First published online by Rowan Moore.
An architect used to tell a story. Invited by a couple to design an extension to their house, he dined with them, listened to their needs and desires, heard his and her versions of what they wanted. At the end of the evening, he gave his professional advice. “You don’t need an extension,” he said, “you need a divorce.”
It is advice that could have saved the software entrepreneur Larry Dean tens of millions of dollars. Dean is a man who grew up in a house without indoor plumbing, overcame his early poverty and went on to become a millionaire many times over. In 1992, he and his wife, Lynda, completed the biggest house in Atlanta, Georgia, a mansion of 32,000 square feet, the colour of salmon mousse. According to its architect, Bill Harrison, each square inch of it was given the attention to detail of “a Fabergé egg”. The interiors were designed by their son, Chris, then a design student aged 21. The Deans’ dream, it would later be reported, “was to raise their four children here in an atmosphere like Dynasty, only happy”.
It is hard to do justice to the extravagance of Dean Gardens, as it was called, and the promiscuity of its inspirations and appropriations. To use the words of others: “Inspired by the dome of Florence, Italy’s Brunelleschi Cathedral, the Rotunda is perhaps the mansion’s most dramatic element. Three and a half storeys high and capped with a circular skylight, the Rotunda sets an elegant tone for this exceptional home.” Or: “At the end of this east wing of the main floor is the octagonally shaped Peacock Room. With its baby grand piano and cappuccino bar, this unique space is perfect for entertaining large groups. The room has 11ft x 15ft arched windows which weigh some 12 hundred pounds each. From the centre of the ceiling, 43 feet above the floor, an eight-foot tall ‘pendant’ lighting fixture is suspended. The ceiling mural was painted by James Chadwick of Atlanta. The table in the centre of the room is carved from English limestone and weighs four thousand pounds. It sits atop a steel beam buried in bedrock under the home.”
And these are only a few plums from the feast that was Dean Gardens. There were also the Moroccan rooms, the Egyptian suite, the Oriental suite, the Hawaiian art gallery, the games room got up as a 1950s diner, the malachite bathroom, the silver suite, the raspberry-coloured kitchen, the Old English bedroom, whose en-suite bathroom “is quite masculine, with fixtures reminiscent of a fine locker room”.
Dean Gardens is a variation on the theme of Citizen Kane’s Xanadu, or its real life inspiration, William Randolph Hearst’s Hearst Castle. Like them, it is a compendium of lootings across history and geography. Its architecture reaches across millenniums and continents to assemble a microcosm, an image of the world for the personal enjoyment of its owner. The only parsimony shown by Dean, relative to Kane and Hearst, is that he did not seize whole chunks of historic buildings and have them imported bodily to his home. He only had them mimicked.
A distinctive feature of Dean Gardens was the contribution of young Chris, the interior designer, whose appointment echoes less Xanadu than Kane’s purchase of an opera house as a showcase for the singing of his mistress turned second wife. Familial love eclipsed clear perception of talent. For Chris could no more make a room than Susan Alexander could hold a tune; Dean Gardens, the first of two commissions before he wisely ended his design career at the age of 24, proceeded arhythmically and out of key.
Cliches of opulence mingled with spasms of student surrealist angst. It was oysters in ketchup, double fudge caviar and Tabasco ice cream. There were tritons unicorns dolphins jukeboxes waterjets topiary astrolabes chinoiserie tassels flounces marble damask leather abstraction trompe l’oeil statuary four-posters leopardskin zebraskin pediments corinthian ionic doric palms stars moons mosque lights neon globes stripes peacocks pianos chandeliers chandeliers chandeliers gold gold gold royal blue putti lions and a decorated camel. In the games room, a giant anthropomorphised cone of french fries gave a sinister wink. The parental bed, “crafted by North Carolina artist Jane Goco”, was engulfed by writhing turquoise vegetables, with terminations like crab claws and by gooey blossomings the colour of vulvas.
With the benefit of hindsight, one can guess that Chris’s designs were an unconscious commentary on the state of his parents’ marriage. It turned out that Lynda would be only the first of Larry’s three– to date – ex-wives. She and he separated in 1993, shortly after moving into the house, and there followed a 17-year struggle to sell the place. In 1994, Michael Jackson was said to be interested. Perhaps sensing that this was a temple to problematic matrimony, he wanted to buy it as a surprise present for his fiancee, Lisa Marie Presley, until news leaked and his plan was ruined.
The house cost $25m to build and a further $18m in upkeep. In 2010, it was finally sold, with the help of the estate agents’ encomiums quoted above, for $7.6m. The contents were auctioned for charity. Larry Dean, to his credit, frankly admitted that he had made a mistake, while telling the New York Times that he still considered himself happy and successful.
