Phil Gulley: Back to the Drawing Board

Architects have failed us, and I have designs on fixing the problem.

Not long ago, a childhood friend told me he would soon be retiring. When I asked how he was going to spend his time, he said he was going to drink beer and watch TV. Given his girth, he has either been practicing or is in his eighth month of pregnancy. He asked when I was going to retire. Not ever, I told him, though I would consider changing careers. There’s no sense taking up a vocation that is already being done well by others. Lawyers, for instance, are doing a fine job. We’re suing one another in record numbers. But the preponderance of ugly houses suggests most architects are either overworked or undersmart. In either case, it’s time I lent a hand.

The average new house reveals the failure of modern architecture—too large by half, too expensive, and too barren. A 24-year-old kid, fresh out of graduate school, having spent the past six years in a dorm room, has little understanding of what makes for a pleasant, practical home. A middle-aged person who has given careful thought to such matters could design a more useful and lovely space. Indeed, for thousands of years they have. One only has to spend a week in an English cottage, an American farmhouse, or a Central Asian yurt to appreciate the common sense of indigenous design.

I checked out an architecture book from the library, read it, and am now ready to design a house for someone, just so long as they don’t report me to the American Institute of Architects, which obsesses about professional training, building codes, and other drivel that would stifle my creativity.

There once was a college that didn’t have sidewalks when it was first built. Instead, the builder waited to see the paths the students naturally created as they walked about the campus and then placed the sidewalks upon the paths. That’s the same way I’d build houses. I’d stick a family in a house with no walls and then watch to see where they ate, relaxed, and slept. Then I would go in and build the inside to accommodate the pattern of living they had intuitively established.

Still, there are some things every house should have, which I would include from the start. Any house I designed would feature an alley so people would have a place to set out their trash and pile dead tree limbs. Municipalities stopped making alleys in the late 1940s, when the modern subdivision was invented. Chicago has the most alleys of any city, 1,900 miles in all. Manhattan has hardly any because the urban planners, who are kind of like architects, didn’t include them in the master plan they drew up in 1811. I would have fired the whole lot of them.

The houses I designed wouldn’t have a garage, though they would include a barn. Not one of those chintzy mini-barns they sell at The Home Depot, but an honest-to-God barn with a hayloft, a workbench, and a stall or two so the kids could have a pony. It would have a nook or cranny where the man of the house could keep, for medicinal pur-poses, a bottle of Old Overcoat. Each barn would come with a half-dozen chickens—five hens and a rooster. Our neighbors have a rooster, which has done more to improve our surroundings than any house ever could. When our windows are open, we can hear the rooster crow five or six times a day. His lusty exclamations are a song of serenity, an indication that no matter what calamity might be unfolding on our blue globe, there is a contented rooster in Indiana for whom the world is marching merrily on.

There are some things clients don’t know to ask for, but I wouldn’t let their ignorance stand in the way of a good design.

There would also be an attic for the junk its owners weren’t quite ready to discard—clothes that no longer fit but were too nice to get rid of, the china dishes their aunt gave them when their grandmother died, the stuff their kids left behind when they moved out. I shell out $80 a month for a storage unit filled with odds and ends I’ll never use but am not brave enough to throw away. A well-designed house should correct the problems caused by its owner’s personal weaknesses.

A kitchen woodstove is another necessity. There are some things clients don’t know to ask for, but I wouldn’t let their ignorance stand in the way of a good design, so I would also include other things they didn’t think to request, like a mudroom, a front porch with a swing, and a hook just outside the back door to hang a wet umbrella. For that same reason, I’d throw in a dog, too. When you sit by your kitchen woodstove on a winter’s evening, it’s a great comfort to be able to reach down and scratch a dog behind its ears. Some of my clients would protest about the dog at first, but they would thank me later.

There are four things that need plugging in by my bedside, but there is only one outlet, which is located behind my headboard. Whenever I have to unplug one thing to plug in something else, I have to pull back my bed and squeeze along the wall, stretching out my arm to reach it. Why the architect didn’t think to put an outlet behind each bedside table, conveniently accessed, is a mystery. My future clients might complain about me, but they will never accuse me of not including enough plug-ins.

I would make sure every home I designed had automatic picture-levelers. Every time I slam our front door—it sticks, and so must be closed with authority—the walls vibrate, the pictures shake out of square, and I have to go through the house and straighten them. Just as soon as some clever person invents an automatic picture-leveler, I’m going to install them in my houses.  

But there wouldn’t be any need for locks on the exterior doors. They don’t stop dishonest people, and they annoy honest people. If someone entered the house intending malice, the dog I thoughtfully included with each home would chase him away. A wise architect not only anticipates potential problems, he or she resolves them with creative, affordable solutions.

I hate to blame all of our troubles on one group of people, but if you drive through any neighborhood built after 1945, I’m sure you’ll agree that architects haven’t been lifting their share of the load. No man who ever lived in a pleasant home, who labored happily in its gardens or sat contentedly on its porch, ever invaded another country, robbed a house, joined a nutty religion, or started a war. I like every architect I’ve met, but if things are going to improve, they’re going to have to step it up a notch. 


Illustration by Ryan Snook

This column originally appeared in the November 2013 issue.