Happy Day on Happy Mountain

ext-nu-comp1aI had to steal this image from Urban Rancher’s blog. It’s a drawing of a cabin that became a reality, one of thousands of “tiny houses” that have been all the rage for the last decade or two. I note that this man’s plans include having a separate tool shed nearby (already built in 2010). In the future, he also wanted to add a kitchen/bathroom building with plumbing, etc. I was reminded of one of Chris Schwarz’s famous dictums (about workbenches, I think): “Invent nothing.”

It seems as if most of the the cabin porn floating around on the internet is placed there as if it were a modern invention. Researching Swedish design lately, I was struck by the downright organic progression that is commonplace in many “national” architectures—the transition from farm to manor house.

shed-kit-from-aboveOn tinyhousedesign.com, I note that some enterprising contemporary designer has come up with a “shed cluster concept”:

To make this little group of sheds habitable you’d probably want to build each shed to serve a purpose like a bathroom, kitchen, bedroom, family room, office, studio, etc. Some of your sheds could even serve a combination of functions.

I noted a similar design around a central patio for a mountain vacation cabin, implemented off the drawing board in Microshelters when I had that book out from the library a few weeks ago. Enterprising readers might note that we have a concept just like this already— it’s called the residential home.  The drawback noted by this designer is that the central area would make it difficult to traverse from shed to shed in inclement weather, making this design more suitable for temperate climates. A common roof for the whole structure might be more practical, but you’d have to worry about snow loads and whatnot—returning, of course, to the typical residential home.

Curiously, I had noted that English manor homes were often designed around an open courtyards, or they had courtyards adjacent to the kitchen for easier management of supplies and raw materials. The temperate climate idea made some sense, that is until I started looking into Swedish farm houses. The plans in the brochure I linked a few days ago had some intriguing configurations, buildings around a square (as drawn above) and also U and L shapes. I finally broke down and started typing the Swedish language words surrounding those drawings into a search engine with very productive results.


This is an example of a Sydsvensk gårdstyp; you might note the similarity with the “shed cluster” above. The Swedish Wikipedia page (via google translator) lists a source from 1922 for its content, noting that “The farms are characterized by a fully enclosed courtyard, normally [the] house is half-timber. Unlike the northern Swedish farms have the sydvenska traditional manure pile located inside the courtyard.” There are several listings for regional variants, somewhat corresponding the the types in the BuildLLc brochure.


The Nordsvensk gårdstyp looks essentially similar, but, as the above entry noted the manure pile is inside the courtyard. There’s more information, though:

In Dalarna, where the real inheritance principle applied, were also farm buildings in the square were missing, or siblings through inheritance broken up parts of the yard and started the construction of adjoining farm plots, which are partly assembled.

In the early 1800s begin to modern secluded rows of barns appear on the pastor farms, but it will take until the end of the 1800s before modern building techniques begin to break up the traditional courtyard pattern. Today there are almost completely preserved farm plots of heritage centers and cultural history museums, where they often reconstructed.

I noted in my reading, that the compound concept is often groups of families or friends bonding together with their tiny homes, like the Llano River Compound, aka, the Llano Exit Strategy or this vacation home outside Ontario. It’s a regular 12th century innovation. Dalarna, by the way, is also where the Larssons scavenged all their farmhouse furniture.

The oldest variant of the farmhouse compound concept in Sweden is the Centralsvensk gårdstyp. The clustered compound, from my readings on English manor houses, began as a defensive fortification strategy. The Centralsvensk gårdstyp lacks conspicuously lacks these features.

Harkeberga The caption for this photo is translated as:

Härkeberga chaplain farm from the 1700s is an example of a central Swedish gårdstyp. In the middle of the picture is stable that divides the courtyard of the manor house and farmyard.

So, rather than circling the wagons for protection there is a linear relation between the “manor” house and the farmyard, often with latrines and manure piles in the middle. Manor house, in the Swedish wikipedia entries, is defined as the house on a farm that is neither barn, stable, nor equipment storage. That’s a bit different from the English tradition; different social customs dictate similar structures, but different pathways from here to there.

To summarize, the Swedish farm house usually features some sort of outdoor “shared space” between buildings of differentiated functions—at the center, often, there was a pile of manure (both human and animal, latrines were usually located there as well). Excepting, of course, in the south where the manure is kept outside. Manure management is important.

Farm Inside Triberga , Hulter City parish , Oland in 1906. The farm burned down around 1925.

