The Problem of the House
The problem of the house is a problem of the epoch.
The equilibrium of society to-day depends upon it. Architecture has
for its first duty, in this period of renewal, that of bringing about
a revision of values, a revision of the constituent elements of the
Le Corbusier, Towards a New Architecture
When my older brother Greg and I were small--I had just started
school, which means Greg must have been in fourth grade--my father
introduced us to what he called a magic word. I remember
it distinctly because he actually knelt down and looked us in the eye
as he told us about it. My father was tall and thin, and his gray hair
coupled with the perfectly round lenses of his Corbu glasses left no
doubt that he was older than the fathers of my friends. I had never
seen him kneel before that, and I never saw him kneel again after it.
When he bent down to speak to us that day, I heard his knees creak and
pop and watched him sway a bit, and I realized for the first time that
there was a fragility to my father, that he was not, perhaps, physically
invincible. I suppose his kneeling even frightened me a bit.
After steadying himself, my father explained that there would be times
when, for our own safety, he would need both Greg and me to stop what
we were doing immediately, remain in place, and listen to him for instructions.
If we were in a crowd, for instance, and we became separated, my father
said he would loudly say this magic word and we should stay exactly
where we were until he could gather us together again. If we were becoming
too rowdy--a word he used often, to describe anything from
obnoxious children to poorly designed buildings--or were wandering toward
some unseen danger, he would say the word and then tell us to return
to him and we would be safe.
I told him I knew what the magic word should be. I said the magic word
should be freeze.
Im sure my father had a more original word in mind than freeze.
He was extremely intelligent, with a large vocabulary that he didnt
hesitate to use. He tried always to encourage us, however, and I remember
him looking at me and saying, Well, Sam, thats very practical
of you. Freeze is easy to say and easy to understand. I
think its a good idea: our magic word will be freeze.
And so it was.
My father used the magic word twice that day to make sure we understood--once
in the park and once in the grocery store. I remember that my brother
and I interpreted the command in its strictest sense--we didnt
just stop what we were doing, but actually froze like statues, our bowl
cuts falling perfectly in place as I rested my hand on a box of sugar
cereal and my brothers hand stayed twisted in my shirt, restraining
me from grabbing a treat he knew we werent allowed.
Very good, my father said. Thats exactly it.
Now leave the cereal and lets go--your mothers waiting.
After that first day, however, my fathers invocations of the magic
word were few and far between. He made his living as an architect, designing
buildings for a firm that spent the entirety of my youth attaching pristine,
green-belted office parks to the freeway that raced through the empty
brown plains outside of town. On the few occasions that I did
become separated from my family in a crowd, it was actually Greg who
managed to keep track of me. I can remember a specific trip to a Broncos
game in which I lost track of my father and brother in the sea of orange
shirts and jackets shuffling along the concourse in Mile High Stadium.
I couldnt see anything but swinging arms and scissoring legs that
forced me farther and farther off course, and I was about to panic and
yell when I felt a hand grab the collar of my jacket in a vise grip.
It was Greg, and he half-guided/half-dragged me back to my father in
time for him to look down from his inspection of the steel girders overhead
and say, Looks like they made a real rats nest of the upper-deck
support here, boys. You couldnt make it rowdier with your eyes
That kind of distraction on my fathers part wasnt an isolated
incident. He was fascinated by what he did for a living, and maintained
an admiration for Le Corbusier that bordered on the unnatural. We lived
in one of those suburban housing developments in which, save for minor
cosmetic concerns or differences in fixtures, each house was the same.
Yet my father would often wander slowly through the rooms as if he had
never been there before, examining doors or pieces of furniture or even
our left-behind shoes on the floor.
Dad, what are you doing? Greg asked him once. Youre
freaking me out.
Im thinking about the problem of the house, my father
Greg and I fell silent. I wondered which of us was the problem.
Im thinking about how our windows work, my father
said. Do you like the television in front of the window there?
Wouldnt it be better in the other corner?
The power cord for the Atari doesnt reach from the other
corner, Greg said.
Why do we have these folding doors on this room? This is a public
space, my father continued, Shouldnt we just leave
this doorway open?
I want those doors there! my mother called from somewhere
down the hall. She was frighteningly adept at monitoring conversations
taking place in other rooms. The video game noise gives me a headache!
