'House': A Conversation with Diane Keaton and D.J. Waldie

Erik Morse reviews Diane Keaton's 'House' in Frame #89.

In Frame #89, on sale 1 November 2012, Erik Morse reviewed House, a new photo book by Diane Keaton (yes, that Diane Keaton), and writer D.J. Waldie.

In this exclusive interview for Frameweb, Morse spoke to Keaton and Waldie about their favourite houses, the importance of daydreaming, and the power of the rectangle.

Frame: Unlike California Romantica, House does not focus on a specific form of American regionalism – that of Southern California – but instead looks at regionalism itself as an architectural concept or tool.  What do you think the idea or the effect of regionalism contributes to modern home design?

Diane Keaton: Well, to me, it’s completely original, and it’s of the neighborhood or of the community.  I was very taken by the simplicity of the shapes and the warmth, and I think warmth comes out of materialism and this kind of regionalism.  What do you say, DJ?

D.J. Waldie: My view is that regionalism has gotten a bad rap over the last forty or fifty years.  This book, and the homes that Diane has selected, demonstrate that regionalism is not parochial.  That regionalism is about making use of the materials of the age, both modern and postmodern.  And that it’s a whole architecture, not a partial architecture.  Regionalism is broad enough to be specific to a particular place but broad enough in a modern way to represent universal values, and not be locked in to a particular place. 

Frame: I want to focus for a moment on the idea of play in domestic architecture, something that is of central importance to both of you.  You call it ‘Make Work Play.’   House reminded me immediately of two of my favorite quotes from Gaston Bachelard’s Poetics of Space.  The first – ‘Even a minor event in the life of a child is an event of that child's world and thus a world event.’ – and the second – ‘If I were asked to name the chief benefit of the house, I should say: the house shelters day-dreaming, the house protects the dreamer, the house allows one to dream in peace.’ 

DK: Oh, that’s absolutely stunning.  It’s so beautiful.

Frame: Do you think modern home design has largely ignored or dismissed the elements of play and imagination as sources of error or miscalculation?  Do you see a return to play in postmodern or regional home design?

DK: When you look at the homes of Roy McMakin or Adam Kalkin, that’s play.  Those architects have taken play very far, making us rethink what furniture is or even the glass you drink out of.  Or use containers as homes or build homes inside of homes. It’s so imaginative and encouraging of just exactly what you were saying with the quotes.

DJW: Or even the repurposing of an old Texas cement plant. 

DK: Absolutely.

DJW: It makes it clear that these homes are very plastic; you can make all sorts of accommodations out of them.  It’s rather like children playing with blocks or Legos.  Or as I write in the afterward to the book, it’s like playing in the dirt and making mud cities.  Playfulness liberates the imagination; the rigidity of formula or ideology is a dead hand.  And this book demonstrates what Diane made clear in her introduction, that we’re seeing architects imaginatively using simple shapes and forms from the everyday landscape in exciting ways.

Frame: I don’t want to get too abstract here, but there is a particular quote in the book that is so beautifully Bachelardian.  It reads: ‘I think, that good buildings accommodate everything they must, remember all they can, and then fall silent enough, allowing daydreaming to begin.’ What struck me about this is its understanding of architecture as a mode of dwelling, as much a subsistence as a creation.  In other words, it’s not just a productive activity but a ‘letting-be’ as well.  Is there something about these houses that you found as passive or settled?

DK: I think a lot of it is a nod to the past too.  As a preservationist who appreciates these simple forms, I like farmhouses and factories.  I think that it has a lot to do with the fact that we’re never going to be able to get away from these shapes.  It’s going to be a rectangle, a triangle, a circle.  So, for me, that has a lot of resonance.

DJW: I was going to suggest that, despite a certain amount of eccentricity in the execution of some of these buildings, there is a considerable amount of modesty, even humility, in these buildings as they settle into the landscape and allow themselves to be seen as present in the same way that an old barn is present there or a factory is present there in the everyday landscape that we see in passing.  These buildings certainly have an artist’s sensibility but they also fall silent enough to allow other interpreters to speak for them, allow the homeowners to organically fill the space with their presence.  These aren’t buildings that stand against people.  These are buildings that stand with people.

DK: Well said.

DJW: There are a lot of late-century houses that seem, to me, to stand against people who are expected to live in them.  But these houses don’t do that.

Frame: I think what I was struck by most consistently throughout the photographs in House was the recurring use of misshapen asymmetry in the designs.  So many of these homes had a space scooped or carved out of them, either in the exterior or interior design, so that there was a deliberate airiness or emptiness to be filled in.  And the way you both describe it so perfectly speaks to this.  Do you think we are often too emotionally or intuitively dependent on straight, geometric lines in our home spaces? 

DK: I love it, the way you describe it.  I know when I see a house I want it to have a little complexity, just in the sense of how I’m seeing.  I don’t want it to be a bunch of boxes put together.  I want a room to invade into another room, so we can see beyond.  That’s the fun of some of the shapes of some of these houses.  It’s the way you are asked to reconsider the way you live your life and how you see.  And that’s such an important part of our life, to stretch how we see.  To keep challenging how we see.  So that’s the fun for me with these houses, back to the idea of ‘Make Work Play.’  Home doesn’t have to be static.  I like the way some of these newer architects are playing with these ideas. 

DJW: That’s exactly how I understood this project with Diane.  This is a book about how we look at houses, how we see.  In fact, both books, House and California Romantica, are about looking and extracting from them an experience you may not have been aware of before.  These books are beautiful and elaborate expositions on the act of seeing.  And secondly, in terms of complexity or misshapenness or oddness, I’m not finding the right word here, but I think Diane is right on that point too.  That this book is about not having everything laid out for you, but having a visual experience that challenges you to see beyond or add to.

Frame: Let me ask you a final question.  Looking through the photographs in Home now, do either of you have a house that is a particular favorite?  I have mine.

DK: You do?  Tell me.  What’s your favorite?

Frame: I’m biased in the sense that anything that resembles a toy box or dollhouse causes me to foam at the mouth.  So I chose Kalkin’s house-within-a-house.

DK: He’s amazing.  I like to go back to the feel of a modern farm.  I like the textures, I like the warmth, I like wood, shingles, and I really like Shake roofs.  So I like Annabelle Selldorf and the Steven Harris house.  I like how they fill the landscape and push the shape. 

DJW: I also like the Steven Harris house.  The two barn-like buildings on a knoll in upstate New York.  In part, because I have a fondness for simple shapes, and almost a nostalgia for high modernism.  And these two buildings play into that.  But I also like the idea that these two buildings are to be seen silhouetted against the horizon. 

DK: I think you have a real sense of humor, choosing the Kalkin.  I can’t really imagine living in that, but I so appreciate his work, and every time I see it, it’s like ‘Are you kidding me?!  Can he really do that!  That’s not possible!’ 

Frame: There’s something about it that makes me feel that it would be like living on a sound stage.  Sort of like you’re walking onto a game show.  Perhaps that’s why I like it.

Frame #89 is available 1 November 2012, and features a review of House, by Diane Keaton and D.J. Waldie.

Diane Keaton: House
Diane Keaton and D.J. Waldie
Rizzoli New York
ISBN 978-8478-3563-8

Photos courtesy Rizzoli.


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