One can also guess that whatever brought down the Dean marriage was already incubating when the house was conceived and developed, that the house was intended as some kind of remedy but exacerbated the ills it was supposed to cure. The frenetic accumulation of motifs can be seen as a way of covering a void. In which case, Larry and Lynda would be very far from the first people to imagine that homebuilding can fix relationships and be proved wrong. In the early 19th century, for example, Sir John Soane conceived his house in Lincoln’s Inn Fields as an ideal environment, laden with archaeology and art, for the edification of his sons. He fell out with them violently, but persisted in creating what is now a preserved, venerated and indeed mesmerising work of domestic architecture.
At the heart of this enduring syndrome is the double meaning of the word “home”. It means physical residence, but also the family that inhabit it. It means building, people and relationship. It is easy to imagine that, by fixing the bricks and mortar, one is also fixing the flesh and blood, the more so as buildings seem easier to sort out than people. The results are more tangible, measurable, demonstrable. Because they are expensive and effortful, construction projects offer the appearance of serious attempts to fix something, even if they are irrelevant to the matter in hand.
Dean Gardens, like Soane’s house, is a personal cosmos, an image of a world its maker would have rather had than the one in which he found himself.
The idea of home as cosmos can be expressed abstractly, as a geometrical order underlying all things, or physically and explicitly. It is present in Renaissance theory and in the fantastical structures hand-built out of broken china and other debris by untutored obsessives that occur rarely but persistently around the world. It is in the gathering of family photographs and mementoes on a mantelpiece, and in the promise made by interiors magazines: choose the products shown in articles and advertisements and you can form them into your own universe.
The common wish is to dream up a world of which the maker is master, where everything is as he or she would wish it. The same wish drives children to build homes out of cardboard boxes and impose strict entry conditions, and it is a powerful reason why, functional questions apart, clients commission and architects design buildings. As people and cultures learn more, the ambitions of these cosmos-makers increase, to include in their spheres as much knowledge, history and geography, science and religion as they can.
But, if homes aspire to the cosmic, they can also be nomadic. If one desire is to create a static, rooted image of perfection, another is to migrate, colonise and adapt different places, to make a home out of a city or a landscape. If Larry Dean and John Soane wanted to gather the world in one place, others roam it, seeking to make sense of it through the patterns of their wanderings.
A significant portion of humanity lives or lived on the move: Bedouin, Maasai, Roma, peddlers, salesmen, migrant workers, the ever-airborne businessman played by George Clooney in Up in the Air. People live in tents, boats, caravans, igloos, boarding houses and hotels. For sailors, according to Joseph Conrad, “their home is always with them – the ship; and so is their country – the sea”. Many in cities have come from somewhere else and are, or hope to be, on the way to another place. It is normal for most city-dwellers to have several different homes during their lives.
People who inhabit through motion include desert-dwellers, obliged to move with herds in search of feeding grounds and markets, and 19th-century flâneurs, gentleman strollers in search of fascination. Some distinctions should be made. There is a difference between the desert nomad or economic migrant who wander to survive and the dandified poet in search of diversion, between necessity and choice, and between escaping hunger and escaping boredom. But all show an ability to construct space out of the tracks they follow and the landmarks, whether a shop window or a sand dune, that they see. They do not need a house to make a home.
In south-east Amsterdam, an enormous housing development called Bijlmermeer, or the Bijlmer for short, was planned in the late 1960s. It aimed to be the ultimate example of the internationally recognised Dutch genius for planning and an attempt to apply with breathtaking consistency and determination the theories of the time. Homes for 100,000 inhabitants were created in almost identical 10-storey concrete blocks, whose walls and windows were mass-produced in factories, laid out on a hexagonal grid. Parks and lakes filled the spaces between the blocks and roads were built on viaducts, to separate cars from pedestrians and people.
The architects, inspired by Soviet models, planned collective facilities – bars, daycare centres, hobby rooms – to stimulate communal life and serve the new society of almost limitless leisure time that modern technology would soon create. Five-room flats, of reasonably generous dimensions, were designed for the needs of a typical Dutch family. An overriding principle was the avoidance of danger or discomfort: covered walkways meant you could get from car to flat without getting wet; vehicular traffic was separated from people; flats were designed to catch the maximum of sunlight and fresh air.
Although it attracted optimistic and idealistic early residents, problems arose. A promised metro line to central Amsterdam did not materialise, leaving the Bijlmer cut off. Nor did the provision of adequate shopping come to pass. No one had worked out who would pay for the communal facilities and the maintenance of the parks, meaning that the latter degenerated. The former stayed closed, except when opened by residents’ initiatives. The construction cost more than expected, so rents went up to recoup costs. Flats emptied or were never occupied in the first place.
Then, in 1975, Holland ceded independence to its colony Suriname, on the north coast of South America. Citizens there were entitled to a Dutch passport, with the result that soon there were nearly as many Surinamese in Holland, in search of economic opportunities, as in Suriname. With inevitable logic, many moved into the vacant flats of the Bijlmer, despite official attempts to stop it becoming “Holland’s first ghetto”, by rationing the provision of homes there to immigrants. The prices remained high, leading to overcrowding, in one case 12 adults and 12 children in one flat.
