Urban and personal decay don’t always go hand in hand. As life continues, empty nesters leave their big households for smaller, more convenient dwellings. In other cases, dwellers sometimes are up to the challenge posed by fixer-uppers and decide to take on restoration or renovation projects.
But the revival of a home, of a neighborhood, or of an entire town doesn’t come only through the physical transformation of one space. To come back to life, such spaces also need the life traces of their inhabitants and visitors. We all have seen how places are transformed by the presence, or the absence, of people who make a difference.
Fearing the beauty of The Dead Leaves
When we visit as adults the bedrooms we inhabited as children, we reflect on the otherness of the experience, as if such place was stuck in time, but then the same space comes back to life from a new perspective and originality when somebody else takes it over (for example, our own children when visiting their grandparents).
Such is the Proustian cycle silently taking place everywhere, a process that reminds us of the impermanence of things and our equality when it comes to acknowledging the passing of time, or, as the French poet Jacques Prévert called it in The Dead Leaves, “the cold night of oblivion.”
As the passing of time leaves its traces, some buildings and places, like some people, seem to have learned the secret of aging well. They didn’t find the mystery of the fountain of youth but rather a way to embrace change, so time doesn’t inflict a scar but a layer of patina and, sometimes, wisdom.
Like Junichiro Tanizaki, the writer who praised the aesthetics of pre-modern Japan, the places and things that improve with time aren’t those that try to surprise us with their shine and glitter. Instead of polished, sparkly things, “we begin to enjoy it [any object] only when the luster has worn off when it has begun to take a dark, smoky patina. Almost every householder has had to scold an insensitive maid who has polished away the tarnish so patiently achieved…”
A house that aged with its owner
Tim Seggerman bought his townhome in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Crown Heights at an auction in 1987 for $140,000. He spent his entire savings on the down payment, $14,000. At that moment, the home had been abandoned for 20 years, and the holes in the roof had begun damaging the structure.
A trained builder and master carpenter, Seggerman revived the house while adapting its interior to the changes that came with his family moving in: a lofted bed became an indoor cabin for kids, but it became lofted again when there were no children staying. The bedroom had also provided small office space for his ex-wife, but after divorce, the wall came down once more. When Kirsten visited one decade ago, Seggerman was preparing for his retirement, so a once-open corner office that had become a shuttered workspace was morphing into an open library for books and multimedia entertainment.
Things change, but Seggerman wasn’t trying to use the remote control of his home entertainment system to press “pause” and freeze his life in some sort of pre-retirement fantasy: as an architect and a master carpenter, he had learned to appreciate the impermanence of things and our ability to shape them to our needs, embracing the transience of precious moments and experience. Like the Japanese concept of wabi-sabi, which celebrates imperfection, impermanence, and incompleteness, Seggerman’s goal isn’t “closure”:
“The idea of being unfinished is very important. Houses are there to be lived in. They’re there to be personal expressions of people. So many architects, you’re dealing with fine lines and everything is precise, insanely precise, but you know that in reality, you get out and there are so many things that go on. You can build it perfectly and it might look nice today, but you have to allow for life.”
Room for unplanned projects
The videos in Kirsten’s channel are not only a repository of knowledge and experience on interesting lifestyles. They also remind us of the passage of time: our children will appear in the background here and there, and the recommendation algorithm can leave somebody not familiar with the channel with the impression we have some magic power to go back and forth in time: here just a baby girl, there to teenage girls and a boy, there two little girls and a baby boy.
Visiting a picturesque little hamlet in the Catalan region of Penedès one hour southwest of Barcelona, nearby the home of our children’s grandparents, we stumbled upon a house for sale; it looked empty and the exterior showed a mismatch of attempted budget renovations behind a battered cement clad, which contrasted with the manicured hamlet clustered below a 12th-century castle where it was sitting on.
Soon, we had embarked on the renovation of a fixer-upper that needed serious work. Still, we had not yet clarified the home’s status within our biography: it was too far from our apartment to become a weekend home, nor were we looking to rent it out. As months passed, we didn’t feel the “house” was a place we could call “home,” a repository of experiences from the past that had left materials and all sorts of scars, and also a place with some of our memories on it. Memories would come with time if we chose to.
