The Architecture of Intimacy

What if the best way to come together is to live apart?

| November / December 2004

THE PLAYWRIGHT JOHN GUARE and the designer Adele Chatfield-Taylor have apartments that share the same service hall. When they got married, her mother asked, 'Well, now are you going to live together?' The reply: 'Certainly not! Why let a little thing like matrimony ruin a big thing like good design?'

It's a humorous anecdote, but it also reveals a broader truth about the creative ways we can negotiate intimacy and preserve our relationships. Think of Frida Kahlo's Casa Chica, a small blue house that was joined to Diego Rivera's large pink Casa Grande by a third-floor bridge. Or the painter Vanessa Bell, who shared a nighttime house with Clive Bell and their children but lived and worked during the day with Duncan Grant, the father of her youngest child, at their Charleston House studio. (Virginia Woolf, Vanessa Bell's sister, called the studio 'the masterpiece and joint memorial to their left-handed marriage.')

Relationships that work allow room for the imaginal requirements of all parties involved. Otherwise the unmet imagination will begin devising a fantasy of a way out -- and the life it seeks will always be elsewhere. A 'dream house' should be a house capable of dreaming -- a dwelling with room for fantasy, centers of solitude, planes of boredom, a stable for the nightmare, and openings to attract the rooting psyche.

Too many people grow up in houses of wishful thinking instead. Couples who had insurmountable distances placed between them by Depression-era poverty or by the world wars, for example, were often linked by an intense shared fantasy of a peaceful and abundant life together. Happiness could be achieved if only the image were just so -- a perfect mate, a perfect wedding, a perfect house.

This blueprint for happiness simply doesn't work, a possibility I was first alerted to when a Quaker Sunday school teacher drove a group of us to the outskirts of our town in New Jersey to look at a new housing development. Houses sat in a row, neat as a pin, exactly the same size. In contrast with nearby older, colonial houses on irregular, deep, and oddly landscaped lots -- each featuring nooks for the imagination to dwell -- these newer houses appeared lonely: isolated, inorganic, finished, and dead.

How could children, or relationships, so housed possibly survive, I wondered? Architects probably have files on housing design in the 1950s and corresponding divorce rates in the 1960s. Even today, at the start of the 21st century, housing and lifestyle markets continue to urge a stupefying

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