The new residents adapted the flats, designed for typical white Dutch families, to their own needs. They knocked through walls or floors to make larger homes for their extended families. Many were from rural backgrounds and lived as they had in tropical villages, only adapted to a colder climate. Livestock was kept in flats, campfires lit indoors and rubbish thrown from balconies to the ground, rather than down chutes into bins. Catholic churches were set up in disused garages and flats became part-time temples to the Surinamese religion of Winti. Bird-singing contests were held in the parks, with betting on which brightly coloured bird would sing the longest. A petting zoo and farm were set up and for a while a Bijlmer cheese was made. The architects’ dream of communal activity came true, but not in the orderly form they had imagined.
The estate’s original problems of disconnection and poor facilities remained, with the result that more stable and better-off families left when they could. The Bijlmer declined, crime grew. The walkways, products of the original ambition for complete safety and comfort, became dangerous and ground-floor lock-ups became brothels and drug dens. The estate’s bad name, acquired when the first residents started complaining about its defects, got worse. Racists called it “Negro-ghetto” and “monkey mountain.” Masterplans for its improvement by leading architects came and went unrealised. In 1992, an El Al cargo-carrying 747, trying to return to Schiphol airport after two of its engines had fallen off, crashed, made a 10-storey gash at one of the 120 corners in one of the hexagonally-planned blocks and killed 43 (or possibly more, as the large numbers of unregistered immigrants made it difficult to be certain). It was a random catastrophe, but confirmed Bijlmermeer’s image as a place of ill omen. Following the aeroplane’s lead, the authorities later demolished most of the blocks and replaced them with lower buildings.
Meanwhile, however, the blighted place began to show glimmers of success. The residents, who included Hindus, Antilleans, Ghanaians and white Dutch as well as Surinamese, had organised themselves into a community group substantial enough to get itself heard by official bodies. A thriving weekly market started and a cultural festival, Blij met de Bijlmer (“Happy with the Bijlmer”), was set up. The latter, perhaps burdened by the forced upbeatness of its name, closed after 16 years, but a more successful festival, called Kwakoe, grew from a series of informal soccer matches into an event of music, dance, sport and food that now attracts 400,000 people. Crime started to fall, and if the Bijlmer did not become paradise on earth, it was no longer the sink of despair it was once thought to be.
The point of the Bijlmer story is partly how an obsessively planned development could be thrown off course by the unexpected: the independence of Suriname, a plane crash. It is also about the way in which a migrant population can, not easily but with some success, make a home in an unpromising location. It is hard to imagine anywhere less domestic than the huge, repetitive blocks of the Bijlmer or more alien to the incoming Surinamese. The population of the Bijlmer had to discover, in a few decades, how to inhabit a place through adaptations, actions, successes and mistakes. It is the opposite of the Deans and Soane, who invested everything in the fixed fabric of their homes. The residents of the Bijlmer make their universes around and in spite of the fabric.
It is easy to see the absurdity of a belief in the healing power of masonry – it is a superstition, animism – but people fall for it again and again and they are not entirely wrong to do so. For, if it is a mistake to think that a house can mend a family, the opposite is also false. That is, the built background to our lives is not irrelevant, either. To put the case negatively, the wrong kinds of buildings can inflict misery and frustration. A world in which the dwelling becomes a purely technical question is not appealing.
To be more positive, we want buildings to embellish, beautify, dignify, distract or divert. We want them to propose and to enable: to suggest what could be, to make things possible, to give freedoms. The idea of home, whether expressed as stable cosmos or as nomadic wandering, shows a basic truth, which is that the space we occupy is not neutral to us. We cannot look at it with detachment. We are in it, we make it and it makes us. What are mysterious are the ways in which physical surroundings interact with our desires. If Dean Gardens seems over-determined and clumsy, where exactly did it go wrong? How might a builder or an architect make a happier relation of stuff to humanity?
The assumption behind Dean Gardens, or the Soane house, is that there is a close alignment of form and content: that if a mansion represents happy family life, such life will take place within it. Similar conceptions have played their part in the global economy, when the illusionary solidity of owning a home contributed to the American sub-prime crisis. As the US secretary of housing and urban development Shaun Donovan put it, “the built environment helped create the economic crisis”.
The Surinamese colonisation of Bijlmermeer suggests that people can make their home anywhere, without or despite the contribution of built form, albeit with considerable struggle. Other examples suggest that the planning and design of cities can, after all, make a difference to the futures they will contain, but with luck and unpredictable events along the way.
The failings of Dean and Soane show that they misjudged the power of form and imagined a too direct connection between the inanimate and the animate. If there is cause and effect in the relations of minerals and people, it is more circuitous and reciprocal and less linear. If there is truth in architecture, its shape is not immediately obvious.