Last night my Grandmother passed away.
That’s something that can make you think about the stuff that matters. It’s a time for getting perspective on trivial shit. But how do you know what stuff matters and what stuff doesn’t? How do you make that call at the time? I find it difficult to know which are the events that will etch themselves permanently into the angry slate of my memory and which are the ones that will prove themselves easy to laugh off, over time. I’m as guilty as anyone is of getting all worked up over dumb things, but that’s human, right?
I have been thinking today about Grandma and curiously I was reminded of the day she accidentally destroyed a bonsai that I’d been nurturing for a whole 3 years by knocking it off the windowsill. She was cleaning my room at the time. I was boarding with her while I was attending university. Her house was about 1200km closer to uni than my parents’ house in Far North Queensland so it was a convenient arrangement to live with Grandma and it seemed to be going well until the bonsai incident.
It was undeniably an accident, but the bonsai was shattered, as was its pot. Its only significant limb was snapped off, beyond repair. I got angry about that because all I could think of was the work that I had put into my little tree to get it to where it was. I was upset and she was mortified. She offered to buy me a new one, but I told her that wasn’t the point. The tree was something I had created and so the only way to replace it would be to start over and create a new one. I told her that she’d effectively put me behind by 3 years, which to a 19 year old seemed to be a lot.
That bonsai incident was 30 or so years ago, so in the context of those 30 years I’m now moved to think how quickly time passes.
My Grandmother was 95 when she died so I guess she thought how quickly even 95 years can pass, let alone the 3 it took to grow that bonsai.
Sitting today in my Minimalist Monument to Moi, now complete, I am starting to feel that the 3 years it took to finish this house has also flown by. Interestingly, I’m also finding it hard to remember some of the milestones of its journey, let alone any of the small annoyances that bothered me during the time it took to finish it. I know the design phase went longer than expected and that at the time I found waiting for the team to deliver the first plans a source of major frustration. But I can’t accurately recall the emotional feeling of that frustration beyond just the knowledge of it. I also remember how terrified I was during the earthworks phase, that the structural integrity of the hill would be compromised by the builder’s activity and then by the badly timed deluge brought on by Cyclone Marcia. Though I try now, I also can’t recreate the intensity of that mini terror I felt about the weather. It seems hard to imagine I felt worried at all, looking at the greenery that is now rapidly advancing across the once bare site.
I also recall I had many highly strung conversations with Paul Hotsten, the stoic local architect who stood quietly and calmly between Shimada san in Kobe and MCD Constructions here in Brisbane for the entire build. He took the brunt of much of my angst about it. I think of those conversations now with a bit of embarrassment because I know at the time I was speaking with emotion about things that now don’t seem to matter. He reacted then with measured answers and a tone that never ventured into the red zone. He’s a genial guy, but more than that, he’s familiar with the territory and I guess he knew then that I would think differently about all of the things that I was ranting about, eventually, when the project was put to bed and that my issues would be lost in the beautiful end result.
It’s difficult to know for certain whether the angst surrounding the project delivered anything beyond just a general feeling of stress but I’m sure it did, because sometimes as they say, pressure makes diamonds. I think projects like this thrive on the energy of stress and angst. I believe really nice works need to be worried through to completion by people who refuse to take it easy, for fear of doing an average job. I would count Shimada san and Ishi san as people like that, some of the most determined and inspired creative people I’ve met. They’re driven to create things that are not average. I would also describe Paul Hotsten and Yohei Omura that way, but from a different perspective because they were determined to see through someone else’s vision and that takes a whole other level of patience and something more, a quiet self assuredness about the significant (more than that, I’d say “crucial”) contribution they were making.
I’ve also had a lot of feedback from my neighbours who never fail to sing the praises of MCD’s foreman on the job, Kurt Weinert. I know he’s done a great job because I am now living with the results of his top notch craftsmanship. But my neighbours don’t talk about that. They talk about his manner, the way he kept the site organised and the way he communicated and dealt with access issues and noise and dust. Things they cared about. I didn’t speak to them much during the build because I was afraid I’d be fielding complaints, but now, since all that dust has settled, their memory of the project is a good one, thanks to Kurt. The memory of the build for them has faded and all they can now see is this view from across the ravine.It’s a house my Grandmother never got to visit. She’d never have managed the stairs anyway, but the project and all its associated drama were made known to her during our catch ups. Her reaction was her stock-standard signature “tut”, which is not to say she trivialised my tribulations, but more than likely she had the sort of perspective that 95 years gives you about these things. Nothing matters in the end, more than the amount of effort you put in. Not even successes matter as long as you do your best on the failures. And if something bad happens, as long as you put the effort in, you can even retrieve the situation. That seemed to be her view. She never said it, but she lived it.
I want to illustrate that point by showing you this.It’s the same bonsai that Grandma accidentally knocked off the windowsill 30 years ago. I got angry when it fell, I wanted to throw it out, but when I had cooled off a bit, instead of binning it, on her advice, I got to work repairing the damage. I repotted it, remodelled it and here it is today on the rear stair of my House in Hamilton. Though you may not detect it, I can see where the broken limb used to be, but 30 years of care after that event have made that missing limb just an insignificant bump on its trunk. You hardly notice it and it gives it character. In a similar way, I know that when I look at my Minimalist Monument to Moi in 30 years I’ll think the 3 years that I spent worrying through this project were just a bump on the journey and looking back, I’ll think it was an easy project. I’m already starting to feel that way (although I’ll think twice about building a house on a difficult site again).
In the meantime, to celebrate its completion, here are the official photographs of my house. These were taken by Christopher Frederick Jones for the architects. I thank him for furnishing me with a copy of them. They’re a great keepsake and I hope you enjoy them too, especially if you’ve been following this blog from the beginning when the project had no physical form, just an idea. If you have been reading from the start, you may have worked out that it’s been good therapy for me just writing about it and sharing stuff along the way (probably some stuff that made you shake your head and “tut”). It kept me sane knowing people may have been reading and empathising, or even disagreeing with the choices I made. It actually helped me articulate what it was I was hoping to get out of building a house in Hamilton using a Japanese architect. I didn’t know it at the beginning but I guess I just wanted to do something difficult to see if I could. So I did.
RIP, Grandma. I’ll see you at the top of the stair in the quiet hours of the night, maybe.