“IF YOU BUILD IT, THEY WILL COME…”
Written by Najee Wilson.
Walk a mile in a man’s shoes, and tell me what you learn. But what can we glean if we lived in that mans home? We can immerse ourselves deep into his past by living where he lives and doing as he does. Perhaps we might catch a glimpse into his hopes and dreams and if were lucky the curated objects an their correspondence to one another can inform all lingering questions. Sure many architects and interior designers alike have the skill of crafting spaces that make us dream and aspire to a life that we perhaps want to live. But what about those unsung virtuosos of design, Writers, like Bret Easton Ellis for example, or John Waters, William Faulkner, and countless others. Each possesses an amazing talent for crafting spaces that their characters live in, dream in, love in and even die in. Using only words they arrange these spaces in ways that can be familiar or foreign, given your perspective. Decades into the past and eons into the future or folded into the fabric of time itself. The places and spaces we call home are informative tools as well as practical tools that are not just machines for living but windows into our minds zeitgeist.
Home is where the heart is. –This was always one of my favorite adages. Our perception of how events unfold can be influenced by environment. Contemporary Comfort for the Modern Sociopath might be an approiate title for a fictional novel that deeply dicects the interiors described by Bret Easton Ellis. Bret Easton Ellis describes it best in perhaps his most critically acclaimed novel, American Psycho. When we meet Patrick Bateman he walks us through his “Morning” routine in all its obsessive glory. He explains how his “mask of sanity” is beginning to slip only after pointing out some very necessary info regarding personal hygiene. Bateman, works as a specialist in mergers and acquisitions at the fictional Wall Street investment firm of Pierce & Pierce. Bateman lives at 55 West 81st Street, on the Upper West Side in the American Gardens Building. This is intriguing in the sense that it informs us of his social stature. Bateman’s apartment also is firmly controlled in terms of look and taste, complete with the latest music, food, and art. This seems to be how most great novels start. We meet our protagonist who gives us every tidbit we need to understand and then we get the chance to explore their world.
Our sensitivity to the places and spaces we call home could be traced back to a troubling feature of human psychology: to the way we harbor within us many different selves, not all of which feel equally like ‘us’, so much that when in a certain mood, we can make the claim that we have drifted closer to the version we see to be our true selves. How does one live when alone? What kinds of things might we discover? Well in the case of Patrick Bateman there is no end to what we might see. This sartorially sound sociopath mask of sanity is totally detached when at home. Mutilated vixens from previous nights of entertaining become apart of the tableau that Easton simply titles “Girls.” The oversimplification of these characters makes it somewhat easy for us to digest the sometimes graphic and grotesquely narrated scenes in the novel. Bateman has an insatiable desire for torture. In fact at one point when out in a loud club he tells yet another girl that he works in murders and executions to which she unknowingly replies “that sounds interesting.” Bateman is an extremophile that thrives in his radical reality. Brain matter, bits of fat, flesh and muscle tissue perfume his apartment with a stench that for Bateman is only masked strangely by that of rotting fruit. Some of his Girls even become objet d’art, think Sterling Ruby, just infinitely more unsettling. Bateman for what its worth, is a case worth studying. We depend on our surroundings however obtuse to embody the moods and ideas we respect. We look to our buildings to ensconce us as if it were some type of psychological mould in hopes to come closer to self. We arrange around us material forms which help us, so we think. Our unwavering love of home is in turn an acknowledgement of the degree to which our identity is not self-determined.
Ellis renders Batemans living room for us best in the chapter entitled ‘Morning’. “Over the white marble and granite gas-log fireplace hangs an original David Onica. It’s a six-foot-by-four –foot portrait of a naked woman, mostly done in grays and olives, …”
Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho.
