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Authors: Michael Pollan

A Place of My Own

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PENGUIN BOOKS

A PLACE OF MY OWN

Michael Pollan is the author of five books, including
In Defense of Food, The Omnivore’s Dilemma
, and
The Botany of Desire
, all
New York Times
bestsellers. A longtime contributing writer to
The New York Times Magazine
, he is also currently the Knight Professor of Journalism at the University of California at Berkeley. To read more of his work, go to www.michaelpollan.com.

A Place of My Own

THE ARCHITECTURE OF DAYDREAMS

Michael Pollan

PENGUIN BOOKS

PENGUIN BOOKS
Published by the Penguin Group
Penguin Group (USA) Inc., 375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014, U.S.A.
Penguin Group (Canada), 90 Eglinton Avenue East, Suite 700, Toronto, Ontario, Canada M4P 2Y3 (a division of Pearson Penguin Canada Inc.) Penguin Books Ltd, 80 Strand, London WC2R ORL, England Penguin Ireland, 25 St Stephen’s Green, Dublin 2, Ireland (a division of Penguin Books Ltd) Penguin Group (Australia), 250 Camberwell Road, Camberwell, Victoria 3124, Australia (a division of Pearson Australia Group Pty Ltd) Penguin Books India Pvt Ltd, 11 Community Centre, Panchsheel Park, New Delhi-110 017, India Penguin Group (NZ), 67 Apollo Drive, Rosedale, North Shore 0632, New Zealand (a division of Pearson New Zealand Ltd) Penguin Books (South Africa) (Pty) Ltd, 24 Sturdee Avenue, Rosebank, Johannesburg 2196, South Africa

Penguin Books Ltd, Registered Offices:
80 Strand, London WC2R ORL, England

First published in the United States of America by Random House, Inc., 1997
Published by arrangement with Random House, Inc.
This edition with a new preface published in Penguin Books 2008

Copyright © Michael Pollan, 1997, 2008
Drawings copyright © by Charles R. Myer & Company, 1997
All rights reserved

THE LIBRARY OF CONGRESS HAS CATALOGED THE HARDCOVER EDITION AS FOLLOWS:
Pollan, Michael.
A place of my own: the education of an amateur building / by Michael Pollan.
p. cm.
ISBN: 1-4406-5564-2
1. Huts—Design and construction—Popular works. 2. Space and time—Popular works. I. Title.
TH4890.P65      1997      690’.837—dc20       96-35101

Title page photo copyright © 1997 by John Peden

Except in the United States of America, this book is sold subject to the condition that it shall not, by way of trade or otherwise, be lent, resold, hired out, or otherwise circulated without the publisher’s prior consent in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition including this condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser.

The scanning, uploading and distribution of this book via the Internet or via any other means without the permission of the publisher is illegal and punishable by law. Please purchase only authorized electronic editions, and do not participate in or encourage electronic piracy of copyrighted materials. Your support of the author’s rights is appreciated.

For Isaac

“With this more substantial shelter about me, I had made some progress toward settling in the world.”

—Henry David Thoreau,
Walden

Preface

A Place of My Own
is the biography of a building. In a sense it is the biography of every building, but happens to dwell on one in particular: the not-so-primitive hut I built in the woods behind my house in New England, as a place to read and write and daydream. This is not a famous or important building, but to me it has meant the world: I built it with my own two unhandy hands, and it is in here I wrote the book you now hold, as well as a second (
The Botany of Desire
) and a third of a third (
The Omnivore’s Dilemma
).

But the book could have been written about almost any building because at its heart is a narrative of the universal process of design and construction—which is to say, the age-old story of how dreams get turned into drawings that then get turned into wood and stone and glass, finally to take their place in the palpable world. I have always found that process wonderful and slightly mysterious, and the people involved—architects and builders—particularly impressive characters. Architects do their work on the frontier between the ideal and the practical, translating wisps of ideas into buildable facts, and carpenters are among those lucky souls whose handiwork actually adds to the available stock of reality. To a writer, whose creations can really only be said to exist among the human speakers of his or her language, this is cause for envy. For us, terms like “architecture” and “carpentry” are little more than pretentious metaphors we use to dress up our far more ephemeral makings.

I had a dense tangle of reasons for wanting to build something, but one of them was to join the world of the makers
—homo faber—
and leave, if only temporarily, the dodgier world of words. I was looking for an antidote to the increasingly abstract and abstracted nature of my altogether typical working life, most of which was conducted in front of screens at an ever-greater remove from the natural world. It’s possible I was also in the midst of a low-grade midlife crisis, and may have been looking for an escape hatch from a house that had mysteriously begun to shrink with the arrival of a new baby.

