a house were more important than living in it.

I don’t know if Michael Pollan watches either of these programs, but if he does my guess would be that he would be drawn to This Old House. In A Place of My Own: The Education of an Amateur Builder, he describes the process of building a small (eight-by-thirteen feet) cabin to work in. Hometime would probably have approached this as a weekend project involving a dozen sheets of plywood, a staple gun, and a bundle of asphalt shingles. Or it might simply have recommended buying a prefabricated tool shed from a garden supply center. Pollan does neither. First, he hires an architect. Then, with the assistance of a skilled carpenter (for Pollan has no building experience), he spends two and a half years, on and off, doing the work.

There are different reasons for building something yourself rather than engaging a professional. The usual one is lack of money. That does not seem to have been Pollan’s concern. “I’m guessing I spent somewhere in excess of $125 a square foot,” he writes, “for an uninsulated, unplumbed outbuilding, on which half of the construction labor was free.” His was a different purpose than mere utility. A professional journalist, and until recently the executive editor of Harper’s Magazine, Pollan was seized by the not-unusual middle-age desire to build something with his own hands. This “something” took the shape of a home office—a study. “Not just a room, it was a building of my own I wanted, an outpost of solitude pitched somewhere in the landscape rather than in the house.”


So Mr. Pollan Builds His Dream Hut. It is hardly an original story, coming after Tracy Kidder’s House (and my own The Most Beautiful House in the World), but Pollan tells it well. He alternates between describing the building process and introducing informative asides on various aspects of construction. The reader learns about the origin of balloon framing, and the principles of feng shui, the ancient Chinese practice of geomancy, which “tells you how to improve a landscape, but to spiritual rather than aesthetic ends.” These explanations are deftly and economically supplied. Pollan’s beginner’s status serves him well, for he asks the kind of obvious questions about building that most readers will want answered. Like Kidder, he also describes the social and creative distance of the builder from the architect. Often he finds himself siding with Joe, his carpenter, who refers to the architect’s blueprints as “the funny papers.” Beginning as a white-collar client Pollan is slowly transformed into a weekend laborer.

As Pollan pours concrete and hammers nails, he considers the larger implications of what he is doing. When the Douglas fir timbers that he has ordered for the frame of his shed arrive on the building site, he feels a twinge of guilt about this small example of deforestation. But he reminds himself, as he chisels notches into the posts, that Thoreau expressed a similar sentiment when he cut down pine trees for his cabin at Walden Pond. Thoreau’s ideal of simplicity is often invoked. Judging from the photographs, Pollan’s writing hut is a handsome enough structure, but it is far from simple. For example, to make the room feel open, the casement windows swing up inward, out of view. Since windows conventionally swing outward, this requires the sashes to be specially designed (by an ingenious woodworker) and specially made. The underside of the cedar-shingle roof is left exposed, which looks attractive and sounds unaffected, until one reflects on the advisability of omitting insulation in the cold climate of northwestern Connecticut. Pollan will have found by now, Isuspect, that it takes some time to warm up a roomful of frigid books.

To give the appearance of a simple shelter, the light roof is supported on a massive structure of Douglas fir; the ridge beam is so heavy that it takes three men to lift it into place. As so often happens in This Old House, apparent simplicity is achieved at a steep price. Artlessness sometimes degenerates into preciousness. Once the building is complete, Pollan spends three pages fussing over what sort of wood to use for his built-in work table. White pine is too soft, he reasons, maple is too sleek, oak is too ordinary. Just get on with it, I feel like telling him. Buy a piece of plywood. It’ll be fine.

Pollan’s earlier book was Second Nature, a charming personal essay that is also a thinking-man’s gardening manual. A Place of My Own is equally engaging but it is not a useful construction guide. The cabin is just too small, and its design is too quirky. But the author does offer other insights. He sees the building of his hut in the woods as an opportunity to learn something about architecture, another subject in which he is a novice. He assumes that he will find architecture distantly different from his usual concerns with literature and ideas—more physical, more firmly grounded in material reality.