“The painting overlooks a long white down-filled sofa and a thirty-inch digital TV set from Toshiba” Bateman fills us in on all the gory details of his gadgets and their many functions. “ A glass-top coffee table with oak legs by Turchin sits in front of the sofa, with Steuben glass animals placed strategically around an expensive crystal ashtray from Fortunoff, though I don’t smoke.” Notice the consideration taken for a potential guest, even better a victim who smokes, only the best! “Next to the Wurlitzer jukebox is a black ebony Baldwin concert grand piano. A polished white oak floor runs throughout the apartment. On the other side of the room, next to a desk and a magazine rack by Gio Ponti.” Perhaps on some level it is possible that a beautiful home could reinforce our resolve to be good. Cleanliness is closer to Godliness… but lets not forget that the devil is in the details. Architecture and interiors have the ability to illustrate and communicate ideas subtly. Bateman’s Apartments is most interesting because it represents a certain lifestyle that Bateman is trying to live, though he grapples with his urges it enables his, sometimes-brutal behavior.
Instead of judging things as being good or bad, things are judged by whether they are beautiful or ugly. And we may say beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but actually it’s a lot easier to judge when things are beautiful than it is when things are bad or good.
Some literary genius can come from some of the most unexpected places. In Role Models, cult comedian John Waters, points out some of the people that have mattered most during his life. Chapters titles like: Outsider Porn, Roommates and Baltimore Heroes provided eyebrow many raising moments but, I found his discussion of Comme des Garçons riveting. He goes as far as even devoting an entire chapter to the “queen of deconstruction”, Rei Kawakubo. He shares a lifetimes worth of awkwardly fitting, stained, ripped, painted, and utterly tortured garments which he has dawned at various points in his life. I personally enjoyed reading Water’s account of the first time he visited the Comme des Garçons shop in New York City, which at the time (1983) was located on Wooster Street “it looked like a morgue. A few black rumpled pieces of clothing lay like wounded bodies on slabs”. Kawabuko’s existing interiors provide Waters with more than enough comic fodder to not only praise, but also of course poke fun at the sometimes-wacky world of CDG. Dover Street Market is the Comme des Garçons department store. It is described as an ongoing atmosphere of strong and beautiful chaos. The shop carries all CDG brands as well as a few notables that Rei deigns to anoint. Be sure to check out the Café, perhaps have some parsnips, the special changes daily. Admire the Taxidermy displays and porta-potties that the true fashion insider would recognize as dressing rooms.
Waters imagines an unapproved version of Rei Kawakubo’s Guerrilla stores, which began to surface in un-gentrified areas in cities in Europe. These outposts stock ”season-less” merchandise drawn from current and past collections, the spaces they inhabit must remain unsullied by architects and designers and are required to close after a single year. SIMPLE, Waters has the perfect solution to open a Baltimore location in the government provided home of an “obvious exotic dancer” with massive silicone breasts. This fictional madam who’s home would house the shop by Waters is said to be a bold yet exaggerated version of folks he knows. Waters takes bits from here and there to furnish his would be shop. “The Rolling Stones’ Sticky Fingers tongue- patterned men’s wear and anything with a cartoon character in its design, especially Oswald the rabbit I’d put them all in the bizarre female urinal in the bathroom, the one we’d borrow from the ladies’ room of the nearby Bengies Drive-In Theatre.” Yes he said standing urinal, Waters gives this abandoned receptacle new life in his CDG Guerrilla shop. In the main shopping area, the living room, you would find shelves stocked with reject merchandise that would collapse if you touched it, but don’t worry a helpful salesperson from the Man Alive Program high on methadone would be there to assist in picking out items. In the kitchen the stripper muse would have left an assortment of gnarly refreshments. Obscure syrup flavorings like Egg Custard for shaved ice, and perhaps even some old pit beef whatever the hell that is. On the final day those items that had yet to be sold would be burned in a massive bond fire fueled by polyester and rayon. “The ecstasy of rejection, the raptures of unavailabity, and the open-sesame of Rei’s vision could turn this beautiful downscale section of Baltimore into an international fashion Mecca.” This sort of aspirational design is what the world needs, lets imagine the world we wish to call home, remember if you build it they will come.
