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Haiku moments and performance art in the comfort of your own home

by Steve McKee on March 2, 2007

In the middle of the night, when the world is dark and utterly still, my upstairs bathroom has a pattern of rectangles of soft light on the wall created by streetlights that are a block or more away shining through my bathroom windows.  These rectangles of light are sort of gold or maybe orange, but mostly are just easy on eyes that have adjusted to the dark of night. The rectangles overlap each other and create a wonderfully abstract composition that breaks the darkness just enough to be a sort of perfect nightlight.  When there’s a breeze outside, one of them has the shadow of moving tree branches in it that animates my bathroom wall.

In fact, moving through my house in the dark, I find random squares of light created by street lamps that fall here and there on various walls and corners.  They’ve always been there, unchanging, for as long as I can remember.  In the dark, all to myself, these squares of light just seem like part of the way my house is supposed to be.  To know these fragments of light and to rely on them for their familiarity is to know the inner life of my home.

Our houses are filled with subtleties that take time to appreciate.  Like the way the downstairs hallway has a smaller opening at one end than the other, so it is up to dad to defend the larger opening to make hallway soccer more fair for his four year old son.  Like how there’s a knothole missing in the back fence that is at the perfect height for a dog to see and sniff the alley.  And the way the northeast facing porch in the back provides shelter from the rain the way the southwest one never will (because of the direction that wind-driven rain approaches in our part of the world) so that’s where the baseball gloves get piled.

These aspects of the life of our homes require an intimacy to come to know, but ultimately are as real as those things we more easily notice.

The newel post at the bottom of my stairs is a fat post with a flat top.  When I was building it (back in that former life when I was power-tool-guy) I came real close to adding a round ornament to the top of it, like the kind that George Bailey/Jimmy Stewart was always accidentally pulling off whenever he went up and down his stairs in his wonderful life.  I bought a nifty carved ornament that would have looked great, but before I installed it I came to love having the use of the flat top of that baluster for playing with my kids.  I would take them at about age two or three and stand them on top while I hovered nearby.  They would become rigid like a statue and tip forward towards my outstretched arms.  I’d grasp their fast tilting little torsos and swoop them through the air.  Ecstatic noises erupted from both parties.

Since I spend my days pondering ways to make houses as livable as is possible, I’ve wondered how much of this hidden stuff can be rightly expected to be designed in.

At UCLA I had a professor originally from Austria who advocated that designers should anticipate as many needs as possible and work them into the design.  He had a system for planning this.  Peter Kamnitzer was his name, and he taught me more about home design than anybody ever did.  I think back to how easy it would have been to miss the connection I made with him and how my development as a home designer would have been handicapped.

But in the intervening years I’ve also come to appreciate that there are limits to how much we can engineer a life into a home.  I mean, do we really need to program where the user is going to prop up his leg when he’s drying off after a shower?

Ultimately much of the magic in a house needs to happen spontaneously.  But I think we help this happen by first getting the fundamentals right.  We make sure to let in the right amount of sunlight, make some spaces majestic and some cozy, we consider the sightlines, the layers of privacy, we allow for the places where the house itself becomes furniture, and so on (don’t get me started.)  We make the home environment rich with possibility — but then we let life take over.  That’s where the haiku moments happen.

Over upstairs banister
small hands drop a blue balloon
— laundry basket bulls-eye

(I know, don’t quit my day job.)

One night during a power outage, my family sat around the table after dinner and noticed that headlights from passing cars threw just enough light sideways to create a wonderful dance of light on the wall that involved shapes of leaves first moving slowly and then starting to elongate until they swooped up the wall and vanished.  If you ignored the mundane nature of the source and took the phenomenon simply for the visual that was produced, you could hardly design a more pleasing treatment for light.  Without having to lift a finger, we were treated to a bit of performance art in the comfort of our own dining room.

I’ve grown fond of the way that the light fixture above my vanity spills out the bathroom door onto the floor of my bedroom precisely along the path I’m going to use to get to my side of the bed, but without sending light onto anyone sleeping in that bed.  Thus my hand can pause over the switch while I survey the exact position of the vaporizer and anything else on the floor.  Then it’s lights out and my final act of the day, stepping over a sleeping dog from memory.   It’s the little moments that make it a wonderful life, wouldn’t you agree?


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