The Spaces We Inhabit

How childhood influences architecture

Turner Brooks

For Turner Brooks, childhood memories "from books, real places, and other experiences" shape his architectural practice. Photo courtesy the author

Well-designed space is not emptiness. It is not nothingness. It is a palpable substance with currents, whirlpools, eddies, auditory reverberations. This fullness of space buoys the body within it, keeps it afloat, and assists navigation through it. A classmate of mine, Roc Caivano, once told me, “I think of designing space with the idea that if you removed the floor, walls, and ceiling, the space would still be there.”

As a child in first and second grades, I was ill-equipped for “normal” learning activities involving numbers and letters. Luckily, down the hall in the art classroom, I found great happiness taking a chunk of clay and making spaces within it. I called them “ghost houses.” I would push my fingers from different directions to form meandering tunnels traveling through the interior, sometimes intersecting with another tunnel from another direction. Peering into one tunnel, a distant glow of light could be discerned around a bend, confirming at least one other connection to the outside of this interior world. Never being able to see much of the inside was precisely the magic of these creations. There were just enough clues to imagine wandering one’s way through them. Sometimes in my imagination the passages multiplied, and I found myself in a labyrinth with the wonderful feeling of there being no end to the wandering.

In an old house in Maine belonging to my grandparents, I once inhabited a tiny wallpapered bedroom in a gabled dormer suspended out over the front porch of the house and centered directly over the front door below. The room was wedged between my parents’ bedroom on one side and my older siblings’ bedroom on the other. A door on each sidewall led directly into those rooms. A window in the gable end overlooked a shallow front yard and was in line with a gap in the hedge, which revealed a white wooden hinged gate opening onto the street. At the opposite end of the room, an interior window opened to the main stair connecting down to the first floor.

I felt cozily encapsulated, centered in my own space as it hovered over the activities of the house. Going to bed in the lingering glow of long, languorous summer evenings, I could hear through the open exterior window the gentle murmur of conversation coming up from the porch below, usually the voices of my grandparents mixed with the creaking of their rocking chairs, and the occasional muted crash of the screen door closing on its spring. In the fading light, one could make out the wallpaper with a Dutch theme, a recurring alternating pattern: a tulip, a windmill, a white goose, a wooden shoe, a skater, and a sturdy, buxom woman carrying two pails of milk slung from either end of a yoke braced across her shoulders. Later, as darkness prevailed, our grandparents retreated inside the house.

The gradual appearance of the full moon outside the window is the quiet drama that becomes the final object of all the good nights.

The room also connected to the larger world outside. The view over the gate in the hedge revealed a road rising up and disappearing over a hill. I knew that once over the hill, down the other side was the rocky shore and the view out over the Atlantic Ocean. On windy nights, the roar of breakers could be heard pounding the distant shore. This sound, mixing with the murmurs of conversation coming from the interior of the house, was the perfect moment of peace: both reverberations held within the space of the room, merging the near and the distant. As the evening progressed, the murmurs below became more subdued, the more rhythmic roar of the surf took over, and as the light in the room diminished, the wallpaper still maintained a glow, the patterns of images still hazily present, repeating themselves soothingly, mesmerizingly, as they grew increasingly vague in the growing penumbra and as sleep finally set in.

Sometimes, later, I would awaken in the total darkness and silence of the room. Drawn to the exterior window I would gaze out to see the moon illuminating the dusky little yard space, the dark circle of hedges, and beyond the enticing luminescence of the road rising into the beyond. My mother had told a story of my being brought home one early morning by the postman, who had found me crawling on all fours halfway up that hill.

Ever since early childhood, I have loved crossing the main concourse in Grand Central Station in the act of arriving or leaving through this great portal to the city. Huge as the space is, I always feel incubated within it. Perhaps that intimacy is the result of the concourse’s being filled with the delicate, fluttering echoes of the thousands of individual footsteps bouncing back off the great vaulted ceiling. Those reverberations fill it as if with a fluid substance. The ceiling vault that reveals the constellations of a vast night sky becomes the vehicle for producing that sense of intimacy. One senses that this unique bubble of space, an entrance to the very heart of a city, might be “inflated” from below by the labyrinth of mysterious tunnels underneath, where tracks connect to places under the city and far beyond, finally emerging out of the depths into light and air and traveling to distant cities and far-off landscapes. The intimate and the infinite are choreographed to work together in this brilliant idea for an entry to New York. And Grand Central Station became, for me, a kind of womb from which other places were born.

