May 24, 2007

In praise of old houses

On a recent lazy Sunday, while reading the paper and sipping a giant Milchkaffee in one of Heidelberg’s old tiled-lined bakeries, I came across an article on the Dutch photographer Bert Teunissen. His collection "Domestic Landscapes" consists of 250 photographs of the interiors of old homes throughout Europe and Japan, which document an ancient way of life that is quickly being wiped out by modernization. His photographs have often been compared to the paintings of Dutch masters like Vermeer for capturing that atmospheric quality produced by natural light coming from one window in one room. “It’s an old, antique light, the kind you rarely see anymore,” he told the New York Times. They also contain a range of color, from rich velvets to brilliant gemstones, that make this amateur photographer’s mouth water.

Teunissen’s childhood has played a central role in his work. Growing up in the Netherlands, he lived in an old house much like the ones he now photographs, but when he was seven, it was demolished to make way for a new construction. Upon entering the new house for the first time, he was suddenly struck by its lack of magic, and as a photographer, he’s been chasing after that lost magic ever since.

But Teunissen insists that it’s not just nostalgia of his childhood home that he’s after. “It also became clear that this had to do with a way of living, a way of building, a way of using the house, that I understood was disappearing,” he told the Times. He estimates that 90 percent of the homes he photographed over the past ten years have now been demolished. Now his goal is to photograph as many of these interiors as possible before they disappear for good.

It’s easy to dismiss Teunissen as a hopeless Romantic, pining for a picturesque, if rudimentary, way of life that in reality is no longer practical and that the residents themselves are often eager to cast off. One might also peg him as just another backward-looking European, tilting at windmills in the futile fight against globalization. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized it’s not just that these interiors are aesthetically beautiful; their beauty is merely a by-product of a well-thought out design that works in harmony with its natural setting, instead of against it. It’s a form of “green living” that’s thoroughly modern.

Sitting in that Heidelberg bakery, I began to notice the brilliance of the blueprint: The overhead lights were kept off; the large east-facing windows provided full sun all morning long, the only time of day the store was open. Back at my hotel, the several-hundred-year-old Pension Jeske, I noticed how the thick stone floors and walls kept my room a pleasant 70 degrees, even though the mercury was pushing 100 outside. And of course that special quality of light was everywhere.

To me, these Old World houses are not only an aesthetic ideal but an ecological one, and I’m often frustrated by shoddy craftsmanship and poor design of modern American houses. Looking over my housing options in Alberta for next year has thrown me in the depths of despair: I see only institutional-looking high-rises and soulless suburban duplexes for rent. Having lived in hundred-year-old houses my entire life, I’m not sure how to find inspiration in these modern monstrosities. I have to stop myself from repeating that insufferable refrain: “Why can’t North America just be more like Europe?”

But of course, European homes are hundreds of years old – Würzburg celebrated its 1300th anniversary last year – so they were no more designed with this modern ideal in mind than North American homes were designed with an eye toward banality. I suspect that by inhabiting the same spaces for several centuries, Europeans have slowly refined a way of living both beautifully and sensibly. It’s like Darwin’s theory of evolution meets Better Homes and Gardens. I can only hope that in a few hundred years, we’ll get there, too, and then more American homes will be well-designed and will contain that special quality of light. In the meantime, I suppose I can always turn to Teunissen’s photographs when I need a little inspiration.

Check out Teunissen’s Web site to see his complete collection of photographs. And here are a few, much less beautiful, photographs of old European interiors that I’ve collected in the past few months:

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