My father thought for a moment. We should establish standards,
he said, and then he wandered off to inspect other rooms. He was given
to non sequiturs like that, especially on occasions when it was
clear his mind was far more occupied with theories of architecture and
design than with making conversation about Space Invaders.
The magic word lay fallow for years, unused. I didnt forget about
it, though, and Greg didnt, either. It was frozen within us, waiting.
When I was in seventh grade I began to study French. This excited my
father greatly--he felt it would be a wonderful exercise for me to begin
reading Le Corbusier in its original form, so he ordered me a French
copy of Towards a New Architecture. My father assured me that
it was written in very simple, straightforward language, and I would
have no problem with it. The day it arrived in the mail he eagerly opened
the box and handed the book to me, asking me to read some of it out
I took one look at it and told him no way.
Three months later, however, I managed to write out a translation of
one of the simpler sections:
0000Mass production is based on analysis
0000Industry on the grand scale must occupy
itself with building and establish
0000the elements of the house on a mass-production
0000We must create the mass-production
0000The spirit of constructing mass-production
0000The spirit of living in mass-production
0000The spirit of conceiving mass-production
I brought my translation to my father. He spent most of his evenings
perched in front of an immense white drafting board in his small study,
painstakingly designing increasingly large office buildings and their
attendant parking structures. He took a look at my translation and proudly
told me it was perfect. I remember asking him why, if he liked this
stuff and it was all about houses, my father didnt design houses
instead of office buildings.
Thats a good question, he said. And a fair one.
I think, Sam, that the reason might be that Im attracted to the
cut-and-dried utility of commercial projects. He went on to discuss
the concept of blank slates versus found or impacted environments, the
problematic multiplication of vision in serially owned structures, and
other things that I had absolutely no understanding of and which, quite
frankly, bored me. It wouldnt be until years after his death that
my mother would explain to me that my fathers flights into architectural
theory were usually nothing more than his method of avoiding answering
Though I decided I wouldnt show my father any more translations,
I continued reading the Le Corbusier book. If we eliminate
from our hearts and minds all dead concepts in regard to the houses
and look at the question from a critical and objective point of view,
Le Corbusier wrote, we shall arrive at the House-Machine,
the mass-production house, healthy (and morally so too) and beautiful
in the same way that the working tools and instruments which accompany
our existence are beautiful. There was an earnestness to Le
Corbusiers pursuit of perfection that I found appealing, and I
started carrying the book around in my backpack with me, opening it
to random pages whenever I had some time to kill, which was fairly often
in those days of confusing, rapidly-changing junior-high cliques and
fads. It seemed that Greg was similarly ill at ease with the high school
social scene, and I often reminded myself that whatever happened in
the halls at school, I would have Greg to talk to and hang out with
at home, to throw darts and drink Pepsi with, to play ping-pong or Pac-Man
Around the same time that I was studying French and reading Le Corbusier,
however, Greg began to change. All teenagers go through difficulties--and
if Greg was anything then, he was a teenager, with the acne and breaking
voice to prove it--but Gregs difficulties seemed more dramatic.
He was angry, really--far angrier than any of the other kids
I knew, so angry that I think even my parents were a bit scared of him.
He withdrew almost completely from our family life, no longer going
on errands with us, refusing to attend any of my seventh-grade basketball
games (for which I can hardly blame him--I was allowed to play only
during meaningless final minutes of blowouts), often disappearing for
hours at a time. When he was home, he was in his locked room, unresponsive
to all but the most urgent and authoritative knocks. He let his hair
get long and curly on top, and then one day he came home with it dyed
black and straightened so that it hung in his face. I knew things between
us had seriously changed for the worse when I found his room empty one
day and wandered in to look at his music collection, mostly a bunch
of tapes by The Smiths and The Cure and New Order and The Dead Kennedys.
When he returned and found me looking at his stuff, his face got bright
red and he pinned me to the floor, punching me over and over again on
the arm while spitting out a demand that I tell him exactly what Id
looked at while he was gone. After he was satisfied that Id seen
nothing more than a few tapes with unusual cover art, he let me go.
I quit the basketball team rather than let anyone see the resulting
massive blue-and-purple bruise on my shoulder, and though Greg apologized
a few days later, I started keeping my distance.
