So You’ve Deconstructed
Standing in the dusted remains of a room stripped to the bones you exist in a liminal time and place mentally preparing to cross a threshold of creation without knowing exactly what is being created. A purgatorial unassured location where you still have piles to pick through of some things in the old room that are good and a great deal that you wish you didn’t have to carry to the dump, you wish someone would just show up and take it from you like a wart or tumor, take it and burn it never to be seen again. But it is there, all the stuff you want to trash, and it sits right beside that which you want to keep, while that which you want to build has not even entered the space yet. It is an idea only, and even if you have a designer and contractor (most of us can’t afford that or can’t find a good one), you still know Robert Burns was right that
The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men
Gang aft a-gley
So there is a fear here: what if I build a thing that becomes just a ugly (or even uglier) than the thing that I destroyed? What if I build a thing that I think is beautiful but others think is worse than it was before?
Happens all the time, doesn’t it? A before/after photo reveals someone tore down something good, something clearly articulating a unique vision and space, and replace it with something ugly or banal or hack-y or ridiculous or too indicative of this current time and space. Too much shiplap will do that. Too many clean cool lines which will look stale in a decade or less. Last year’s color which by the time you finish the painting on the walls you realize you already want to change it. So in the liminal time when you think the deconstruction is done you begin to worry about the next deconstruction perhaps even to the point that you wonder what is worth building at all.
Maybe, you can ponder, just maybe it is better to do nothing. To have bare bones, a blank space. Maybe your vision or vague notion is itself going to be destroyed before it is even completed so it is better not to start. A paralysis can set it when something old has been torn down and something new is not yet started.
But then you realize the fundamental need of the space remains: you still need a bathroom, a kitchen, a living room, a bedroom. One cannot leave a deck torn down or the kids will toddle out the back door and kerplump a few feet down into the moldy loam that had built up under the old deconstructed deck.
You’ve deconstructed the form of the thing but the need of function remains. The old thing was rotten, bad, ugly, or maybe you just had a bad connotation when you saw it because it was a room where you experienced pain and suffering and you could not bear to look at it one more time. You winced as you passed by. It had to go. But what goes in its place? Something has to, on some fundamental level, because the room deconstructed is often dangerous to yourself and others. And your kids are really sick of you showering in their shower because you tore out yours and have not yet settled on the tile for the new one and you and your husband have brought home twenty samples and boy if you didn’t know that this would be the thing that ends you marriage but it just might, if he doesn’t take the subway white instead of his stupid wood-look textured blah, it just might end it all.
So you need to build…something. But how? Again, the designer can help. A builder. Someone with vision. But as you begin to answer questions about form and function you thereafter begin to realize the person (who you thought was a dummy) who built the thing you just destroyed was probably asking and answering the same questions in similar ways. That which was destroyed had function and intentionality and surely exists as a point of pride on some polaroids in a shoebox somewhere. The deconstructed thing went bed or rotted or broke but not likely because the original builder or designer wanted to make something awful but because something awful results even out of the best of intentions. Bad from good seems to be the way of the building world. First thing you’re smiling at a show about shiplap, next thing you realize that having five shiplap walls in a five-room house is four too many shiplap walls, and so on.
(Of course there are those who build from spite, or anger, or like H. H. Holmes built an entire murder castle for the purpose of gathering bodies. And sometimes it is hard to know what was done with good intentions and what was done for evil, since both kinds rot and both kinds can have a certain beauty on the surface.)
So as you answer the questions of what is to be built you encounter the questions the previous builder answered and realize their answers, although not yours, were not done from spite. That they were honest answers corrupted by bad building quality or a shortage of funds or a lack of time or any of the other innumerable obnoxious problems that stand between hopes and reality, between vision and completion. They started good but then one of them lost their job or got cancer or a spouse died or the time ran long or they put out their back or they lost the vision or they had to move so that which was created did not even live up to their own hopes and dreams. But the questions, the questions! The questions were the same.
What is the function? How do I build that in time? What if I run out of money? Oh what now the contractors haven’t shown up for three days. That color did not turn out how I expected. The couch is delayed? Canceled? How does a couch get cancelled? Why do we need to reroute the pipes we can’t afford that. I thought I could trust you and now my whole family is sucked into an awful process that I am trying to find my way through but I no longer see light at the end of the tunnel but I can’t let on to the kids or they will get upset so how do I keep a brave face? Why does anyone ever do this?
And of course because we only see the finished process in other people’s houses, we gain the twice vices of jealousy (so easy for them! They did it perfectly!) and disgust (I hate their choices). We go through our own deconstruction-rebuilding phases and judge the outcomes, often silently so as to avoid offending people but boy I cannot believe the Johnsons went with that refrigerator/sink combination, don’t they know about the kitchen triangle? Don’t they?
Then there are the parents.
Dad was a builder and he knows how the project should have gone. Why didn’t you just let dad do it? Or Mom loves to decorate so why didn’t you just go to Hobby Lobby and refresh the room? Why did you have to tear the whole thing down? You wasted so much money dear. And time. And the kids are sick of you showering in their shower. And now look you moved this wall and it cost so much money for what two more feet of kitchen? Dear I raised you with a smaller kitchen than this.
(And the worst, mentally (though a big cost savings of course) is when you want to deconstruct their house but you are still living in it and it is still their house. Every day you think of all the things you hate but cannot destroy so you build your own house in your mind where you will move one day if you ever get the chance.)