All this is true enough. But I also wanted very simply to learn how the work gets done: how exactly a designer goes about designing a successful space and a builder building it. At first I thought I could learn this by following the design and construction of a house or perhaps a skyscraper, and I started out on such a path. But I found I couldn’t get as close to the subject and the work as I wanted to, and eventually realized I could learn a lot more by radically shrinking the dimensions of the project, stripping it down to its essentials and to a scale where I could work on it with my own hands right in my own backyard, as it were. In other words, I decided to conceive and build a microcosm: a place of my own that would also be a tool for exploring architecture.

It wasn’t until I started down this path that I learned that the history of architecture contains a rich tradition of such microcosms—stories about elemental buildings conceived as a way to return architecture to its first principles. Beginning with the Primitive Hut described by the Roman architect and writer Vitruvius, accounts of the First Shelter have served as myths of the origins of architecture, as well as clever ways to argue for your particular view of how buildings should look and be built. Vitruvius’ primitive hut looks a lot like a Greek temple built out of tree trunks and branches, thereby implying that the classical forms he admires were given to us by the forest itself, and so have the sanction of nature. Following his example, Alberti, Laugier, Frank Lloyd Wright and Le Corbusier each constructed (at least in words) their own rhetorical hut as a way to argue for the naturalness or inevitability of their respective visions of architecture—neoclassical, Gothic, modern, whatever. In much the same way, many writers have built their own primitive huts—think of the ones in
Robinson Crusoe
or
Walden—
as a vantage from which to explore civilized man’s relationship to nature and launch their critiques of modern society.

In retrospect I can see that my little cabin by the pond in Connecticut, and this account of it, is very much in the tradition of the Polemical Hut. In the course of its narrative,
A Place of My Own
puts forth an argument about architecture as well as modern life and work, all of which, I suggest, have lost the vital thread of their connection to nature, much to the detriment of our lives and buildings.

I mention all this because some readers (and even some reviewers) have approached
A Place of My Own
as a kind of how-to book that would tell them how to build their own cabin in the woods. I worry about those readers—and even more about their buildings. For while it’s true that the book is organized, step-by-step, around the first-this-then-that syntax of designing and building a house, with chapters on Drawing, Foundations, Framing, Windows and Finishing,
A Place of My Own
was never intended as a recipe or construction manual. The book doesn’t dwell quite long enough in the land of fig-1, fig-2 to insure that your own building will actually stand up or come out square. (Mine stands but as you will discover is, sadly, out of square.)
A Place of My Own
is not so much a how-to-do-it than a how-to-think-about-it kind of book.

 

I have a theory that a writer’s second book, which is what this one is for me, is the most difficult to write and the most revealing to read. To borrow a metaphor from geometry, a first book is like a point in the infinite space of literary possibility: it can be about anything and leads nowhere in particular. My first book,
Second Nature
, was ostensibly about my education as a gardener, and used the garden as a place to explore the complexities of our relationship to the natural world (including the peculiar fact that we have such a relationship; what other creature does?). But a writer’s second book, by forming a second point in the space of literary possibility, creates a line: a path or trajectory that very often sets the course of the writer’s career.

It is not until you embark on your second book that you begin to find out who you are as a writer. This happens in the course of discovering which of the questions that occupied you in the writing of your first book are dropped, and which turn out to be ones that you can’t let go of.
A Place of My Own
is the book where that happened for me, and looking back I can see that in many ways it set me on my path.

When I embarked on
A Place of My Own
I thought I was leaving behind all the questions about nature and culture that had obsessed me in
Second Nature
. Now, I figured I was writing about a whole new set of questions having to do with architecture and building and work. After that, I presumably would turn my attention to another subject (politics? business? the Internet?), and then another.

But as I delved into the unfamiliar world of architecture, reading all I could about theories of design and the work of construction, visiting buildings, and learning how to read a plan and swing a hammer, something quite unexpected happened: I found myself drifting back to the same questions about nature and culture that had obsessed me during the writing of
Second Nature
. How do we humans fit into the natural world, and in what ways is that different from other creatures? Are our buildings the pure products of culture, like poems, or are they more like adaptations, akin to a pattern of camouflage in an animal? In what ways are our buildings like nests or burrows, the outcome of a kind of evolutionary process fitting our bodies and desires to the facts of our environment, and in what way are they free to be anything we like? In other words, does nature tell us how to build? Is the prestige of right angles or the Golden Section in Western architecture arbitrary, or is it rooted in something important about the nature of reality? Of course there are all sorts of other questions that come up in the process of designing and building, but these were the ones around which I kept circling.