Early on, his architect gives him a subscription to Progressive Architecture, a trade magazine. The first issue he receives contains the annual design awards. Pollan is surprised to find that

almost all of the award-winners were not real buildings—they were drawings and models of buildings that, in many cases, would never get built. This seemed peculiar. Wasn’t reviewing a set of architectural drawings a little like trying to review a play without going to see it? How could you tell whether or not the building really worked before it was built?

Pollan is certainly incapable of telling—he finds most of the designs incomprehensible. The designers’ intentions become slightly clearer once he has read the lengthy explanatory texts. He is surprised to learn that many of the buildings are intended to criticize other conceptions of building and to comment on contemporary culture. He wonders aloud if the clients are aware that they have commissioned projects with these aims. One of the prizewinners has proposed building a structure—an addition to a house—whose design is to be improvised as construction takes place; a jury member finds this “an immensely imaginative project,” but Pollan is skeptical. Some of the explanations draw heavily on philosophy and literary theory. About another award-winner, a Tokyo office building that looks like a piece of origami, its designer, Peter Eisenman, comments that his unusual structure “is related to this perpetual state of becoming.”


It turns out that architecture is much less tangible than the writer-turned-builder had imagined. Indeed, he comes across a quotation from Eisenman maintaining that buildings are no more real than stories. “For me, the irony of this situation was inescapable, a bad joke,” Pollan wryly observes. “I’d come to building looking for a way to get past words, only to learn from an influential contemporary architect that architecture was really just another form of writing. This was definitely a setback.”

Pollan’s assumption that designing buildings ought to be different from, say, writing books is not unreasonable. Architecture, like cooking, traditionally has been considered an applied art. Its theories, like recipes, emerged out of practice, not vice versa. That is why the list of theoretical architectural texts is a short one: Vitruvius’ De architectura, Alberti’s De re aedificatoria (1485), Sebastiano Serlio’s L’Architettura (1584), Nicolas-François Blondel’s Cours d’architecture (1675), and James Gibbs’s Book of Architecture (1728), perhaps only two or three more. The most influential American architectural handbook of the early twentieth century was probably A Monograph of the Work of McKim, Mead & White 1879-1915, and it consists only of drawings and photographs of the firm’s work. Ideas about architecture have usually been circulated by the actual work of talented practitioners like McKim and White. This continued to be true even during the Modern period. Mies van der Rohe, probably the most doctrinaire of Modern architects, wrote almost nothing at all—his theories about architecture were demonstrated in his buildings.

Where, then, do the idiosyncratic, literary, and theoretical approaches to architecture that Pollan encountered originate? In 1966, Robert Venturi wrote a small book that was to have immense influence on the field of architecture. In Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture, he roundly criticized the “puritanically moral language of orthodox Modern architecture” and suggested that architects should relax and embrace the messy and conflicting requirements of contemporary life, drawing on a variety of traditional and modern models, on commercial design, on the kinds of buildings that crop up along suburban highways.

The chief and probably unintended effect of his persuasive book was not to reinvigorate architecture with a dose of reality, however. The International Style that had emerged from the Bauhaus was already being criticized for its increasing sterility. By further undermining the widely accepted tenets of Modernism (which itself had undermined the Classical tradition), Venturi unwittingly left most practitioners high and dry. Henceforth the rules of architecture would have to be a matter of personal choice. This ultimately produced two different schools of thought: postmodernism and deconstructivism. Postmodern architects use historical styles in witty, ironic, or just plain perverse ways; deconstructivists eschew historic styles altogether and their designs tend to seem puzzling or exaggerated. Both, however, value personal creativity and insist on the freedom of the designer from dogma.

The decline of orthodox Modernism also produced a small but distinct reaction: so-called modern classicism. Its proponents maintain that instead of inventing new rules one should return to the tried-and-true discipline of classical architecture. (Two universities currently have architecture programs that teach classicism: Notre Dame and the University of Miami.) While modern classicism is derided as unoriginal and nostalgic by both postmodernists and deconstructivists, it has been attracting more than a few patrons. The recently built Harold T. Washington Library in Chicago is a classical design; the clothing chain store owner Leslie H. Wexner is building a neo-Georgian community in New Albany, Ohio; the Walt Disney Company is planning a new town near Orlando whose urban design and architecture are based on classical and neotraditional models; and Paternoster Square, a large commercial development in the City of London next to St. Paul’s Cathedral, is entirely classical in conception.

