A Place of My Own by Michael Pollan (1997)

a place own cover pollan

“What is a place after all but a bit of space that people have invested with meaning?” (38)

In this book, the outstanding non-fiction writer and journalist Michael Pollan has created a completely unique piece of work: one that is part memoir, part how-to, and part complex cultural commentary about the abstraction that we call “place.” The novel chronicles the author’s efforts to design and build — by himself — a cottage in which he can conduct his work as a writer. Along the way, Pollan educates himself — and all of us — on the various disciplines that inform our ideas about place, home, and ownership; including discussions of history, geology, geography, science, architecture, sociology, literature, and carpentry…to name just a few. The resulting book is a rich, in-depth discussion about our place in the world and the places in the world that we attempt to make our own.

At the start of the book, the author lays out his reasons for wanting a work space that is wholly separate from his living space. “A room of one’s own,” he argues, allows for privacy, solitude, and freedom from interruption — all elements that he deems essential for daydreaming, daydreaming being the heart of all creative work. By carving a space from himself away from his home, rather than in it, he seeks to gain an entirely different perspective on the place he calls home. Pollan’s decides to build the house on his own (with one helper) in order to meet a need he has to build something that will exist in the physical world, not just the intellectual one. He longs to do “work that involves very little intellect, but all the senses. It reminded me just how much reality slips through the net of our words, and that time spent working directly with the flesh of the world is the best antidote to abstraction.” (25)

The idea of abstractions versus concrete realities runs throughout the book and offers readers an examination of the physical act of building a place, as well as a dissection of its emotional and cultural importance of trying to lay claim to a piece of the earth. Pollan discusses building codes as well as daydreams; the realities of weather, soil, and climate versus the desire to build a place that suits our whims regardless of its practicality; or even the abstraction of “lumber” that allows him to separate himself from the discomfort of cutting down living trees to meet his needs. The greatest contradiction, though, comes from Pollan’s ruminations about whether any piece of land can ever really be considered ours, or whether it is on loan from nature, and who may reassert her claim at any time.

When we lay claim to an area, and call it “ours” we suddenly infuse that place with a tremendous amount of meaning. Far beyond just ground, air, light, and plants; our “place” comes to represent our goals, dreams, ideals, and our sense of ownership of a piece of the earth. While it may be just a cottage on one level, it is also a place of refuge, safety, comfort, wealth, and a place that tells the world the work you conduct there is completely your own.

“Houses only comes into their own in bad weather, when the poetry of shelter reaches its fullest expression…’I will be an inhabitant of the world, in spite of the world.'” (18)

A Pattern Language (1977)

By Christopher Alexander, Sara Ishikawa, Murray Silverstein, Max Jacobs, Ingrid Kiksdahl-King, Shlomo Angel

pattern

“A Pattern Language is the second in a series of books which describe an entirely new attitude — a complete working alternative — to our present ideas about architecture, building, and planning.”

There does not exactly exist a category of book that A Pattern Language could be completely contained within: it is part textbook, part manifesto, part psychological treatise, and part how-to guide…as in: how to organize one’s surroundings to maximize pleasure and contentment. Within its more than one thousand pages the authors of A Pattern Language present readers a mind-bogglingly complex and potentially life altering set of “rules” by which they can reorder their rooms, their homes, their towns, their world and therefore their lives.

In the introduction, the authors’ set forth their hypothesis: much is wrong with the communities in which we live because no attention has been paid to the¬†psychological and emotional affects the open spaces, roads, buildings, and interior spaces have on the humans that inhabit and use them. Instead, an entirely new way of thinking about city planning, architecture, and living is proposed through two-hundred and fifty three rules of design, called the Patterns.

The book begins with the very broad patterns, “A Distribution of Towns” (which discusses the ideal space between cities, suburbs, country towns, and rural villages) and narrowing down to the widely specific “Different Chairs” (a discussion of why varying styles of furniture is most soothing and comforting to a home’s inhabitants) and covering every possible space and design decision in between.

This is much, much more than just simply a collection of rules about how to lay at streets (in the country laid out to maximize open space; in cities in “webs” that connect areas of dense shopping and entertaining to quieter areas for living) and how many windows a day care center should have (answer: many, all low to the floor, and with views of a garden and play area). Those straight-forward rules are there, for certain, and they offer detailed guidance, but each pattern also strives to go further and solve bigger social problems that poorly designed spaces can contribute to.

Within each of the Patterns are in-depth discussions about the affect that each and every decision made in city planning, or the way one family might chose to live within their own home, might be best arranged for maximize contentment of all residents. There are discussions about improving our lives: why we should not ignore the sole-destroying affects of long work commutes; ways to lessen the isolation of stay-at-home parents; ways that city buildings offering services to the poor can bring people together in positive and uplifting spaces that improve their heath and well-being rather than further depress and degrade those seeking help; why we should consider the mixing of children, adults, and older persons when we create open spaces; why it is important to have places to exercise, dance, shop, and relax that meet the needs of various groups and respect their individual cultural and age related wishes (idea: have family oriented and less rowdy dance halls in town but have wilder dance clubs for the young far outside of the neighborhoods populated by seniors and children.)

There is scarcely one aspect of design and planning that has been overlooked by this book. Each aspect of life — in city, suburb, town, and rural village — has been given equal importance and serious consideration. The author’s want to see us build a world where we can be happy at work, out on the town, in our parks, in our hospitals, in our schools, and in our homes and they propose a set of specific changes — many which could be made easily — to correct deficiencies and improve these spaces.

I cannot begin to explain the draw this book has on me. I find myself opening it often and sometimes reading for hours. Even when I am not reading it, I find myself thinking often about the Patterns that speak to me most: create secret “caves” for my young children to make their own; preserve my bedroom as a sacred “couples retreat” to increase martial happiness;¬† create outdoor rooms to ensure my family enjoys both the inside and outside of our home, and hundreds more.

While I completely understand few readers are going to track down this hard to find, 1000 page book, but I urge you to consider doing so. You might be surprised by the profound insights an architecture textbook has to offer.