The next fall, on one of the few family outings Greg joined during those
years, my father finally used the magic word again. After a picnic lunch
of ham sandwiches, potato chips, pickles, and soda, the four of us set
out on a hike. As usual, Greg stayed apart from us, clomping ahead in
his long jeans and black boots and moving out of sight on the thin dry
path that wound steeply up the side of the hill.
Someones definitely in a hurry, my mom said.
God forbid he actually talk to us, my father added, and
I felt proud to be by their side, the good son that walked and talked
with them and wasnt angry at the world.
After a short period of hiking, we moved around a twist in the trail
and started up a long rise when we saw Greg about fifty yards ahead,
heading back down toward us. Thats it, he yelled.
You already got to the lake? my father asked. It was a dumb
question, because the lake was still fifteen minutes away.
Im not going, Greg called. This is boring and
stupid. I twisted my ankle.
Itll be worth it, my father said. Stay with
Did you not hear what I said? I fucking twisted my ankle!
Greg yelled. It was the equivalent of a slap in the face--nobody in
our family cursed, and Id never heard anyone, anywhere, speak
to my father that way.
Greg! my father yelled. Freeze!
Im not fucking freezing! Greg yelled back. He was
stomping toward us, only about twenty yards away.
Goddammit Gregory freeze right now! my father yelled--my
fathers curse was another first, and enough of a shock to stop
Greg in his tracks.
It was then that I saw something wavering at the edge of the shadows
on the path in front of Greg. At first I thought it was either a stick
or a piece of trash tumbling in the breeze. Then I realized it was a
Though our science teachers dutifully informed us every year that there
were rattlesnakes in Colorado, the only place Id ever seen one
had been safely behind glass at the zoo. This one lay in the path, separating
my brother from the rest of us. The snake displayed none of the threatening
behaviors favored by movie and nightmare snakes--it didnt rear
up like a cobra, didnt bare its fangs, didnt slither rapidly
toward its victim. It just lay there, piled in a flaccid coil. It rattled
its tail nervously.
Greg stared at the snake. Even from a distance, I could see his hands
Dont move, my father said.
Do something! my mother whispered, but Im not sure
who she was talking to--my father, Greg, or the snake.
Dont move, Greg, my father repeated. Just stay
I want to run, Greg said.
Dont run, my father said. Just wait.
The snake sat there. It was probably three feet from Gregs ankle.
It rattled again.
Very slowly, Greg, just step back, my father said. Slowly.
Greg lifted one foot and moved it slowly backward, keeping his eyes
on the snake. He shifted his weight to the back foot and half turned,
The strike was so quick that I didnt see it. I saw a puff of dust
and heard both Greg and my mother scream and then I saw Greg lift his
foot and the snake was hanging from his boot. My father ran toward him
and Greg kicked his foot but the snakes fangs were caught and
it writhed in the air and whipped its bottom half in the dust and my
mother screamed again. Then the snake fell and by the time my father
got to Greg the snake was gone off the side of the path, and as my father
leaned over to grab Gregs foot, Greg hit him with an open hand
behind his ear and knocked him down, sending his glasses flying into
the dirt. Greg tore his boot right off his foot without even unlacing
it and threw it away from him and started yelling, Motherfucker
motherfucker! over and over. My mother got to him and grabbed
him and he fell, pulling her down on top of him, but she got to her
knees and grabbed his foot and pulled off his sock and started looking
at his foot and ankle. I ran to them and didnt even realize I
had Gregs boot until my father ripped it out of my hand and looked
first at the outside of it and then at the inside and then said, No
it didnt, NO IT DIDNT!
What?! my mother screamed. There was dirt in her long brown
hair and her flushed cheeks were wet with tears.
It didnt go through the boot, the bite didnt go through
the leather, my father said. My mother turned back to Gregs
foot and started kneading the skin with her thumbs, working them across
the surface of his skin. She and Greg spent five frantic seconds examining
every inch of his foot and ankle until they were sure my father was
right, and then my mother hugged Greg while he cried, and the crying
turned to sobbing, and my mother sat there in the dirt with him, holding
him while he sobbed, while my father held his broken glasses in one
hand and Gregs boot in the other and I stood there shaking and
wanting to throw up.
