An Architect's Journal: Towers

Dave Clarke

Mother of the hills, forgive our towers,
Mother of the clouds, forgive our dreams.

--Edwin J. Ellis, 1919


I used to be married to a woman whose family and friends came together in annual clots. At one of the gatherings, in 1969, I fell in with an ancient man named Hans. I felt apart as usual, not speaking German, and we spent some time talking. Hans was building a house, it seems, and had been since 1948. I thought he was an interesting case, as people go, but when you are an architecture student you develop a rather perverse sense of professionalism and I recall saying to myself at the end of the day, "What an earth could that old hoodlum know about architecture?"

By 1974 I had separated, grown up a bit more and felt like I might be ready to deal with Hans again. He'd been on my mind; not a lot, but enough. I wrote him, he said come, and I went in the spring, by train, bus and foot, to his hermitage in rural New Jersey. His story is an interesting one, and I'll tell just enough of it to get us by.

He was born in 1905 in a very small town in northern Germany. His family was huge and his father was a despot. In the 'teens there was no food in Germany and his siblings were dropping like flies from consumption. The joy of Christmas was getting a baked apple, his only fruit for the year. His father was an upholsterer and so is Hans, still. In the fall of 1928 Hans borrowed $112 to come to America and be rid of depressions. He washed dishes and stole food in New York City instead--until 1934 when he simultaneously became a citizen and got a job--upholstering. He was drafted in 1935 and spent the
duration questioning German prisoners of war (and detained American Germans) in a Texas POW camp. It was never quite clear whether Hans was a prisoner too but it does seem odd that he was not mustered out for slightly over a decade. He visited friends in New Jersey for a while and on a long, solitary walk one day he saw a sign offering a good-sized piece of land for sale. It was $800, his life-savings, and he bought it on sight that day. He moved onto the site the day after and lived in a tent for the next four years until the first habitable portion of the house was finished.

The following concerns a certain section of the house and is taken from a four-hour tape-recorded interview with Hans, taken in the Spring of 1974.

"Why did you decide to build the Tower?

Why?

Yeah, why.

Isn't it a beautiful thing?

Gorgeous. Why'd you build it?

Something round, isn't it wonderful? And a round roof!

Oh, it really is beautiful, Hans . . .

When I said I am going to build a tower everybody went crazy and said, 'You are nuts. What do you want with a tower? What about the cinderblocks?' 'Well,' I say, 'I'm going to bend them. It was very simple. I got a six-foot 2"X 3"--

Right; it's not curved block.

Exactly. With a twelve-foot diameter it disappears, see. And this is the nicety of--

No, I'm curious about this because Jung, you know, the psychiatrist, built himself a house near Zurich when he was about fifty.

Oh, ya, he did?

And the house is made out of two Towers and the house is stretched between. He said he got a lot of strength from them.

Is that so. Well, I don't know about that. But for me, I haven't so much strength anymore, but would love to build--

Another Tower.

Yes, and to make it the real entrance to the house, right? (pause) And always my house is filled with Mozart, right?"

Since that conversation I've wondered about Towers probably more than was really good for me and I've found out some interesting things. Jung says, in his autobiography:

"Gradually I was able to put my fantasies and the contents of my unconscious on a solid footing. Words and paper, however, did not seem really enough; something more was needed. I had to achieve a kind of representation of my innermost thoughts and of the knowledge I had acquired. Or, to put it another way, I had to make a confession of faith in stone. That was the beginning of the Tower, the house which I built for myself at Bolligen . . . The feeling of repose and renewal that I had in this Tower was intense from the start. It represented for me the maternal hearth. . . There I live in my second personality and see life in the round, as something forever coming into being and passing on."

Jung was 48 when he started work on the Tower; Hans' was begun in 1952, when he was 47.

One of Jung's great contributions, of course, was the "discovery" and explication of the "collective unconscious," a vast sea of archetypes: symbols, images, ideas, talismans that we all share in--whether we like it or not. Another "discoverer" of the collective unconscious was William Butler Yeats, who says in his autobiography:

"Seeing that a vision could divide itself in divers complementary portions, might not the thought of philosopher or poet or mathematician depend at every moment of its progress upon some complementary thought in minds perhaps at a great distance? Is there nation-wide multiform reverie, every mind passing through a stream of suggestion, and all streams acting and reacting upon one another no matter how distant the minds, how dumb the lips?"

Yeats, guess what, was also powerfully interested in Towers. He purchased a ruined tower called "Thoor" at Ballylee, in Ireland, for thirty-five pounds in June of 1917 when he was 52. He got the little tower cheaply (which was part of the larger Gregory estate) because the Chief Inspector for the "Congested Districts Board" said that its value as a residence was "sentimental and therefore problematical." Ah, things change so little! Yeats took an American lecture tour in 1920 to raise money for the renovation.