The coronavirus pandemic hit right when we had started with the structural work, which had required long permits and the meticulous work of a couple of architect friends. All of a sudden, it became more difficult to move and the zeitgeist acquired the gloomy tonality of a global medical emergency. The renovation of the rural fixer-upper in a picturesque hamlet became an often-remote process, but also a way to reflect on our own fragility facing uncertainty.
Layers of experiences
The ephemeral character of things took a new shape when we had to decide about the renovation: was it going to be a purist attempt to recreate a cooky-cutter picturesque allure, getting rid of most of the renovations that decades back had tried to “improve” the house’s old character with little success, or we could embrace the processes led by other inhabitants of the structure before us? We decided to go with change while keeping the materials that were in shape, improving the flow between rooms and floors.
And we were reminded of the family that had inhabited the house for generations: when we changed the titularity of the services attached to the home, some of them, like the water supply receipt, still came addressed to a person who had died of old age in the early sixties and had been paid since by her descendants, who had never bothered to update the administrative details. It “made sense” for them to leave it like that.
And within months after the main works were finished, we had already created routines and lived moments inside to call that house our “home.” Hopefully, it will become a place of reunion and celebration as we grow along with our children. But now, we all conform to this “hearth” sitting atop a hill overseeing a water reservoir in the wine region of Penedès, a place with memories of the agricultural triad of the Mediterranean —wine grapes, wheat, and olive trees— since Roman times (the elongated coastal valley sits between Barcelona and Tarragona, the old Roman capital of Tarraconensis region comprising all the river valleys of Northern Iberian Peninsula).
Tranquility, impermanence, and habitation
“Life, death, preservation, loss, failure, success, poverty, riches, worthiness, unworthiness, slander, fame, hunger, thirst, cold, heat – these are the alternations of the world, the workings of fate,” wrote Chinese philosopher Master Zhuang in the 4th Century BC. If we manage to preserve our harmony and thrive amid the constant change and realize our fragility, he wrote, “this is what I call being whole in power.”
Master Zhuang lived in a Warring States period, a moment of constant turbulence and warfare that caused suffering and death in most families. His main work, the Zhuangzi, seems to echo Michel de Montaigne’s essays, maybe because of the turbulences the French Renaissance humanist saw around him: the Wars of Religion seemed to tear apart the society of his time. His relatives, friends, and acquaintances fought with each other, and the mood of the times seemed to belong in an end-of-world mood typical of the hellscapes depicted by Dutch master of fantastic painting Hieronymus Bosch, a Dalí of the fifteen century, a precursor of scenes of horror and decay in today’s pop culture.
Tranquility, the idea of elevation of the classic philosophers he referenced (“I quote others only in order the better to express myself”), was a challenging goal to achieve when death and prosecution hung around his tower. However, he managed to write some of the most sobering and memorable texts of his time.
Neither the turbulence around him (like the massacre of St. Bartholomew’s Day) nor the hereditary kidney disease that caused painful stones and renal colic, deterred him from traveling, having an extensive public life, and reportedly conceiving the essay as a literary genre. If age imprinted, in Montaigne’s opinion, more wrinkles in the mind than it does on the face, it was because of the difficulties of facing the decay of things around us: we are projected towards death and it’s easy to grow bitter and end up making things bitter around oneself: “Few men have been admired by their own households.”
From an empty nest to a garage turned in-law unit
As life evolves and the prime of life seems to vanish, some empty nesters refuse to fence themselves in homes that feel empty and underused; instead of sitting on top of the astronomical appreciation of their homes’ value over the decades, some seniors seek their own alternatives and vindicate their right to feel useful to society and their adult offspring.
When Lee Reich’s lifetime husband died, she refused to stay at the home they had built their life together and thought it was time to move close to her daughter’s young family. Lee knew it meant leaving her State for Santa Rosa in Northern California, where Stacy Lince, her daughter, had set roots with her husband and children.
For a while, Stacy and Lee were paying a collective $4,000 per month to rent their separate homes in Santa Rosa. When a fire in the area fragilized the economy of the two households, Lee decided to help buy a home with a garage in the area. Respectful of people’s privacy and proud of her own, the widow’s idea didn’t consist in living under the same roof with the Linces, transforming the garage into a cozy in-law unit instead. Despite its proximity to the main house, the garage-turned-second home is masterfully private —and illuminated.
