Suburban Soliloquy #66

The Ambulatory

I live in a house. It shelters me from the vagaries of life, but it is only a make-do contingency for two nomads. Ms Keogh and I have no sense of home, a place where we feel we belong. This house plopped in the middle of suburbia is not an expression of our tastes; this is not a community that shares our politics nor our values. Although we have lived here close to twenty years, it was always temporary.

What is wanted is a home. First, we want to live within or near a community that shares our aesthetic principles, that offers a richness of stimulating ideas through social interaction and finer entertainments. We want contact with art and education that doesn't have to be reached by long car drives. Furthermore, we want an environment that serves as a backdrop to frequent walks, a place that will always engage our attention and appease our spirits. Second, the house itself must be a microcosm in which to comfortably live our lives and flourish.

From the time I was ten I have exercised my imagination on constructing a dream house. It was my way of escaping moments of drudgery. I found comfort in the distraction of designing the proper frame in which to set my life apart from a banal existence. My dream house was always evolving. It grew smaller over time, more realistic, not requiring robots or servants to maintain. When I met Ms Keogh, my dream house was a one room cottage with sleeping loft that I could keep clean myself.

What would my life and happiness be without Ms Keogh? It became absolutely necessary to engage her in my exercise, since I could no longer imagine a dream house she wouldn't share. The house grew exponentially, evolving faster. It developed a breakfast room, a greenhouse, a studio, a bath house, and my study became an outbuilding, but it didn't stay that way. The dream house settled into its present state, reflecting the vicissitudes of life, the expansion of our experience, and the pragmatism that comes with maturity.

In its present state, this vividly imagined home would occupy a lot in Princeton, New Jersey. Tomorrow it might be in Portugal or England. Earlier this week we considered placing it on the rooftop of another building in Philadelphia - but for now, Princeton. The large lot would have plenty of towering trees and the house would be situated as far from the street as possible. As you would approach our home, in its present manifestation, the outside would appear an unassailable stone bunker. This is because Ms Keogh does not want any windows in the outer walls. She would have it so for maximum isolation from a world too often rude or harsh. This is something we continue to negotiate, as are the placement of the bathrooms. I would have had a few windows, perhaps high up in the walls, with my concern being such exigencies as escaping a fire. She suggests we should have secret escape routes leading out of the basement.

Our one-story home would be built of four long wings arranged at right angles. In the middle would be a perfectly square space open to the air - more about this, later. Each wing would be a slightly different width, length and height, with one end of each wing extending out, so that from above the layout would appear like a square with overhanging corners.

The house is entered through a vestibule built onto the north wing. A pair of oak doors open and the visitor enters an antechamber which has a bench to one side, a large closet to the other. This room is provided for folks to divest themselves of their outer garments. Then through another pair of doors that open into the middle of a long living room running east to west.

There are cathedral ceilings in every wing of this house. The ceilings would slope up from the outer wall, but the degree of slope would vary for each wing. Above the opposite walls that face the inner courtyard, a row of skylights, starting at the top of the wall, would hold the apex of the roof aloft. These windows would face south in the living room.

A quick stroll, counterclockwise would take us through every room of the house. The next wing, running north to south, is primarily the kitchen. Entered from the living room, we first come into a dining area. Further along is the fully endowed kitchen, which would include a washer and drier for clothing. The space would be open, no wall to separate the kitchen from the dining area, except that the kitchen would have a tile floor. We would have lots of counter space in the kitchen, and a place where we can sit on stools and eat a quick meal. Very important, there must also be a couch, because I have noticed how often people gather in the kitchen to talk when someone is cooking, and I see no reason to suffer the cook to labor in isolation. In this wing the skylights would face east.

From the kitchen we could pass through a door that brings us into the third wing. This will be Ms Keogh's studio running east to west and the skylights here would face the north.

Passing through another doorway we would enter the fourth and last wing. An archway would divide this room in half, with a pair of sliding doors built into the archway, available to separate the two rooms. The first of these two rooms is our bedroom. Step through the arch and we enter into my study-library. At the far end of my study-library is another door which returns us to the living room, where the tour began.

With every room of the house, if you draw back the draperies along the inner walls, it would reveal French windows. They provide a view and passage into the heart of our dream house. Essentially, the entire house is designed around this single architectural element, my desire for a personal ambulatory, an arcaded walkway surrounding an open courtyard where I can happily consume hours reading books while walking in circles around this open-aired courtyard.

The idea came from a permanent exhibit at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The museum has a room in which I like to sit and relax, write letters to friends, while listening to the water dribbling from a twelfth-century Romanesque fountain. Surrounding this courtyard is my ambulatory, overhanging eaves topped with clay tiles that are held up by a row of arches bouncing along the tops of marble columns. I have practiced pacing on the slate flooring beneath those eaves, eighteen comfortable steps from corner to corner. This small arcature once belonged to the Abbey of Saint Génis des Fontaines in the Roussillon region of France. The Benedictine abbey was founded at the end of the 8th century by Sentimir, but my ambulatory only dates back to the thirteenth-century. In the 1920s, a certain Monsieur Gouvert, an antiques dealer in Paris, bought the cloister and dismantled it, and this part of it ended up in the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Ms Keogh doesn't enjoy the exercise as much as I do. She only wants to consider what is possible. For me it remains just a dream house; I tolerate fewer restrictions on my dreams. Too many conditions must be met before such a home can be real. We would have to obtain wealth, but it is obvious to us that we're not headed in that direction. And as the world grows more saturated with people, as suburban sprawl ingests more property, the dream only grows further remote. Maybe we will get through life no worse than we are now. But often I think if we don't die soon, we will die poor, living our lives out in crowded institutions under the care of a bankrupt State. Even then, and with better reason, I will be distracting myself with planning my dream house.

Bruce Bentzman

This essay is the number 66 in a series of regular reports from the life and times of Mr Bentzman. If you've any comments or suggestions, the writer would be pleased to hear from you.
Mr Bentzman's collection of poems, "Atheist Grace" is now available from Amazon, as are "The Short Stories of B.H.Bentzman"