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A Place of My Own - a biography of a building - Week 1 part 1

A Place of My Own is a book written by writer Michael Pollan who specialises in books about food and the socio-cultural impact on humans. He is not an architect or a constructor, but decided to write a biography of his cabin. Although it can seem strange to call it a biography as a cabin isn't a living being, when you read the book you realise that it really is the story of the cabin from its initial idea to it being constructed, and all the processes and exeriences the author went through to achieve his dream cabin.

Pollan decides that he wants to be totally involved in the creation, design and construction of his cabin. In the preface to the book Pollan states that he does this to "join the world of the makers" so he can at least for a short while escape "the dodgier world of words". He also defines the the book as a "how-to-think-about-it" book instead of a "how to do it".

The first part of his process is writing down his ideas in a letter to his architect friend Charlie. In it he tells him he's looking for the following features:

A one-room hut "single in purpose and shipshape" - like a cockpit

Boat-like - where everything required was built-in or easily stowed

A desk

A Chair

A stove of some kind

A place for Judith to sit

Plenty of bookshelves

A daybed (a cozy spot to snooze or read) maybe carved into the wall surrounded by bookshelves or cabinets

Thick walls to keep in the heat

Lots of operable windows - at least one on each wall

A small porch or deck - for when it got too hot

Wood Shingles covering the outside

...and the key word: Simplicity

When Charlie replies Pollan feels lost (and almost angry) because feels as if Charlie has not really bothered to understand what he is asking for, and also because Charlie has come up with a 'book' full of ideas, images, theories which make no sense to him. He states that "his book left me feeling stranded in a place where I didn't speak the language" (Pollen:67). I can relate to this a lot!

This feeling of being lost became even greater when he started to read "Progressive Architecture". He comes to the conclusion that the world of architecture had become a closed bubble - where architects were designing buildings that would win awards but would never get built in the real world, where they spoke the own language and you needed a "key in order to fully understand it" (Pollen:67). Most of the designs were incomprehensible without a written explanation. Pollen was hoping to escape the 'world of worlds' for something more real - but realised that contemporary architecture was just another form of writing!

Luckily this changed when he finally met up with Charlie to go over the book of ideas and pictures he had sent him. This is when he realised that he had not understood Charlie's process. For example the picture of the New England farmhouse was not about the farmhouse, it was a small detail that was in the picture "the vine-tangled trellis over the porch" (Pollan:72) which he thought would be great for a place where you want light "but the view really stinks" (Pollan:72). Charlie explained that he was singling out "strong spacial experiences" that might work well in his cabin. Pollan realised that Charlie was describing an unconscious experience someone feels when they walk into a room, or see, touch etc, and he also realised that Charlie was using poetic vocabulary to express this. Pollan notices that this is the opposite of what Progressive Architecture suggested, and Charlie tells him about Christopher Alexander who believed that there are patterns in architecture, a bit like in nature, that make us experience these feelings and they are what we look for to feel comfortable. For example "People will always gravitate to those rooms which have light on two sides").

With this new information Pollen starts to feel more comfortable and he and Charlie start to communicate better, and Pollen found he could relate to Alexander's theories. This allowed them to start to reduce the number of ideas and start to concentrate on a few. Charlie then started to sketch these ideas, and new ideas brought in new sketches and new problems, but sometimes they also brought on new ideas to build on. Charlie insisted on using the Golden Section which essentially is a theory that the same proportioning system that we find works bests in buildings is also present in nature.

As they carried on the ideas became bigger and bigger, and a one room hut became a two floor cabin. In order to make everything clearer Charlie decided to draw it in elevation and with actual dimensions. However neither of them were very convinced by the result. So Charlie decided to start again, and go back to the original idea which they had lost sight of. And finally he could present his design.

The design which he described as "basically a pair of bookshelves holding up a roof", is exactly what Pollan was hoping for.

The design is like a cockpit where everything has its place, and is easy to reach from the driving seat (i.e. Pollan's desk).

This is what I was hoping to achieve with my design. My objective was to have a modern, functional place where everything has a place.

The process of this design is very interesting, and it is something I need to still learn to do. I prefer to fo straight into designing my ideas using blender, but I think very often this is a mistake because I have to put in twice as much work, trying to make it work with the dimensions.

I will try to use this process for the cabin.

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