What did the Tower mean for Yeats? The tie of the collective unconscious might lead a capricious mind to think of antennae, but Yeats also says:

"From the moment when these speculations (above paragraph) became vivid, I had created for myself an intellectual solitude; most arguments that could influence action had lost something of their meaning. How could I judge any scheme of education, or of social reform, when I could not measure what the different classes had contributed to that invisible commerce of reverie and of sleep; and what is luxury and what necessity when a fragment of a gold braid, or a flower in the wallpaper may be an originating impulse to revolution or to philosophy? I began to feel myself not only solitary but helpless."

Yeats was a lonely child and although solitude pained him he was used to it. Certainly it was essential for writing poems. In fact, he was a terrible student because as a lonely child he developed a rich imagination that forever prevented him from clearing his head enough to concentrate on studies as such. The fact of the matter is, like all symbols,
Towers meant many many things to Y eats.

The "ivory tower," the withdrawal, the loneliness--is certainly part of it. Another part is buried in the third paragraph of his autobiography: Yeats recalls a melancholy memory, that of "sitting on the ground looking at a mastless toy boat . . ." But he also says, in a letter:

"We are at the tower and I am writing poetry as I always do here, and as always happens, no matter how I begin it becomes love poetry before I am finished with it."

There is a certain obviousness to that. In a more general way a tower is certainly a redoubt as the towers of Bologna and San Gimignano testify to. It is an eminently defensible form. I think that is at least partly behind Hans' need too. You might say that Hans got the runaround in life. The act of building and occupying a Tower is an act of saying "I've had it; this time you're going to have to come in after me."

The kind of towers that do not work these ways, I think, are Civil War shot towers, silos, smokestacks, etc. They have to be habitable. Also, a Tower cannot be a nuclear power station cooling tower or a high-rise since the scale has to be human--and, at least figuratively, for one human. The degree to which it must be detached or free-standing is unclear. The examples shown are all "attached" but the Tower clearly dominates in all cases. Nineteenth century "Italianate" domestic architecture often featured corner towers but they were seldom much higher than the rest of the house. H. H. Richardson tended to roundness in his houses but the forms never quite became Towers, independent of the fabric of the wall. Besides, they were fat, just like he was. Carcassone is a veritable penitentiary of potential Towers but they are for the most part as imprisoned as Richardson's, stuck forever in the city wall.

A Tower is, finally, a place; focused as only round (or round-like) things can be. Yeats remarks "I was always discovering places where I would like to spend my whole life."

The Tower proved quite useful in Yeats' poetry. It is, for instance, the pursuit of wisdom:

" . . . that shadow is the tower,
And the light proves that he is reading still.
He has found, after the manner of his kind,
Mere images; chosen this place to live in
Because, it may be, of the candle light . . .
An image of mysterious wisdom won by toil;
And now he seeks in book or manuscript
What he shall never find."

Yeats also knew, through his critical faculties (which were immense) that Towers had figured prominently in the minds of other poets, other thinkers, and he specifically mentions Milton, Shelley, Count Villiers de I'Isle Adam, Maeterlink, and the rather obscure Edwin Ellis.

These things carry long distances and endure over long periods of time. Almost a century later the poet Sylvia Plath visited the Tower at Ballylee and wrote to a friend that she thought it "the most beautiful place in the would. " That fall she found a house where Yeats had briefly lived near Primrose Hill in London. She was, in fact, house-hunting. She was the first to apply and signed a five-year lease for much more than she could afford, elated not just because she had found a flat, but because the place and its associations seemed preordained.

By the time Yeats won the Nobel Prize he had used the Tower as a symbol for himself, conquering the trauma of the mastless toy- boat;

"I declare this tower is my symbol; I declare
This winding, gyring, spiring treadmill of a stair is my ancestral stair . . ."

Which brings up a fascinating sidelight. The series of poems that follow "The Tower" series is called "The Winding Stair" and consists of poems about women. The winding stair is clearly the other side of the coin. In Thoor, the winding stair is inside the Tower, as at Bollingen:

"Now that we're almost settled in our house
I'll name the friends that cannot sup with us
Beside a fire of turf in the ancient tower,
And having talked to some late hour
Climb up the narrow winding stair to bed. . . "

Both Yeats and Jung were happily married men. Hans' winding stair curves up around the outside.

There are, I think, many kinds of research and some produce results of greater accuracy than others. Accuracy is very important, especially in strengths of materials and so forth. But it is also the case that the more precise one's tools become the less versatile they are and there are some things in life--and in architecture--that are no less valuable because they are vague. I also believe that whatever one man has felt keenly, all men must feel, just a little, and having a Tower here and there in our subdivisions (to rent by the hour?) strikes me as hedging the bet.

A safer conclusion is that the humanities, whether manifested as a real human (Hans) or a dead poet or psychiatrist, harbor useful things for architects to speculate about.

Yeats' autobiography is not self-effacing: "I think the man of letters has powers of make-believe denied to . . . the architect."


REFERENCES

Memories, Dreams, Reflections C G Jung New York Vintage 1961
The Autobiography of William Butler Yeats New York Macmillian 1916
The Collected Poems of William Butler Yeats (definitive Edition)
New York Macmillan 1956
W B Yeats: Man and Poet A. Norman Jeffares New Haven Yale
1949
The Savage God A. Alvarez New York Random House 1972.

 

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