Dream House: The Personal Universe in Visionary Art Environments
“Come what may the house helps us to say: I will be an inhabitant of the world, in spite of the world”
- Gaston Bachelard
“Great architecture reflects the glory of Man, Nature and God”
- Etienne-Louis Boullée
Le Corbusier called it the “cult of the house," a site for the sentimentality that modernist art and architecture were required to resist; the container of desire and memories that capitalism needed to extinguish. The house was emotional and unprogressive, a zone of intimacy that threatened abstract ideas and objective thought. Equated since the 18 C. with the natural, fatuous and subversive, the domestic as site or subject has made ‘others’ of its proponents. The ‘others’ who worked in or on the domestic, worked in the subjective realms that modernism feared.
In the 1950s, anthropologist Edward T. Hall coined the term proxemics to refer to the study of people and their use of space as an elaboration of culture.1 Primarily concerned with cultural difference between diverse groups and their comparable interpersonal relationships, Hall’s study ultimately showed people to inhabit ‘different sensory worlds’. He determined four zones of distance within which people operate: intimate, personal, social and public. With each zone, there entails different sensory input and response that corresponds to “different kinds of human interaction and behavior.”
His study suggested that even within culture, men and women live in overlapping but different cultures, perceiving and experiencing the world somewhat differently. Although cultural conditioning should be taken into account, the zones placed women within Hall’s intimate distance (zone of emotion, unmistakable involvement) and men within Hall’s public distance (detail lost, outside circle of involvement), with the two enjoying some slippage between the middle zones of personal distance and social distance. To use Hall’s research metaphorically, and excuse it from generational, gender bias, one could easily substitute ‘modernism with ‘men’ in the zones of experience and illustrate how the obvious objectives of capitalism are more aligned with public distance than they are with the intimate. At the public distance, according to Hall, verbal and non-verbal expression become more formalized and frozen compared to the “visual images detailed, fragments, sometimes ambiguous” in the intimate zone.2 The intimate zone is the zone of the subjective, the individualistic and of agency, an isolation and independence from consumerism (at least with the TV off) that capitalism fears. The continuity, progression and newness that is at the heart of innovation, the “modernist messianism” which critic and Outsider art scholar Charles Russell recognizes as confinement3, has no place here in the intimate zone.
It is in the zone of intimacy that we find the public, although not ordinary, anti-modernists. Citizens whose work with the domestic or the personal universe challenge capitalist alienation by constructing grand structures from an intimate distance, their singular works of architecture a testament to the home as the embodiment of the human experience. Rather than positing these artists as ‘Outsider,’ I will adopt the ‘Visionary’ designation. Artists like Karl Junker, Clarence Schmidt, Grandma Prisbrey and A.G. Rizzoli (even though his constructions were the illustrated variety) are responsible for grand works of art that challenge ‘cultural order in general’. It is this very challenge that Jean Dubuffet saw in the art of Art Brut, which Charles Russell observes was his primary concern:
“To be fair, Dubuffet’s advocacy of Outsider art was not primarily a challenge to the authority of modernist art, but to cultural order in general. His concern was with the condition of the embattled individual in post-World War II Europe…Furthermore, Dubuffet’s identification with, and desire to recover the “deep” self that is at the core of the outsider artist’s self-discovery, self-creation, and self-expression signaled a post-war existential self-critique and a phenomenological orientation which stressed the primacy of the subjective presence in the creative act.”4
Dubuffet and the avant-garde’s “romantic rejection of the deadening effects of contemporary aesthetic conventions,”5 were parallel to the cultural criticisms of the Frankfurt school and the theory emerging at that time. The mid-Century academic was able to articulate their disenchantment within an analytical forum (and with full agency over the labor of their writing), their rejection of popular culture and capitalism at a safe distance from the ‘deadening effects’ of contemporary labor and ordinary post-industrial life that the average citizen suffered. The Visionary individual then, whether working or middle-class, represents the most direct response to alienation and the effect of cultural chaos. Whether due in part to a heightened sensitivity brought on by either accidental or self-determined cultural ostracism or sensitivity brought about by psychological disorder, the Visionary had plumbed the depths of estrangement, building both sympathetic shelters and utopic universes in opposition to an inhospitable world.
One can only speculate as to Karl Junker’s state of mind when he began work on his only construction, the elaborately carved and painted Junker House in Lemgo, Germany. A trained woodworker and architect, Junker, rather than pursue a career, returned to his hometown after traveling and studying abroad, eventually completing the ‘dream home’ which he inhabited until his death.
Junker House is notable for its overwhelming detail: carvings, objects, glass, murals and furnishings cover every available surface and enclose the inhabitant in a surface that appears to grow over top of itself like ivy, moss or cancer; a quality that embodies Andre Breton’s Surrealist conception of ‘convulsive beauty.’ That uncanny conglomeration that challenges conventional aesthetic through odd juxtapositions, fashioning beauty from man’s desire, is the crux of much of the apparent fancy-work and ornament that encrusts the Visionary environment. The finished Junker house is a complete work of art (gesamtkunstwerk), whose exterior and interior are covered in Junker’s handiwork, including carved furnishings and interior murals. The finished house includes a cradle and nursery, indicative of Junker’s longing for a wife and family, and notably, an elaborately built and carved throne. Raised above the floor on a balcony, one can only infer that that this throne placed Junker in the role of king, ruler of his particular and private universe.
