Paralyzed by perfection

I hone my own nutty ideas for a remodeling cure.

By Cary Tennis

Published September 5, 2002 7:32PM (EDT)

I toured the two Sunset Idea Houses in Palo Alto and San Jose, Calif., and discovered something startling about my relationship to my own house: I am already so deeply involved in specific design problems, so utterly obsessed with my particular house and its particular virtues and defects, that the splendid innovations and products on display -- energy-efficient windows, state-of-the-art air-conditioning and heating systems, ingenious drought-resistant gardens, the latest in serious kitchens and luxurious baths -- might as well have been meant for an igloo.

As far as I can tell, those houses are indeed remarkable examples of the very best in Western design. But while some people treat the house they live in as a thing of joy, and others consider it nothing more than a practical necessity, the house I live in has become for me a kind of psychological malady. It's not a structure, it's a disease; I seek not a remodel but a cure, and I am less than serenely comfortable discussing my affliction -- hence my tight-lipped thorazine shuffle across the bamboo floors (bamboo!) of those architectural marvels.

Or, as my wife observed the other night, stopping me in my tracks: Our house has become my art project.

I am not likely to welcome your questions about my house or tell you the truth about my problem, because I am afraid, frankly, that you might have a simple, ready-made solution, and I do not want a ready-made solution. Because I am in love with my problem. Because if there were a solution then what would become of my problem? What would become of my heroic quest? I am not just a homeowner. I am an explorer! I am an inventor! More than the answer itself, I want the experience of finding the answer. Like many with this kind of illness, I fear the cure as much as I crave it. Without my illness I am nothing! I am like a drowning man who refuses the rope, saying, "But you don't understand: My situation is different!

I am not sure exactly how different my situation is from the ordinary, but that tour of those Sunset Idea Houses gave me some thoughts about it that I would like to share. There was nothing wrong with the houses. They were lovely houses. You should see them if you're in the area. But I walked around in them like a man who needs an attendant, barely able to look up and admire the spacious living rooms, the cheery kids rooms, the square footage, the counter space, the closets, the water features, the gardens, for God's sake!

One difference might be the divide between bohemian intellectual culture and consumer culture, a difference that resides in the question, "Where do our design and housing ideas come from and what direction do they travel?" That is, do our ideas originate inside us, as visions of a possible world, and then travel out to the real world in search of correlatives to that vision? Or do our ideas come to us from our experience of the world -- of what already exists -- and then travel inward to supplement our current knowledge, to seed the imagination with the readily possible? In other words, are we intuitives or are we sensing types? Are we artists or are we consumers? And are we satisfied or are we restless?

I think you already know.

I mentioned in my first article in this series that the unexpected surge in Bay Area housing values had brought home the question of selling our house and moving. So I wish to tell you that, while vacuuming the downstairs one recent Sunday, waiting for guests to arrive, after agonizing over this decision for months, fearing that we might miss a windfall if we did not sell, I suddenly, with a force of recognition that caused me to turn off the vacuum cleaner and stand in the room staring blankly at swirling dust motes, that I had allowed the possibility of free money to momentarily distract me from my core values and beliefs.

I realized that I had never intended to buy a house as an investment. I realized that what I value is real, tangible quality, and that to sell the house without first fixing it up and bringing it to its potential would feel like a cynical act of market opportunism. I realized that my value system says one ought to leave a house better than one found it. That one ought to contribute to one's city housing stock. That if you buy a house, you're taking responsibility for a piece of the earth, however small, and with that ownership comes a kind of fealty.

In short, it came to me that the only right thing to do is to hold onto the house and make it what it could be: a really wonderful row house at the beach that responds to its environment, that expands on possibility, that helps one cope with the nasty summer fog and the long winter rain, that does what a great house should do.

Such a project will require custom solutions, and it will have to be done cheaply. I don't think there was much in the Idea Houses that we could afford, although on the porch of the Palo Alto house was a lovely Adirondack chair. (Sunset sells the kit.) I could definitely construct that chair! I sat in it and felt momentarily at ease. I had not been at ease until that point because the Adirondack chair was the only piece of furniture you were allowed to sit on.

For good reason, I suppose, you cannot sit on any of the other furniture or the beds in an Idea House. This gives one the unconscious feeling that one is not welcome, which is mildly disconcerting however necessary and well-intentioned. The way you come to feel welcome in a house is by sitting down in it. The first thing I want to do in a house is to sit down and feel its space surround me. I saw some poor souls mildly scolded for sitting down and was glad I had heeded the regulations. Yet because the houses are so inviting, because everything about them says, "You could be living in this house or one very much like it," it is a little painful not to be able to sit down. It becomes more like walking through a catalog.

Having got the impression that such high-end amenities on display there are beyond our means, I have redoubled my efforts in my own somewhat idiosyncratic approach to my own house. Not knowing really where to begin in a project that likely will take years, I decided to first, before inviting any architects or contractors into our place, to take a thorough inventory.

I am documenting every idea I have for the house. I am writing it all down and I am taking digital photographs. Over the digital photographs I plan to put tracing paper and sketch my ideas. Isn't that brilliant! So far, this approach has been useful, because it is forcing me to think through every harebrained scheme and nutty fantasy I have. And some of them, in spite of seeming nutty, are beginning to seem quite practical, cheap and doable.

For instance: Our house sits on a treeless street half a block from the ocean; across from us are some boxy, unadorned apartment buildings. I hate looking at them. I don't even want to go into our living room because those ugly buildings are right outside the window. Also there are telephone poles, a streetlight and power lines out there. I don't like looking at them either. They wig me out. I need something closer to distract the eye. And I need something, some visual barrier, to enclose the front steps as well. As it is now you step out the front door and there you are in this suddenly stark, treeless street looking at ugly buildings.

I want to step out of my house and enter a transitional space of greenery and filtered light, of visual shelter that speaks of the beach. So my idea is to place a pergola in the front, with plants both suspended from it and rising from it up past the level of our front windows, so as you look out the windows -- which are a good 10 feet above the ground, our living room sitting as it does above the garage -- you don't see those stupid boxy ugly apartment buildings but instead some vines, or plants, or driftwood rising into the air and reminding you that you live at the beach.

I'm also envisioning a panel, or an artwork 8 feet tall, suspended from 16 feet above the first step so that as you rise up the steps you simultaneously rise into a kind of visual enclosure. I should give you photos. In fact maybe I will. Maybe I could make a site and put the photos on it so you would see what I'm talking about.

Of course, I'm concerned that my unorthodox ideas will make the front of the house look weird. (The two front windows look so much like the eyes of the house, why not put a nose between them?) That's why we need an architect. But, being so close to my problem, I am not going to call an architect until I have exhausted my ideas and have cataloged every possible improvement, until I have photographed every inch!

This saga began with a real estate agent standing in our driveway taking photos of our house with an eye toward selling it. But now it will be me out on the driveway taking photos, dreaming not of a buyer, but of the place itself as it ought to be, as it could be, as it will be if we can scrape together the money and put in the work.

Cary Tennis

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