The Architecture of Intimacy

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

conformity that curses marriage and partnerships of all kinds.
Fortunately, there are architects and dreamers who prevail in
pushing the limits imposed by the stereotyped, boxed version of
relationship — who succeed in creating spaces to imaginatively
house ourselves with room for intimacy.

Architect Christopher Alexander, for example, attempts in his
work to resolve the age-old Njord-Skadi dilemma in Scandinavian
folklore: Njord loved the sea and Skadi the mountains. Each was
restless and ill at ease in the place of the other, so they
established a festival of meeting in between. Addressing the
delicate problem of the balance of solitudes, Alexander asks, How
large a field is required for companionship? And how much privacy
does each person require?

The challenge is to design domains of intimacy rather than to
construct close quarters. After all, intimacy, unlike closeness, is
never repellent. One of the designs I have lived — in a marriage
that works! — extends Alexander’s plan in space and time to
include a roving shared realm anchored by separate private
dwellings. There is my husband’s place (in Minneapolis) and my
place (in St. Paul), and then there are the places in the world
where we meet.

Living in distinct dwellings makes it necessary to be taken in
to each other’s intimacy. Such a design asks me to consider how my
house houses him, and how his house houses me. The arrangement is
stable but with an added note of impermanence because of the
ever-present question ‘Will you live together someday?’

Separate spaces posit triangles. Whether or not the triangle
involves a third person, a third space destabilizes a potentially
static ‘twoness’ and generates movement. The desire behind this
design was made literal in the ’60s ideal of communal life:
Everyone lived in separate dwellings linked by a communal hearth,
paths from house to house etching triangles in the meadow.

Even if you don’t live in a dwelling entirely distinct from your
partner’s, houses should have structures to enable separation:
walls, large work surfaces, different levels, sectioned yards,
outside porches or decks above ground, discrete lighting (reading
lights for one), solid doors, and window seats. And, of course,
elements that encourage touching: couches for two, softening
colors, beds, small passageways between some rooms, intimate tables
for eating, entryways to facilitate greeting.

Nourishing separate spaces might seem a little too radical for
some people, especially those who are married. But, as the
impertinent writer Phyllis Rose says, ‘With regard to marriage, we
need more complex plots.’

Author Nor Hall has never lived with her husband of 15
years, Roger Hale. After all this time, they still have only the
bare essentials — a toothbrush, a bathrobe, a pair of pajamas —
at each other’s houses. ‘Our relationship has none of the niggling
day-to-day problematics of life,’ Hall says. ‘Coming together is
more stimulating.’ An earlier version of this article appeared
in
Marriages (Spring 1996) by James Hillman, Ginette
Paris, Nor Hall, Rachel Pollack, et al.

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