Saxon Hall

Robert Venturi, in his seminal 1972 book, Learning from Las Vegas developed an architectural typology that includes only 'ducks' - buildings that are shaped in a way to reflect their purpose (named for a Long Island poultry restaurant literally shaped like a duck) and 'decorated sheds' - prosaic structures that are adorned with symbols or signage that identify their business.

I arrived in Los Angeles in 1980 and shortly thereafter got to know Jim Heimann who had written the definitive work on Los Angeles 'ducks'. His book was called California Crazy, 1981, and depicted road side vernacular architecture - often restaurants and mostly from the 1930's and 40's - that, like Venturi's 'duck', were shaped in ways that reflected the morphology of the meals they served (think Chili-bowl). Jim's abiding interest was not architecture per se, but the use of buildings as marketing iconography. Trained as a graphic designer, he saw the urban fabric as text - as existing as a kind of three dimensional advertising copy. I was briefly interested, in the late 70's and early 1980's, in this kind of literal architecture, but by then the world had moved on from Venturi's approach and embraced the sophisticated sheen of European post-structuralism. We were no longer interested in 'ducks' and 'decorated sheds' but in semiotics and my architectural messages were not about commerce but presumed to be social critiques.

The simple fact is that almost all buildings are freighted with meaning beyond their functional manifestation. In Hoop Dreams I wrote about a disinherited people who developed a new identity out of the Ghost Dance; for most of their existence, native peoples' identity was established by geography, kinship and band affiliation. Certainly in California, home was the local village and the surrounding environment; it was, as Peter Nabakov and Robert Easton point out in Native American Architecture, 1989, the central place, the source of identity. In building a house in the urban wildland, I have adopted some of that geocentrism and derive some of my new Ojai identity from the chaparral and the house we built in it.

Nabakov and Eastman note that part of a band's collective identity was the village's house type. This could only be significant if the band was aware of other building types. We know that California was rich in Native American house forms, and that trading routes criss-crossed the area - Chumash shell money has been found as far away as the Great Basin.

Even amongst the Chumash (who, it should be noted, were not a homogenous people but a loose collection of bands that anthropologists have aggregated through language families and dialect groups) there was an array of house forms including their dome shaped thatched huts (Edge Times), sweat lodges, which were sunk into the ground then thatched over with deerweed (Lotus scoparius) and ceremonial enclosures similar to those described in Burn Notice. It can be presumed that there were also storage buildings and perhaps menstral retreats. We also know that shamans had a predeliction for rock shelters, and the Santa Monica and Topa Topa-San Rafael mountain ranges are studded with caves that at one time or another may have became retreats for those out-of-body experiences favored by Chumash medicine men. This variety of shelters underwent subtle transformation from Southern to Northern California such that regional groups could find identity in the particulars of their building stock.

We Euro-Americans share certain house-forms that support our sense of identity, well being and connection to our archetypal notions of shelter. Levi Strauss suggested that mythologies around the world shared fundamental similarities in structure - hence the school of thought he helped found, Structuralism. Something similar, I believe, exists in house forms. Modern buildings are at least partly shaped by wind loads and seismic factors, but all buildings through time have been shaped by vertical loads - the tyranny of the earth's gravitational pull. Within these constraints a set of primal shapes seem to appear in culture after culture.

We still find identity in certain house forms that resonate with our present sense of cultural heritage and more profoundly, with the shelter archetypes we carry with us in our unconscious. Lorrie and I set out to create a barn on the meadow. In our innocence we called it a barn: I am now coming to realize that we may have been accessing, deep from within our memory banks: he, the Saxon hall; she, the Viking long-house. Our imaginations are entwined in the long tail of human memory.

In Cave and Rock I made the distinction between an architecture of object (a rock) and of anthropology (a cave). This comes close to Venturi's typology, the rock being roughly analogous to his 'duck', an object;  and the cave his 'decorated shed' - where there is at least a hint of architectural space-making. I was, I think, beginning to make the argument that the envelopment of space is critical to the way we 'feel' buildings and thus I was suggesting that a cave, with its primal sheltering aspect resonates in our sub-conscious in an entirely different way than an architecture that relies for effect on its exterior form. However, as Venturi taught us, it's not 'either/or' it is 'both/and'. Thus the rock can contain a cave and indeed, be an indicator or a sign of it.

As an object in the landscape, our barn-like home resonates with an ancient notion of human habitation. Although completed less than two years ago, it advertises our long tenancy on planet earth. As the wattle and thatch hovels of the Anglo-Saxon invaders fifteen hundred years ago evolved into the great Saxon Halls built in Britain at the end of the first millennium (pre-figured in the epic poem Beowulf that told of the Dane-halls of Heorot and King Hrothgar) their purpose remained constant. It was to protect their inhabitants from the threats of an enveloping wilderness.

We are not threatened by monsters, but we do contend with reptile infested rocks and the tough sclerophytic leaves of the chaparral that, like dragon scales, protect the ancient earth crust. In Beowulf resides the myth-memory of the Danes, but as Seamus Hearney writes, these myths continue to live through time: they "sweep in off the moors, down through the mist-bands of Anglo-Saxon England, forward into the global village of the third millennium".

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