That was it for the magic word.
Unfortunately, that wasnt it for Gregs problems. The snake
may have failed to poison Greg, but something about the event remained
unsettling. I dont know if Greg blamed my father for making him
stand still when hed wanted to run, or if my father felt that
Greg would have avoided trouble if hed simply stayed with us,
but the snakes strike was never really brought up again after
that day. The fact that it wasnt spoken of injected an odd silence
into our home, as if we had all decided it would be best not to risk
too much conversation, lest some taboo subject arise. So we all went
about our business, negotiating that silence as if it were simply an
unnecessary wall or dead-end hall built into the house, an inconvenience
we avoided or stepped around because to do so was far easier than undertaking
a serious remodeling project.
Then my Le Corbusier book disappeared. Because I carried it with me
so often, there were any number of possible places I could have left
it, but I felt fairly certain that it had been taken from my room. I
remember going to talk to my mother about it and finding her in the
kitchen, her hair pulled back into a ponytail to keep it out of her
face while she chopped vegetables for soup. She was an excellent cook,
and I watched her work for a bit, mesmerized by the confidence of her
movements with the knife as she took only a minute to reduce two tomatoes
and an onion to bits. She began chopping a red bell pepper next, the
blade striking the cutting board over and over again with the same rapid,
precise rhythm that never ceased to amaze me, no matter how many times
Id seen her do it before. Before I could mention my stolen book,
though, she stopped chopping, and frowned at the cutting board. Thats
funny, she said.
What? I asked.
I just sliced a tiny bit off the tip of my finger, she said.
But I dont feel a thing.
Sure enough, a small moon-shaped crimson stain was spreading from where
my mothers middle finger rested on the yellowed wooden cutting
board, and a thin white piece of neatly sliced flesh lay next to the
last bit of red pepper. I ran to get her a bandage, then cleaned the
board and finished chopping the pepper myself. I didnt mention
my missing book.
Steeling myself, I followed Greg into his room a few days later and
asked him about it directly. Oh, is this the book you mean?
he responded, pulling my book out from under a stack of music magazines
he kept by his bed. This little French faggot architecture book?
Yes, I said.
Whats the deal with this book? he asked. Why
do you carry this thing around with you everywhere? Trying to rack up
brownie points with the old man?
Whats this say? he asked, opening the book to one
of the pages Id marked and holding it up toward me.
Everybody dreams of sheltering himself in a sure and permanent
home of his own, I read. This dream, because it is
impossible in the existing state of things, is incapable of realization
and provokes an actual state of sentimental hysteria.
Well arent you a little prodigy, he said. Then he
tore out the page Id been reading, crumpled it into a ball, and
threw it toward the trashcan in the corner of his room. Whats
this one say? he asked, indicating the next page.
We are dealing with an urgent problem of our epoch,
I read. No, with the problem of our epoch.
He tore that page out, too, crumpled it, and threw it where hed
thrown the first one. This one, he demanded, holding up
the next page. What does that say?
I felt strangely serene. It says, Architecture or Revolution,
I told him.
He tore it out. Then, with deliberate concentration, he tore the book
in half down the spine. This family, he said, has
problems. All of you, you all have serious problems. He picked
up the halves and tore each of them again down the spine. Im
doing this for your own good, Sam. Im trying to help you.
I said nothing while he continued destroying the book, tearing out chunks
of pages and tossing them toward his trashcan. He continued until he
had dismantled the entire book, then looked at me and said, How
do you feel?
Why did you do that? I asked.
He shrugged. Because Im not like you, he said. Im
not like this family, and I think that book is a bunch of bullshit and
I hate that you carry it around like its your fucking bible.
So whatre you like? I asked.
Do me a favor, Sam, he said. Dont ever come
back in my room again. Youre a kiss-ass piece of shit and I dont
want you to bother me any more.