Early sketchbooks reveal an accomplished student of architecture, whereas later works reveal evidence of Junker’s failing grip on his mind. Little else is known about Junker’s impressions of the world he lived in, and if, apart from the early death of his parents, there is any other inspiration behind his increased introversion. Although a posthumous diagnosis of schizophrenia has marked Junker’s work as being the product of psychosis, it does little to celebrate Junker’s life other than categorize his work as the product of insanity. By comparison, it is interesting to consider the work of another student of architecture, San Francisco draughtsman A. G. Rizzoli. Much more is known about Rizzoli’s life through records and diaries that show Rizzoli, a very reticent and quiet man by nature, to be suffering from feelings of powerlessness. Letters and diaries reveal that Rizzoli felt the victim of injustice5, perhaps a fish out of water in the modern world, but never the less inspired by it.
A.G. Rizzoli’s paper architecture imagines grander schemes based on his knowledge and love of traditional western architecture, particularly classical Greek theories about the “proportional relationship between architecture and the human body.” 6 Coming of age in San Francisco during a time of growth and optimism, it is likely that the utopic nature of the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition left a deep impression on the despondent Rizzoli. His buildings, as elaborate portraits of people and monuments to experience, recall Piranesi’s dark caverns of persecution or Etienne-Louis Boullée’s optimistic monuments, authors of paper architecture who have long used the imaginary built environment for extraordinary symbolism. Rizzoli’s drawings go much further than most works of fantasy architecture, and further than most Visionary architects, with his construction of an entire utopian plot (the YTTE plot plan, ‘yield to total elation’).
After the death of his beloved mother, Rizzoli continued to draw his utopic buildings and monuments perhaps because of or despite his own surroundings increased degradation. Because surviving evidence supports speculation about Rizzoli’s feelings of alienation, posthumous diagnosis of psychosis has been less forthcoming, although later drawings reveal Rizzoli’s claim to hearing voices or being driven to create by God. How Rizzoli’s biography is treated, versus Junker’s, seems to be the result of history – we are less ardent today than in the past, about declaring Visionaries insane.
American Visionaries Clarence Schmidt and Grandma Prisbrey have built similarly detailed environments, exhibiting the same sense of horror vacui that might be evidenced in Junker House. Much has been written about the repetitive, patterned gesture in the drawings of the insane as a method for grounding the mind; little speculation however, has surrounded the propensity for the ‘sane’ to fill personal space. The compulsion to make collections is thought to stem from a desire for closure or completion7 while simultaneously staving off the end (death) by setting impossible or constantly evolving collecting goals.
Clarence Schmidt’s Ohayo Mountain, New York structures became increasingly punctured with windows, hung with a maze of balconies, and coated with tin foil as he built layers of house around a central cabin, an accumulative structure that wraps itself in itself like a skin. The finished structure, before sadly being destroyed in a fire, was a veritable matrioshka, interiors nesting inside interiors like the famous Russian toy.
Tress ‘Grandma’ Prisbrey’s Bottle Village began as a practical solution – a building to house her 17,000 + pencil collection – but grew into an expansive work of architecture that spread out over her property in Simi Valley, California. A desire for closure might be most evident in Prisbrey’s history – a life plagued by difficulty, including a marriage at 15 to a man 37 years her senior, whom she subsequently left, taking with her 7 children to raise on her own. Of these 7 children, Prisbrey survived 6 of them before her death in 1988. On the Bottle Village website they acknowledge this hardship, writing:
“Bottle Village, was literally, a constructive approach to transforming discard and sorrow into something more. Bottle Village possesses many references to both maternity, and sympathetic magic (wishing wells, good luck symbols, religious structures, etc.). Even the buildings themselves, scaled to children and made through such a compulsory (sic.) process are a testimony.”8
The work of Karl Junker, Clarence Schmidt and Grandma Prisbrey provide us with examples of the home as both stage and shelter to explore and combat longing and alienation. Each of these homes was inhabited by its architect and is an exemplary illustration of the passionate, lived experience. Diagnosis of psychosis should not be sought to explain these projects away thus lessening the impact of such works of human ingenuity that have the universal ability to speak volumes about the human condition and experience of alienation, isolation, or exuberance. These works of architecture are still the product of human inspiration –both trained and untrained–and are unabashed examples of what it means to live as a modern subject.
In The Poetics of Space, Gaston Bachelard writes beautifully about the ‘dream house’, the late-in-life project that is the “dream of ownership, the embodiment of everything that is considered convenient, comfortable, healthy, sound, desirable.”9 Bachelard calls the dream house the product of two irreconcilable terms: pride and reason, therefore making the dream unobtainable. “A house,” he goes onto say, “that was final, one that stood in symmetrical relation to the house we were born in, would lead to thoughts – serious, sad thoughts – and not dreams. It is better to live in a state of impermanence than one of finality.” The dream house is, therefore, like the collection; the reason for their close alliance in the work of Visionaries, a desire for closure and completion forever forestalled.
Recent decades have rescued the house from modernism’s censure with the house/the home/the domestic achieving a prominence in popular and avant-garde culture. Between home improvement stores, publishing and cable TV shows and the increased occurrence of domestic materials and imagery in visual and literary art, the intimate zone is increasingly metaphoric of an acute longing for a private, sacred space. The house is personal embodiment and the stage on which our autobiography is constantly performed. It is in the home that the utopic universe can be constructed and reconstructed and the subject, the inhabitant of this idiosyncratic world, can finally have agency.