We’ve all done it: given “suggestions” to the driver from the back seat. It’s easy to do and at the time you’re convinced that you have a better understanding of what needs to be done because you’re free of the distractions of managing the steering and timing the gears. You feel you have clarity from where you sit in the back seat. So you offer your view.
Many times during the construction of my Minimalist Monument to Moi I’ve felt the temptation to do just that. To offer my view of where the design needs to go, but I’ve resisted that temptation. I’ve kept quiet, preferring to answer only questions about practicalities, like whether I need a soap dispenser in the bathroom or if I need a garden tap near the hot water system. The more serious, design or aesthetic decisions I have quickly referred back to the architects. “That’s your call,” I’d say before swiftly reminding them, “as long as it’s in the budget.”
It’s not that I excuse myself from these discussions because I don’t have ideas of my own. On the contrary, my ideas regularly keep me awake at night. I don’t just think about them, I map them out on paper and use Photoshop to realise them on pics I’ve taken of the site. I regularly ponder materials and techniques that I see used in other house projects, or commercial buildings. Once I even pulled up mid 10k run to inspect the handrail of a pedestrian overpass I was using because I thought it could work on my stair. It slowed me down but I didn’t care. Ideas about my Minimalist Monument to Moi have been my obsession over the last three years, and I’ve developed a time consuming Pinterest habit because of it.
But I’ve resisted, mostly, passing my ideas on to Shimada san.
I do this because Shimada san isn’t just driving your average family wagon of a house. This very elite piece of modern Japanese house design that he has created for me is more like a formula one car and you wouldn’t want to be a backseat driver in a formula one car now, would you? I mean, it would be crazy to be trying to shout instructions at the driver of a formula one car when the sorts of moves being made up front are mostly instinctual and carried out through natural reflex.
You may have the occasional opportunity to mention the weather conditions. (Hurry up, we need to lay the slab before the wet season sets in.) You could manage the occasional reminder about fuel (or in this case, the budget). But as for reaching across and grabbing for the wheel, that’s just mad if you ask me. How could someone like me possibly hope to improve the vision of an architect like Shimada san? If I imposed my view, I am pretty sure that when I looked at the result on completion of the project, I would always wonder what could have been if I hadn’t intervened. Did I dumb it down?
It’s the fear of dumbing down Shimada san’s design that has kept me out of the process and stopped me becoming a back seat driver.
As more and more of my friends and family see the project near its completion however, I have had to field many new opinions about where it’s headed, beyond my own.
There has been a lot of discussion in relation to the ceiling, for example.
The plan for the very complicated ceiling on the top floor, at the nexus of all those roofing angles, was to line it with ply. Normally you’d use plaster for this task, but the acuteness of angles Shimada san has designed into this space are just too fine, too sharp to be cut from plasterboard. So the builder has deferred to ply, so that the angles are sharp and so that all those hips and valleys are ruler-straight.
The result has been a triumph of carpentry and because the materials used by the builder are of such quality, the pre-finish surface of undressed ply is also a thing of extraordinary beauty.
Therein lies the problem. The raw materials are so beautiful they cry out to be left un-treated. However, Shimada san’s vision for the interior of my Minimalist Monument to Moi is for the ceiling and walls to be painted white. So all that natural beauty that can now been seen in the raw form will all be painted over. It’s almost a crime, an opinion that’s been echoed by almost every person who has seen this ceiling in person.
The pressure to retain the wood grain is strong and it’s building the longer it stays un-painted. Yet I’m loath to reach across Shimada san from the back seat to make a grab for the wheel. I don’t really want to take the responsibility for the decision if I’m wrong. There’s that of course. But even more, I am curious to see what Shimada san’s vision for this room really is. It would be great to compare both effects but the unfortunate thing is you can’t see both unless you build both. So I’m sitting back in my rear passenger seat and letting him make the call on this. White it is.
Meanwhile, on the lower floor, there was another discussion over aesthetics. The material used for the ceiling soffits above the exposed decks has been under scrutiny. Not from me, I’ll add. I’ve stayed out of this one too. There have been conflicting views, professional views offered by the Australian architecture team at Phorm. Shimada san’s original plan was to paint this soffit white, like all the other soffits. But the team at Phorm felt that this surface was making such a dramatic statement from the street that it deserved a different treatment. They felt that if the soffit echoed the material in the suspended slab, it would enhance the idea that the volume above it was floating. So they tested their theory by nailing up a test panel of CSR Cemintel Barestone and then discussed it with the driver (Shimada san) who in the interests of safety had made a pit stop while this was happening.
Architecture is an ideas game and ideas deserve consideration and testing. The frustration of this process is that it takes time and can delay a build. There have been many discussions like this over the life of the project and each time the build has been delayed. It’s inevitable, but my frustration has still bubbled through of late because the project is getting so close to completion and I want it done now.
The Phorm team pushed hard for their solution. And why not. They can afford to be confident because they too do beautiful work and they know their craft. Eventually the decision was made by both teams (democratically) to go with the Barestone material. The problem was that change created a knock-on effect. To secure Barestone (which is heavy) to a ceiling in a way that would also secure the manufacturer’s warranty, required it to be fixed by a complicated grid of exposed screws. This grid of screws was not in Shimada san’s vision for the project, but here’s where a building technique can often compromise the aesthetic of a project. Shimada san’s style is all about simplicity and clean surfaces. But the grid of screws looks a little more complicated and it’s the only fixing system recommended by the manufacturer.
I’m pretty sure that if we’d had some margin of time within the project, Shimada san would have found a different detail that complied not only with the manufacturer’s warranty but also with this idea of a concrete-like soffit delivered through the use of Barestone. But we’re running late already on the project, so the grid became the method.
Knowing the choice of Barestone would create this knock on effect, should we have gone back to Shimada san’s original plan of a white painted soffit (with no grid of screws)? Perhaps. Should we have found another answer and blown the budget further? Maybe. Does the powerful effect of the Barestone render the compromise of the grid of screws insignificant? In time, it probably will. But that’s the problem with back seat driving. You don’t really have complete control over the vehicle you’re trying to influence. And you have to be careful that you don’t distract the driver and cause a bigger problem.
I don’t think the grid of screws is a problem, mind you. I think the suggestion made by Phorm is a good one. Meanwhile, I have no idea how Shimada san keeps control of the wheel so doggedly from his office in Kobe, Japan. He’s obviously a good driver and his vision of where we’re going and how we’re getting there seems pretty rock solid. But I think mostly he’s garnered a huge amount of respect from the people who are travelling with him on this journey, enough to trust him with the wheel and enough to only speak up when it’s really, really important. After all, it’s a formula one car we’re all sitting in. And now it’s going really, really fast.