The first books read to me as a child also formed my sense of the body in space. Margaret Wise Brown’s Goodnight Moon, illustrated by Clement Hurd, is about a bunny going to sleep in a room as the full moon slowly rises outside the plane of a small window. The narrative is radical in that the whole story takes place in just one room. First, the bunny says good night to domestic things inside the room such as clock and socks. The gradual appearance of the full moon outside the window is the quiet drama that becomes the final object of all the good nights. And when that happens, the light has gone out in the room, and the night sky now dominates through the window. In the now-interior penumbra, the cozy atmosphere of the room is still there but is subservient to the world outside and the larger universe of which it is a part. What makes this book so powerful is the tension between an overwhelming coziness, perhaps nearing claustrophobia, that then creates the need to resist, and break open to explore the world outside and beyond.

My childhood reading also included The Little House by Virginia Lee Burton, a poignant story of house and landscape. In the beginning of the book the little house is a container of life, ensconced in a rural farm-scape with the reassuring regularity of changing seasons marked by the different activities of the farm family. But this idyllic landscape is suddenly threatened by a migrating suburbia (one sees it coming over the horizon of the surrounding hills), and then overrun. As the years go by, the farm is compressed, and then gives up, hemmed in first by the suburban landscape where the barn is replaced by a gas station, then later by urban “brownstones.” The little wood-frame house ends up squeezed in a canyon between two 1930s-style skyscrapers. In the final act, the little house is rescued from this condition when it is discovered by descendants of the original farm family. Lifted onto a trailer pulled by a truck, it leaves the city, passing through a pictorial evolution of its life in reverse, and lands back, finally, in the rural countryside. But this (in my mind at least) was an only theoretically happy ending; one scanned the hills for another migration of yet more suburbia, and the whole process happening over again. A haunting issue to me was that the little house remains exactly the same throughout all these environmental evolutions, more like a ship voyaging through time and space. After all these adventures, the house is still the intimate container of life, traveling through an endless landscape of continuous change.

The house is still the intimate container of life, traveling through an endless landscape of continuous change.

Much later in life, I read Gaston Bachelard and found familiar his concept of “intimate immensity” in the chapter “drawers, chests and wardrobes,” which I took as the “proof” of my childhood books and spatial memories. His description of the wardrobe is especially illuminating. This furniture-sized finite object could open up and be the repository of an entire spatial universe within. In the adventure through the wardrobe, drawers reveal more drawers inside those drawers, continuously progressing, finally into a mystical and endless infinity. Eventually there is a point where the actual and imaginative conflate, and Bachelard’s protagonist imagines hearing the sounds of musical instruments coming from a distant, inaccessible space somewhere deep within the wardrobe. This conflation of the real and the imagined seems fundamental to the act of creating. In my own childhood, I remember wrapping myself in my father’s enormous fur-lined overcoat, a wonderfully warm, maneuverable, flexible space that could accommodate different types of occupation. Inside it, I felt in possession of a space that was directly an extension of my own body. Looking out down the long “corridor” of a sleeve, the world outside felt a much more inviting place to be than without this extra layer.

It is this connection between the imagined and the real (perhaps as conflated in Bachelard’s wardrobe) that keeps me going as an architect. As a teacher, I have often asked students to do a project engaging with Bachelard’s intimate immensity. Within the confines of a 24-inch cube, I ask them to create a space that appears to be infinite. Looking into one of these cubes, there was an impression of being lost in an infinite forest. Inside another cube was a labyrinthine journey that always returned on itself to make it never-ending. Another student, within the cube, exploited the cross-section of corrugated cardboard to make what, viewed from a distance, seemed a mere object on a shelf, and at close range an infinitude of spaces.

Shaping imagined space in model form creates a strong connection to “real” space.

Those childhood memories of space—from books, real places, and other experiences—hover somewhere in my mind as I shape spaces in my practice as an architect, and also when I teach. In my practice, the majority of my time (as is my students’ time) is spent making models, and from those models I get the same sense of satisfaction as I did making “ghost” houses in my youth. Shaping the imagined space in model form creates a strong experiential connection to the “real” space of the project that is to be built.

On late June evenings in a particular meadow nestled between two hills in Vermont, the flow of humid air seems to breathe into the rolling folds and pockets of its lowest contours. There, as darkness is slowly settling in, one can feel the body gently buoyed up by the engagement with these warm breaths. There is an interactive empathy with the air as a gently resistant substance in which one is released from gravity to levitate and paddle through. Then, a little later, the mad, flickering theater of fireflies makes the surrounding space pulsate with energy. Finally, above this intimate scene and sense of embrace, the stars will appear as a distant ceiling, and the old balance between Bachelard’s concept of the intimate and the immense is established once more.

Turner Brooks was born in New York City and graduated from the Yale School of Architecture in 1970. He began architectural practice in rural Vermont, then returned to teach at Yale in the 1980s, and moved his practice to New Haven in the 1990s.
Originally published:
May 2, 2022

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