For a while I struggled against the gravitational pull I felt dragging me back to nature, probably because in the back of every second-book writer looms this anxious injunction:
You don’t want repeat yourself!
(That’s just one of the many anxieties that don’t disturb the sleep of the first-book writer.) This was the difficult part, and it sent me down many desolate narrative trails and up many thematically fruitless trees. But after several false starts, I came to the realization that these kinds of questions about nature were
my
question—the abiding ones that fired my curiosity and fed my imagination and about which I dared to hope I might have something useful to say. So maybe I wasn’t repeating myself; maybe instead I was finding myself, or at least, finding the big questions that, for better or worse, would shape my work as a writer.

I suspect that every writer has some such set of ultimate questions, and if you read their work long enough you will find the path of their narrative or argument inevitably winding its way back to the Mother Issue, which might be power or money or sex, status or relationships or justice. Now I knew where my writing tended to gravitate and liked to linger: the messy places where the threads of nature and culture tangle in interesting ways. The reason I’d been drawn to writing about architecture in the first place was because architecture was, like gardens and agriculture and food, one of those interestingly messy places, where nature changes us even as we change nature. I was home.

 

So
A Place of My Own
looks at the art of architecture and the work of building through the lens of nature. This was a decidedly idiosyncratic lens to deploy during the 1990s, when the book was written. For that was the decade when the architectural profession fell head over heels for literary theory, of all things, and was in the throes of a rebellion against the idea there was anything “natural” or necessary about a building, beyond the basic, boring necessity of keeping the rain off your client’s head. (Not that it always succeeded at that.) Architect/theorists like Robert Venturi and Peter Eisenman held the microphone, and they were arguing in all sincerity that a building was in fact no different than a poem, that the conventions of architecture—things like gabled roofs and right angles—were just as arbitrary and culture-bound as the sounds of words in a language. Like words or letters, the meaning of these things derived not from facts of nature or the human body’s experience of space but from the system of signs or the “language” of which they were a part.

In retrospect, the power of these ideas probably owed something to the fact that the Internet was just then making its presence felt in our lives, and the shiny possibilities of cyberspace seemed far more glamorous than old-fashioned physical spaces created out of bricks and mortar. At the time, transcending the limitations of nature, whatever you took them to be, seemed like an increasingly plausible and interesting project. For me, the irony of the situation was, well, inescapable. For just when I had turned to architecture and building in search of something more deeply rooted in reality than words, architects were giving all that up in order to be more like writers and software designers and sign-makers of every kind.

One of the things
A Place of My Own
attempts to do is to frame an argument against that conception of architecture, waging a defense of nature in the face of the glamour of all things digital and digitizable. In the years since the book was first published, architecture seems to have gotten over its most extreme literary conceits, and rediscovered the importance of such things as the body’s experience of space. And yet in many ways, as our lives have grown ever more abstract and mediated, the book’s defense of nature seems even more timely today than it did when it was written a decade ago.

 

A Place of My Own
ends with the completion of the building and the triumph of move-in day, but before I had taken up residence and gotten down to work. Many readers have written to ask what happened after that: did the writing house work out as I’d hoped? Do I still work in it? (They also write to ask where they might see photographs of the finished building. Go to my Web site, michaelpollan.com, and click on the image of the building on the home page.)

I had ten good years in my building before a move to California forced me, reluctantly, to abandon it. As I mentioned, I wrote two books and a portion of a third sitting at the broad ash desk looking out over the pond and garden. This proved to be a wonderful place to write and think and daydream, and in some ways the writing house exceeded my expectations. Except for the floor, the building is not insulated, so I assumed it would be only a seasonal place to work, but in fact I went to work in the writing house on all but the very bitterest or snowiest days. The two thick walls of books provided a measure of insulation, I suppose; the building was tight, I’m proud to say, and my little kerosene heater did a fine job of keeping the place nice and toasty. Snow was more likely to keep me away than cold, since there was a hundred-yard path between the house and the building that needed to be shoveled after a blizzard.

I loved that path, though, and the transition it afforded me as I strolled out to work every morning. My “commute” took only a few minutes, passing through the garden and under the arbor before winding around the pond and the building’s companion boulder and then depositing me at the door. But in those few minutes, sipping from a mug of coffee and checking on my plants as I winded my way, I gradually shed the cares of the household and slipped back into the current of whatever it was I was writing. I would push open the door and crank up the heater, before stepping down into what I came to think of as my cockpit. Because once I took my seat at the desk, there was no reason whatsoever to move. Like a suit of clothes, Charlie had designed the space to the measure of my body, so everything I could possibly need—books, files, supplies, heater controls, machinery—I could reach without ever having to get up from my chair. Taking my seat in the lower section of the writing house came to feel like putting on a favorite old sweater or pair of socks. It fit me to a T.

BOOK: A Place of My Own
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