Pollan seems unaware of such classical projects. He once refers to fluted columns but dismisses them as “wholly arbitrary” (of course, they are nothing of the sort). Instead, the two guiding figures of Pollan’s architectural inquiries are the deconstructivist Eisenman and the California architect Christopher Alexander. Pollan feels too much the neophyte—or, perhaps, he is merely too polite—to say that Eisenman is playing an intentionally bewildering game, but his hilarious account of a visit to an Eisenman-designed house leaves that impression. The house is a convoluted literary conceit: the roof is designed like a wall; a column descends from the ceiling but stops short of the floor; the floor of the master bedroom has a fissure where the double bed should be. Intriguing as all this is, the house has not dealt successfully with what Pollan delicately refers to as “the ordinary frictions of reality and everyday life.” In other words, the roof leaks. As with so much modern architecture, the ideas seem more interesting on paper than in reality.

Pollan warms to Christopher Alexander, who occupies a special position in today’s architectural world. His built work, which is not extensive, avoids fashion and is hence rarely published in architecture magazines. He has long taught at Berkeley but is not lionized by architecture students. He is largely ignored by architecture critics and he avoids the lecture circuit. Nevertheless, he probably has a larger popular following among people interested in ideas about architecture (especially outside the United States) than any contemporary American architect. This is largely the result of his writing. Alexander is an authentic architectural theorist. He was originally trained as a mathematician. His A Pattern Language* is a daring attempt to unravel the character of buildings and places that seem to work well by isolating discrete patterns of place-making, more than 250 of them. (For example: “People will always gravitate to those rooms which have light on two sides, and leave the rooms which are lit from one side unused and empty.”) He has, in effect, arrived at axioms for creating places that work practically and give people pleasure—towns and public spaces, as well as domestic buildings. Pollan describes his work at length:

Consider the living room of a house, Alexander writes. Here the conflicting forces are not physical but psychological: the desire of family members for a sense of belonging and the simultaneous need of individuals for a measure of privacy and time apart. The pattern that will resolve this basic conflict (which Alexander says lies at the heart not only of family life but of social life in general) he calls “Alcoves”: “To give a group a chance to be together, as a group, a room must also give them the chance to be alone, in one’s and two’s in the same space.” This is accomplished by creating “small places at the edge of any common room…. These alcoves should be large enough for two people to sit, chat, or play, and sometimes large enough to contain a desk or a table.” The pattern of an alcove off of a communal space (which also shows up in libraries, restaurants, and public squares) is as natural and right and self-sustaining as the pattern of ripples in a patch of windblown sand.

Like so many owner-builders before him, Pollan concludes that Alexander’s common-sense observations about what make comfortable rooms and appealing houses ring true. Window seats are agreeable to sit in; sloping roofs do give a sense of shelter; it is more pleasant to look through divided windows than through large sheets of glass.

As he completes his writing hut, Pollan makes a small but important discovery. The space that he has created has palpable, sensory qualities: the smell of the wood, the view outside, the weight of the overhead beams, the feeling of being inside.

And what it helped me to understand is that space is not mute, that it does in fact speak to us, and that we respond to it more directly, more viscerally, than all the cerebral, left-brained talk about signs and conventions would have us think…. For whatever else you can say about it, the experience of coming into my building for the first time was not foremost a literary or semiological experience, a matter of communication. This is not to say that the experience wasn’t rich with meanings and layered with symbols; it was, but the meanings and symbols were of a different order than the ones the architectural theorists talk about: no key was required to unlock their meanings.

That is the essential truth of architecture: It is not a metaphor. It is not like something, or about something. It is itself.

This Issue

May 15, 1997