Her new 380-square-foot not only feels more than enough: “It feels, it is ‘home’ to me now.” It’s less than a fifth the size of the home Reich had shared with her husband, but she likes the coziness of the living room with kitchen, as well as the spaciousness of the bedroom and bathroom. After purposedly downsizing her possessions by giving away books and a king-sized bed, she now likes to have her daughter and grandchildren over, “even though we all like our privacy.”
Michel de Montaigne lived a fulfilling life in his garden and tower. All the travels and obligations would not deter him from his primary goals of cultivating himself, his relations (a legendary friendship with Etienne de La Boétie, for example), and more worldly pleasures like the immediate reality around him: “I want death to find me planting my cabbages.” Maybe the instability of his era helped him realize that we cannot take the things we appreciate for granted and that we can build and nurture the things we want to see around us because the best moment is Now:
“There is no constant existence, either of the objects’ being nor of our own: both we and our judgment, and all mortal things, are evermore incessantly running and rolling, and, consequently, nothing certain can be established from the one to the other, both the judging and the judge being in a continual motion and mutation.”
How to live and in which things to dedicate our efforts when we realize, like Montaigne, that the utility of living consists “not in the length of days, but in the use of time.” The use of time present “depends upon our will, and not upon the number of days,” so why put away projects such as adding our imprint to a house (and a household) we decide is worth building or maintaining, both figuratively and strictly speaking? Waiting for a “more favorable” context may make us postpone things and fall for cynicism.
Like middle-aged people experiencing the generational “sandwitch” of seeing their offspring become adults and at the same time facing the fast decay and death of their parents, or empty nesters still in prime mental and physical condition but perceived by their personal and professional entourage as mere “retirées,” idealist youngsters dropping out or about to finish college find themselves in a delicate existential crossroads, often with the added burden of student debt. Coming of age is a period in which the need of embracing change can feel paralyzing.
Memory of vanishing Great Prairie log cabins
In 2007, Paul Cutting was about to finish college and didn’t know what to do next. He felt, as he explained in his blog, “nowhere closer to figuring out the purpose of my life, I stumbled onto something big.” It was the fourth year in Iowa City when, at home in Decorah for winter break, he stumbled upon an ad in the local paper. Somebody was giving away an old prairie log house. Back then, Paul knew little more about log houses than “Abe Lincoln’s unpresuming upbringing.” If even the 16th American president had been born in a log cabin, why were some people dismissive of their vernacular charm?
Paul went to see the log house the morning after seeing the ad and, seeing its imminent demise, he bought it on the spot for $600. This apparent impulsive action would open a world that had not been apparent until then: the way the logs had been cut and put together traced the construction to a rich but forgotten heritage of Norwegian Americans settling in the Great Plains from the mid-nineteenth century onwards.
As Paul Cutting began to meticulously take the log cabin apart, documenting each piece and nail so he could put it back together in a new location nearby, he grew interested in the lives of those who had built similar homes in the region: “I drove something like 5,000 miles that spring and located a hundred houses.” But these houses had not been documented and didn’t belong to any registry. Built between 1800 and 1870, they were vanishing, and nobody seemed to notice.
Rebuilding a home by hand, calling it home
Within a 40-mile radius from his hometown of Decorah, Iowa, Paul ended up identifying 160 log homes belonging to old frontier homesteads, most of them disappearing, engulfed by mammoth, highly mechanized corn fields. Paul Cutting could only imagine the abundant local forest that had allowed Norwegian settlers to build their homes for little more than their own work and the cost of a few nails. Life seemed to expand in time-depth as he knew more about the area he came from.
Soon, what had started as a random post-college project became a passion, though he doesn’t want to turn it into a business with the constant pressure of cutting corners and gaining efficiency. Even so, Cutting rebuilt not one but two settler’s log homes on his parents’ farm, and in a few years he bought at a symbolic price or was given 10 homes, painstakingly rebuilding 4 of them log by log. Among other things, the process became archeology of early industrial production, like 150-year-old nails and planks.
