For many, working and living in the same space presents a challenge to motivation and focus. Without distance or space to temporarily take away the forgiving environment of home, more than few of us find the distractions a barrier to uninterrupted work. But then there is another side to having a place apart and that’s those occasions we yearn for space that takes us away from everything, a place where we can sit watching the wheels go round, answering the questions we ask ourselves.
Michael Pollan wrote a book in 1997 called A Place of My Own in which he recounts the process of designing and constructing a small one-room structure on his rural Connecticut property—a place in which he hoped to read, write and daydream. Though a confessed non-carpenter, Pollan built his ‘writer’s house’ with his own two hands. Not a task he approached lightly or with any sort of confidence, it was rather an endeavor that involved long thought and careful research, plus the help of a longtime architect friend.
A Place of My Own takes the reader through each phase of the project, from the germination of an idea thrown out by the friend-architect remodeling Pollan’s home. Looking out from an unfinished second floor window to the slope, woods and meadow beyond, the architect felt the view needed a focus and the best bet would be a small structure build on the same axis as house, garden and meadow. At the same time Pollan had been thinking of a small hut or room set apart where he could do his writing. Next came research on the marriage of architecture and nature, on the question of selecting a site, and then a study of sketches from the architect’s standpoint.
From the initial concept the project was never meant to be large, complicated or expensive. A big part of that was Pollan’s desire to build the structure himself, a decision that required more than anything simplicity. But to make a long story short, this dream of Pollan’s was eventually realized, designed by his friend, but built by Pollan at an ultimate cost of $125 per square foot.
One part of the story is particularly interesting and involves a system unfamiliar to me before reading Pollan’s book. There is a mathematical formula of sorts known as the Golden Section, a famous mystical sequence of numbers illustrating that the ratio 1:1.618 occurs again and again in both architecture and nature. It can be seen in the elevation of the Parthenon and in the wings of a butterfly; found in the facade of Notre-Dame, it is also evident in the spiral of a seashell. In sizing the ground plan of Pollan’s one-room writer’s house, the architect along with Pollan determined that the desk should run the length of the front wall. To get an idea of dimensions Pollan extended his arms out to the side, a span measuring six feet, to which was added the depth of two feet for bookshelves on each end. This gave them the width of the room. Using the Golden Section, the architect then multiplied that length (eight feet) by the factor 1.618, coming up with 12.9. He then sketched a rectangle eight feet by thirteen indicating the final measurements of the room.
Charles R. Meyer, Pollan’s architect has this to say about the Golden Section: “The Golden Section is a bridge joining architecture and nature. The same proportioning system that works in buildings also shows up in trees, leaves, seashells and sunflowers, as well as the human body. It’s everywhere.” Both Frank Lloyd Wright and Le Corbusier were faithful to the principle in their work.