And every time you go to their house once your project is done you have the urge, now, knower-of-buildings, to tell them everything wrong with their house. Every rotting spot. Everything that is dated, everything ugly. What a temptation! To wander about pointing out everything that could be fixed. The sharp corner of a cabinet where you hit your head growing up and you think is dangerous but they never got to it. The outlet that has not worked in twenty years. The carpet in the bathroom (barf). A dank basement that could be improved with a simple dehumidifier and some moisture-blocking paint.
Or your builder-dad has a perfect house and you hate him even more because you did all this work to deconstruct and improve this little thing that you have but his seems so effortless and perfect so you revile him every time you step through his door. He has all this money and boy it drives you crazy because he never even acknowledge all the hard work you put in to your little place which will never match his but you are proud of it because it is yours! Yours! Not his. And why can’t he see that his own desire to build his thing his way is the same desire you have to build your thing your way. Instead, he thinks you have to build your thing his way because he has it all figured out. Except you know that he doesn’t because you know (even though he does not know that you know) that he shorted his contractors and was a monster to the designer and took advantage of a price mistake at Lowe’s to get the fridge he wanted, so you think his effortless perfection is a veneer over walls built of lies so you have committed to yourself that no matter what happens next you will not lie. You may have a smaller house, less stuff, an unclear vision, but it will be honest, you say… but then again, the kids could use some more room…
But I digress. And get ahead of myself.
You have deconstructed. The piles of rotten boards are still here in the corner. The good stuff you wanted to save is there in the other. Dust still floats, stinging your eyes. You have an uncertain world ahead, and you might fail. At very least, having gone through this process now, there is an ability to recognize just how hard this is and why how few people want to do it. How it might be easier to live with rotten boards for a while or ignore the structural problems because tearing things down to the studs (or even taking out the studs) is painful. How day-to-day life can capture so much attention and energy that the thought of pulling something apart bit by bit when you really need it now is very complicated and not everyone can handle that kind of complication. How different answers to the same questions can frustrate and even anger because you cannot understand why they got those answers when your answers are clearly better (until you ask your kids one day and realize they are not, in fact, better, because your kids suddenly know the correct answers). How important it is to go with a gracious heart into spaces and places (even your parents house) where you hate everything you see but can recognize the good intentions or lack of resources limiting good intentions.
Where you can love freely what is good, however small, however hard you have to look for it, recognizing that no matter how hard you try you may never get someone else to see or understand why you did what you did or what you are trying to build from here on out…
Or you can be a jerk about it and go into everyone’s house and point out all the things you hate all the time but then you wake up one day and realize no one wants you in their house anymore and no one wants your design advice and probably never wanted it to begin with.
That part of deconstruction — encountering the others whose designs you yourself have pulled apart and destroyed — that part is entirely within your power, and you decide what kind of person you will be as your seek out the good design that answers the important questions before you.
Of course, there are those builders and architects who make the strangest sort: the ones who want you to know that no matter how your go through the design project from here, you’ve already done it all wrong by tearing down what someone else built. They want you to know that tearing down and seeking a new design is Marxist, you know, and a waste of time and resources. They have already answered all the questions you could ever possibly ask and need you to know that. They, of course, had their own time when they say they tore down their own spaces and built something new, but you are not allowed that same process except under their guidance, with their *expert* care, because they pulled apart a room in college but then rebuild it and then they took some classes on construction in college.
They want you to know that if you don’t build the room exactly as they specify, that you aren’t building a room at all but something else entirely, something wicked, something destructive, or at least defective. That your efforts to learn and ask questions about what is right for you are in fact exemplary of the fact that you have no idea what you are doing so you need to just do what they say and build it back how it was before.
(The secret with a lot of these sorts is they haven’t pried at a single board since they were seven and are so terrified of what might be rotting underneath that they don’t even want to consider doing it, not once, or else the whole thing might collapse and since they have never had to build something from scratch themselves they would have no idea where to even start).
And you are annoyed by them, as you should be, but also realize you might become one of them one day, as you pull things apart and put them back together the way you think they should be built. Mayhaps you become the sort who thinks everyone else is doing it wrong and everyone needs to do it your way. And doing it any other way is a waste of time and resources. How people need to build under your *expert* care because you pulled apart a room a few years ago and know how to build it back correctly. And suddenly you are one of them, those builders you said you hated, the ones with all the answers.
But back to the questions. That’s the centerpiece, the thing that can be shared by all, even those who come to great disagreement about how they are answered. The questions are the same. What am I doing in this space? What is the purpose? How do I live here? How does anyone live here? Why did I hate the previous design or what was falling apart? What needs to be built instead?
The questions, if unanswered, leave us in the dusty liminal nothing of unusefulness. And you find you will answer the questions of design by accident if you want too long: suddenly cups are put there and a chair here because you need to, not because you have thought it out. You begin to tiptoe around the protruding nails or hole in the floor because you have never built it back. It is a dangerous space, even if it feels better than the room your tore down, and it needs some thought. However scary the questions might feel, they will at least lead you to something safer, perhaps, and more functional.
So, you’ve deconstructed. Let not this moment pass. Ask, ask, ask away. Talk it out, the questions, with anyone and everyone except those people who think even asking questions is wrong. Ask, ask, ask away.
Ask, ask, ask away.