The impulse to “divide and conquer” by separating out functional elements is constant in human dwellings. Before the factory “assembly line” there was the farmhouse and manor house structures. Hermann Muthesius really explicates it nicely:

The most distinctive feature of any English house, even from the outside, is its domestic quarters. The continental observer may find that the residential quarters are not so very different from what he is used to, but the domestic quarters come as a total surprise. He knows the kitchen only from its insignificant status in the continental house and is now confronted by a full-grown domestic organism that amazes him not merely on account of its size but also its comprehensiveness. Whereas on the continent the kitchen is the room in which every aspect of household management takes place, the room in which not only the cooking is done but in which servants spend their time and take their meals and in which all the cleaning is done, in the domestic quarters of the English house the management of the household is broken down into a dozen different operations, for each of which a room is provided. (The English House (1908), p.95)

Obviously, for Swedish farms, manure management seems to have been the center of evolution; in the English manor house, it’s an army of human servants each fulfilling a different task requiring separate accommodations: the institution of service.

Leaving aside the complexity of the English manor house kitchen for the moment, let’s take a look at the way that Muthesius describes the evolution:

Part of the reason for this phenomenon lies in the historical development of the English house, which has largely developed out of the country farmhouse. In the Middle Ages the kitchen was always a separate building, usually centrally planned and standing on its own, whereas store-rooms were directly adjacent to the end of the hall where the entrance was. It was not until the great social changes of the fifteenth century that the kitchen was moved into the house, where it joined the other domestic quarters to form the domestic wing as it appears from there onwards. When Inigo Jones brought the Palladian house to England and abolished all practical considerations at a stroke, the domestic quarters were moved into the basement, where they had to get along as best they could. Or else they were torn apart and set down arbitrarily in outbuildings attached to the main house by colonnades. This period saw a complete break in the development of the domestic offices. So that with the arrival of Romanticism, when the English house burst the bonds of Palladianism, they extended and spread themselves with greater freedom. They surfaced once more from the cellars and were from now on grouped to form a self-contained set of rooms on ground-level. Indeed, as though by way of compensation or long years of neglect, the generation that was now at the helm treated them with redoubled affection, and the main contribution of the nineteenth century to the development of the English house may  almost be said to lie in its ingenious development of the domestic offices. (ibid., 95)

One can see echoes of Muthesius’s contention that the English were more regimented than continentals, in the way he describes the matter of “domestic offices.” In discussions of domestic architecture, virtually all writing of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries for that matter places the kitchen at the center of household architecture and management.

The Swedes, particularly in the mid-twentieth century, also had strong thoughts about kitchens. That’s where I’ll try to pick this up next time. The countervailing trend against to the urge to expand homes is one which simplifies and collapses things together.

The Fall of Public Man 4

The Fall of Public ManI finished The Fall of Public Man yesterday, and it has seriously unsettled me. I need to turn somewhere else after this, because I’m afraid it’s left me terribly depressed. Sennett, to his credit, hasn’t really had to reverse his somewhat dark estimation of the health of society in the intervening years since 1974.

If anything, the observations of the book seem even stronger now. The book is an indictment of individuality much more severe in form and expression than say, Matthew Crawford’s The World Outside Your Head. 

Sennett’s thesis cuts severely against the grain of traditional individualism much more deeply: “the effacement of the res publica by the belief that social meanings are generated by the feelings of individual human beings” has become our guiding social principle (339). This has caused an erosion of meaningful political engagement:

We understand that that power is a matter of national and international interests, the play of classes and ethnic groups, the conflict of regions and religions. But we do not act upon that understanding. To the extent that this culture of personality controls belief, we elect candidates that who are credible, have integrity, and show self-control. These personalities appeal, we say, to a wide variety of interests. . . . But a community of power can only be an illusion in a society like the industrial west, one in which a stability has been achieved by progressive extension into the international scale of structures of economic control. In sum, the belief in direct human relations on an intimate scale has seduced us from converting our understandings of the realities of power into guides for our own political behavior. The result is that the forces of domination and inequity remain unchallenged. (339)

Further, Sennett suggests that this transformation (with ample historical precedent) of understanding from societal interactions into personal ones has perverted the very idea of cities:

This belief that real human relations are disclosures of personality to personality has, secondly, distorted our understanding of the purposes of the city. The city is the instrument of impersonal life, the mold in which diversity and complexity of persons, interests, and tastes become available as social experience. The fear of impersonality is breaking that mold. In their nice neat gardens, people speak of the horrors of London or New York; here in Highgate or Scarsdale one knows one’s neighbors; true, not much happens, but life is safe. It is retribalization. (339)

I’ve been reading and looking at a lot of material from the “tiny house” movement in the last year or so. Not because I would ever consider living in one, but because I’m interested in the design of interior spaces right now. It seems to me, that stripping things down to the essential can tell you a lot about what we need to live. Reading the Sennett, it becomes clear that this withdrawal into the most intimate of spaces  affirms the belief that the personal is taken to be the arbiter of all things in our modern consciousness. Can’t afford a big manor house? Perhaps a small hut in the woods away from others would be just the ticket to cure your social ills.