2001: A Space Odyssey by Stanley Kubrick.
In some cases the interior setting seems to play a vital role in the story as it might relate to the protagonist. Though this is not uncommon its best illustrated in the screenplay, not novel, co written by Arthur C. Clarke and Stanley Kubrick in the 1968 version of 2001: A Space Odyssey. The duos progressive ideologies helped morph our understanding of our environment as a simulated vision and augmented reality.
I find it most interesting when the environment in which a story is set in seems to have a life all its own. The possibilities are utterly endless, the final scene in 2001 A Space Odyssey is a great case study. The origins of life are wrapped up in it subtleties of this novel and film. In the final scene, Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite. After being transported well beyond the reaches of Jupiter, perhaps even farther than we can comprehend. We find Dr. David Bowman who is inhabiting an empty room with white walls. The space conjures feelings of great distance from the outside world and technology. At closer inspection the neoclassical architecture of the room is complemented by Renaissance paintings, which are more or less placeholders for windows. The illuminated floor tiles give the room visual dimension. The space seems to be a holding area for the next stage in evolution. The room looks to be furnished in a rather luxurious manner. After a moment its clear that good ole Dave is progressing rapidly through time by way of shifting perspectives. First in the spacecraft, then, outside the spacecraft into the space. We then watch Dave who is watching himself as an elderly man eating, then lying in bed. The Monolith, a device with the appearance of a large crystalline planar structure, appears at the end of the bed. The Monolith, as seen in the opening scene, encourages evolution. Dave is finally replaced with the Star Child a fetus like being enclosed in an orb marking the fifth change in his point of view. 2001: A Space Odyssey at the time of its release was a true achievement in the sense that it showed a spectacular vision of the future. This now retro vision still inspires countless science fiction films and novels to this day and is perhaps one of my all time favorites.
Charlotte Perkins Gilman (Library of Congress.)
As I Lay Dying, by one of the truly great canon writers, William Faulkner. The death of Addie Bundren inspires several characters to wrestle with the rather sizable questions of existence and identity. The events surrounding Addie’s death are told form the perspective of each family member and even a few townspeople. Darl, the eldest son describes in great detail the incessant sound of his younger brother preparing her coffin just outside the bedroom window where his mother lay dying. The humble home of the Burdens is meager at best but the coffin act as a sort of Objet d’art that her son tirelessly crafts before his mothers imminent death. Addie’s coffin comes to stand literally for the enormous burden of dysfunction that Addie’s death, and circumstances in general, placed on the Bundren family. Cash, always calm and levelheaded, manufactures the coffin with great craft and care, but the absurdities pile up almost immediately—Addie is placed in the coffin upside down, and Vardaman, accidentally drills holes in her face. Like the Bundrens’ lives, the coffin is thrown off balance by Addie’s corpse. The coffin becomes the gathering point for all of the family’s dysfunction, and putting it to rest is also crucial to the family’s ability to return to some sort of normalcy. Darl believes that since the dead Addie is now best described as “was” rather than “is,” it must be the case that she no longer exists. If his mother does not exist, Darl reasons, that he by implication, does not exist. I find this to be an interesting point; Patrick Bateman found some solace in a controlled interior where in the case of the Burdren Family they find it through an experience with an object as it represented their mother.
There are many other notable novels and short stories that us interior elements to tell the true story. The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1899) is about a woman confined to bed by illness, She is utterly is tormented by the hideous wallpaper in her sickroom. The tale of the yellow wallpaper plays on how when pushed to the brink most anything could send one over the edge. It is never said but it’s understood that the illness is likely post pardom depression but overall the tale is an important one as it reveals the zeitgeist. John Ruskin architect and philsopher proposed that we seek two things of our buildings. We want them to shelter us. And we want then to speak to us -speak to us of whatever we find important and need to be reminded of.
John Waters and the writer of this piece.
Najee Wilson is a contributing writer for By Such and Such.
The Yellow Wallpaper , Charlotte Perkins