Paul Cutting understands the tradeoffs of modernity and property ownership: purists, he says, scoff at the idea of taking buildings apart and reconstructing them somewhere else. The landscape changes too quickly in Iowa to be a purist there, and an attempt to preserve original log cabins in their locations would have endangered even the few that have secured their future as houses that gained their original splendor and have become recipients of new stories as well, like Paul Cutting’s own restored log house, a 16-feet-by-17-feet that cost him $20,000 and two years of his own work (not included in the cost). His house provided an education in building handwork, cabinetry, and impermanence that no college can provide with such a hands-on approach and depth. And also a school of life.
A ship-in-a-bottle kinda thing
In rural New Jersey, architect Adam Kalkin has a different idea of preserving the rich farmhouse heritage of his area. He restored the original clapboard cottage amid the greenery of rolling hills and spare houses that Philip Roth describes in some of his most suggesting passages of American Pastoral. It was a bright day when we drove into the dirt road leading to his house. We spotted a first home on the side of which a couple of shirtless workers were unloading heavy construction gear and scaffolding from a big truck, one of whom was Kalkin himself, tall, outspoken, and in pretty good shape.
We let him finish and entered the property on foot. In front of us, there was the house, impossible to miss in its grandiosity. Kalkin had not stopped with the little cottage restoration and had decided to create “kind of a ship in a bottle”: instead of readapting the original house’s limited space, the log house became the core of a bigger house once he placed a Butler airplane hangar around the old home. The result was mesmerizing once we entered the space.
At one end of the hangar, a massive glass served as window of his studio. At the other end of the 27-foot-high, 33-foot-wide space, Kalkin had created a grid of nine rooms from concrete blocks, with rooms on different floors accessible through external stairs. From the higher up rooms we could see both the hangar-house exterior, and, have as well a perspective of the center of the enclosed structure, with the open cottage serving as living core, the “hearth” of the young household:
“It’s got kind of an urban roof-scape thing, I always like seeing roofs. You get that feeling like you get sometimes in New York… You know just because you’re in the country- I want to recall urban experiences- why can’t you recall urban experiences in a house in the country.”
Instead of trying to recreate a past that was gone, Kalkin opted for a mix of materials and eras:
“I clearly have a respect for old things, but I want to incorporate them into a dialogue with present, future, past. I’m just saying, ‘what’s your idea of a utopia?’ This isn’t necessarily what is historically considered a utopian house… but how do you create something that you can actually live in that doesn’t make you sad about looking backward? How do you build a present in architecture, how do you build an eternal present? So this is a way of answering that question.”
Anatomy of a derelict English cottage
In the spring of 2019, my sister got married near Oxford, England, which gave us a little wiggle room to visit some of the friends and projects we had been looking forward to for so long. Since the trip required us to bring some formal clothing, filming gear and all the things two teenagers and a nine-year-old may consider strictly necessary for a trip of several days, we decided to drive to Calais and take the ferry into Dover before the Banksy welcoming mural just outside the ferry terminal had disappeared.
One of the appointments brought us on a nice drive through winding, secondary roads into a small village in Herefordshire, where the West Midlands meet the hills of Wales. David Connor from Croft Lodge Studio, an architecture practice he shares with his wife, also an architect, welcomed us into his house, and we talked about the video interview, then proceeded into the building annex: David Connor and Kate Darby had bought a house with a 300-year-old crumbling cottage on it. They found out they had to preserve the structure or lose any right to build.
Instead of fixing the structure to make it a picturesque interpretation of what had once been, they chose not to repair it but to encase it in a new house that would protect the ruin from the elements. Mirroring the old shape, the new building creates two walls and two roofs where the old cottage still holds, while at other spots, the missing part drops away, and the white shell recreates what it once was.
Architecture, Connor seemed to say at times with dry, earnest humor, can reflect the memory of what it once was. From afar, the new home in black corrugated iron next to a magnificent oak tree on the commons near the property blends with the farm buildings around. Inside, the carcass of a 17th-century cottage seems frozen in time after three centuries of aging with no more protection than the now-crumbling original structure.
There are dry ivy branches, and the trimmings concede an interesting bluntness to the compound. The old cottage’s interior is still used and serves as a unique, enchanted scenario for some books and seats, sculptures, and art pieces, most of them by Connor himself. A cast iron stove sits at the old hearth.
We did not know back then, but we’d unconsciously place a similar cast iron stove where the old fireplace had sat at the house in Penedès we had renovated after visiting Croft Lodge, its wall also showing the patina of old fires and the scars of several renovations on the sides of the chimney.