The problem is that this is entirely a bourgeois phenomenon. Only people of means can really consider running away from social relations and regulations like building codes. I recently watched a little documentary about some of the experiments currently active in the southwest, A spaghetti western on lean urbanism. While some of the quirky young people were interesting, I’m past the age where I would consider crapping in a bucket. Indoor plumbing is nice, and if you build away from the city you are forced to confront the problem of infrastructure, and regulations. There was an interesting arc to the conclusion of that film though, which suggested in the end that a dynamic urban center was vital to creativity and creative expression. That is ultimately Sennett’s point. There’s a problem with our attitudes towards cities that goes beyond the expensive nature of living spaces (the film ended with an examination of tiny apartments, the urban equivalent of tiny houses).

To their credit, many of the “tiny” people are attempting, in their own way, to improve things. A recent development in downtown Syracuse of tiny apartments is attempting to replicate the college dorm experience of their residents. By engineering in common spaces such as a full kitchen and rec rooms adjoining the tiny spaces, they hope that young adults will want to live there. But this sort of locally generated “community” is still a type of ghettoization of like types which enervates, rather than energizes social anxieties, complete with resident social engineer. It creates just another echo chamber where people can see themselves in their immediate neighbors and avoid being challenged by confronting “strangers,” the original form of the city— a collection of strangers.

The problem is the way our attitude toward others has evolved. We look outside ourselves to find— not the “real” world— but instead a mirror. We feel uncomfortable if we can’t “identify” ourselves in others. We retreat into more and more intimate spaces. The outside collapses inward.

Worldly asceticism and narcissism have much in common. In both, “What am I feeling?” becomes an obsession. In both, showing to others the checks and impulses of oneself feeling is a way of showing that one does have a worthy self. In both, there is a projection of the self onto the world rather than an engagement in worldly experience beyond one’s control.

If we ask why Weber constructed this idea of the Protestant Ethic, one answer is that it was his way of showing the combined results of secularism and capitalism on the psyche; it is no accident he should have chosen these two forces. They lead to the erosion of belief in experience external to the self. Together they have eroded the self as an aggressive, confident force, and instead made its worthiness the object of obsessive anxiety. Together, they have eroded public life. (334)

Controlling the external manifestation of feeling is the core focus of Sennett’s historical exegesis in The Fall of Public Man. We show that we’re civilized by not “playing” when we’re dealing with others; we establish our authenticity through polite restraint in our dealings with others. There’s a cul-de-sac I’ve not written out regarding the elocutionary movement yet, but I think I’ll wrap writing about Sennett here. The stifling influence of decorum is well explored a bit earlier in the book, and these are the words that shook me the most while reading it:

To lose the ability to play is to lose the sense that worldly conditions are plastic. The ability to play with social life depends on the existence of a dimension in society which stands apart from, at a distance from, intimate desire, need, and identity. For modern man to have become an actor deprived of an art is thus a more serious matter than the fact that people prefer listening to records rather than playing chamber music at home. The ability to be expressive is at a fundamental level cut, because one tries to make one’s appearance represent who one is, to join the question of effective expression to the issue of authenticity of expression. Under these conditions, everything returns to motive: Is this what I really feel? Do I really mean it? Am I being genuine? The self of motivations intervenes in an intimate society to block people from feeling free to play with the presentation of feelings as objective, formed signs. Expression is made contingent on authentic feeling, but one is always plunged into the narcissistic problem of never being able to crystalize what is authentic in one’s feelings. (267)

The cul-de-sac I feel compelled to traverse next involves the concept of emotions as “objective, formed signs.” It’s not really a main feature of Sennett’s book and to explore it fully I need to look into melodrama a bit more extensively.

I’ve just started on Witold Rybczynski’s The Most Beautiful House in the World, which is due back at the library in about a week, so I can’t dally too much.