From the moment Shimada san’s design landed on my desk I’ve been living inside my head. I’ve been walking around in my imagination, trying to get a feeling for the space that he has designed for me. It is not enough to see the models and the 3-D renders and the mock-ups in situ. These things help, yes, but only in an intellectual way in that you can think how the space is working, but you can’t feel it.
Well, I can’t anyway. I just trust that Shimada san knows what he is doing and accept that I’ll just have to wait for construction to end before I can really understand them.
Of course now that construction has begun with a bang and my Minimalist Monument to Moi is quickly taking shape on site, I’ve been able to pace around the building and role play at least a little of my life a little more accurately. My first impression, as the builder predicted, is that my house feels a bit smaller than I anticipated. At first, this happens.
It’s apparently a curious effect that occurs when the frame goes up on a previously empty site and you see little more than the lonely corner posts of your building, which don’t look that far apart. Then your life gets bigger again, as the floors are laid and you see a vast expanse of wall-less space. Then life gets smaller again when the roof goes on and the sky disappears. Then it gets bigger again when the walls are built and you suddenly see rooms that are temporarily empty. Then it gets smaller again when the furniture you brought with you has to suddenly all fit in.
This is allegedly the emotional rollercoaster ride that all home owners who build a house must take. So far, I’ve been through a few of the ups and downs with a mix of exhilaration and gritted teeth and as yet no panic. I’m glad that the ride has been well documented by others. It’s good to have advance warning of what to expect so you don’t throw up or shit your pants.
So, with advance warning of what to expect, I arrived on site a week or so ago to see that the roof structure was being skilfully added to the frame using another huge crane.
It was hard to see from the street the effect that this had on the building, being surrounded as it was by so much scaffolding. But from within, the roof structure looked both impressive and complicated, and without the roof it offered a sense of being enclosed but with a breezy freedom. Kind of like feeling the wind tickling your toupée on its journey through the sunroof of your car.
There are angles involved that combobulate if you stare at them long enough and start to understand their role in the structure. The more you stare at them, the more you understand that with roofing iron in place, that angle there will eventually be a valley into which the rainwater will collect on its journey to the guttering and forthwith to the downpipes. But for now, it just looks like a way to facet cut the sky overhead, to cast crazy shadows.
Having only just got used to the idea of roof structure, I then realised that the top floor had also been built and surfaced. This was a revelation to me because, before I’d had to skirt around the structure on the scaffolding to look in. I’d never been able to stand on the top floor and look out. But here I was, for the first time, walking around inside my house (albeit with no walls).
I sat on this exposed platform for a couple of hours as the sun set over the hill behind, just to take it all in. I sat where my sofa would go. I stood where my kitchen bench would be built. I looked out across the room to the deck where my dinner party guests would be eventually seated. I even called out to them. “Come and get it, bitches!” I don’t know why I did that. I guess I wanted to hear my own voice, or any voice, because until then I’d been silent in my house and that’s not what houses sound like.
It was all part of the role play, all part of imagining what it would be like to live there. The revelation was the way this space floated over the ravine. I’d tried to imagine that effect when I looked at the plans and later when I looked up at the frame from the street, but now I could feel it and wow. I felt a tangible sense of elevation that bordered on thrilling. It was an exciting moment.
The lower floor delivered an entirely different revelation as the slab was poured and the floor plan revealed itself. With the space now sandwiched between an upper floor and a slab, I got my first sense of compression of the space. Unlike the top floor, it felt cozy. It didn’t feel elevated, although it still was. It felt like a place to retreat to and because the ceiling is low (the minimum 2.4m) and the spaces elongated, it felt spacious, where the floor above felt small (I guess, dwarfed by the sky).
It’s a trick, I know. A Shimada san trick. I’ve seen his houses before. They surprise you with these contrasts. The living spaces break from each other and deliver different experiences.
The other revelation was the way the completed slab focused attention back on the stairwell. The flat, solidity of the slab contrasting with the delicate wire-like lightness of the balustrade. Its surface broken only by the stair as it punched through. Until now I’d only seen the complicated angles of the stair through the framing of the floor. It was skeletal and busy. But now with the slab in place, it looks simple and elegant and dramatic.
How can anyone imagine any of this on paper? I really can’t. That’s why I’m often slack-jawed on site. Not because I’m shocked at what I’m seeing, but because I’m just trying to remain open to the revelations about the design when they reveal themselves this way. I like the surprise of it. They’re good surprises, I guess because I’m working with good architects.
They’re the guys with the vision. That’s why architects seem to be able to do what they do, to imagine what they’re drawing as the real thing and more importantly to feel the spaces. Or anticipate the feeling, while they’re walking around inside their buildings in their own heads. I guess that’s what makes them architects.