There is something powerful about the idea of preserving a union, I
think, and I believe it was that power and that power alone--the desire
to preserve our family with all of its members intact, regardless of
what that required--that sustained Gregs continued presence in
our home over the next year. He never apologized about destroying my
book or even mentioned it again. I would be lying to say that he and
I didnt have any fairly normal interactions after that--we played
darts a few more times, and even played a few video games until the
Atari finally broke for good and my father threw it away. But Greg was
absent more and more often, as well. He had a drivers license,
an after-school job at a music store downtown, and a rusted Chevelle,
and it wasnt odd for him to go out on any night of the week and
not come home until some time the next day. I know my parents tried
to confront him about his behavior, and Im pretty sure they even
tried seeing a counselor with him--they didnt necessarily hide
the visits, but neither did they invite or inform me--but nothing really
And then one Monday during Gregs senior year of high school he
left for school and didnt come back for four days.
Those were probably the four worst days of my life. My parents called
the music store, but he hadnt shown up for his shift. They called
his friends and his friends parents, but none of them had seen
him. They called everyone they could think to call, and then they called
the police, but still: no Greg. People assured us they would keep their
eyes peeled. Two police officers, an older man and a young woman, came
to our house and asked a lot of questions, mostly of my parents, and
mostly behind the closed folding doors of the family room while I waited
upstairs. The only thing I heard was my mother raise her voice once,
upset about something having to do with Gregs age, telling the
officers, Well I couldnt very well keep him from turning
eighteen, could I? Unless you know how to make time stop, and if you
do, please let me know. My father called me down a little while
later, and the female officer, in a kind tone and with her head at a
solicitous angle, asked, Is there anything your brother ever told
you that he asked you to keep secret? About people he knew or places
he went or things he did? Did he share anything with you that might
help us find him? An acute wave of embarrassment washed over me--not
because I had deep dark secrets to share about Greg, but because I didnt
have any. Greg hadnt ever shared any secrets with me. I remember
sitting silently in front of the police officers and feeling like a
failure, like I wasnt really Gregs brother at all.
I went to school on those four days and my parents went to work and
we came home and had dinner together. After dinner, I did my homework.
We acted as if they were normal evenings. The silence in our house was
massive and terrifying, broken only by my father stiffly climbing the
stairs at the end of each evening to tell me he and my mother were going
to bed, and that they loved me and hoped I knew that. I told him I did.
When I came home from school Friday afternoon, my brother was in his
room, frantically shoving clothes from his dresser into black garbage
bags. I almost didnt recognize him at first, because hed
cut his black hair down to short stubble that was dyed blonde, and he
was wearing jeans and a white T-shirt.
Greg, I said stupidly. You cut your hair.
Yeah, thanks for letting me know, he said. Now could
you leave me alone?
Where have you been? I asked.
I dont have time right now, Sam, he said. Im
out of here. For good.
What do you mean? What about Mom and Dad?
What the fuck about Mom and Dad? he said. Do you think
they fucking care?
Yes, I said.
Here, he said, throwing a book toward me. I picked it up
off the floor--it was an English version of Towards a New Architecture.
Im replacing your book, he said. I turned to the title
page, and there over the title was a stamp informing me that the book
belonged to my father.
This is Dads, I said.
Its the thought that counts, Greg said, still packing.
Where are you going? I asked.
Dont worry, he said. Ill be fine.
But where are you going?
Sam! he yelled loud enough that I flinched. Then, almost
apologetically, he explained, Im in kind of a hurry here.
Okay? He didnt say anything more to me, and I stood there
and watched him fill up his trash bags and then followed him as he carried
them downstairs and out the front door. I ran back up to his room and
frantically looked for something I could grab that he couldnt
Sam! he called from downstairs. Sam, Im leaving.
I didnt respond, because I was too focused on manically pulling
random old games and notebooks and clothes out of Gregs closet,
certain that I would find one perfect item that he couldnt do
without. Sam! he called again, and then I heard the front
door open and close. I kept pulling stuff out of his closet--torn magazines,
faded concert T-shirts, stacks of weird fantasy role-playing cards,
everything--and throwing it across his room. I wasnt even looking
for anything specific anymore, really. I was just throwing his things,
hard, against the band posters on the wall across the room, and I was
crying, and repeating, Fuck you, fuck you, fuck you! over
and over. And then I realized that I was tearing up my fathers
copy of Towards a New Architecture, but I couldnt stop
myself, and I probably would have kept tearing it until it was only
little shredded bits if I hadnt heard my fathers voice somewhere
outside the house.
When I ran out the front door and down the steps, my father was standing
in the middle of our front lawn with his briefcase in his hand. Greg
was on the sidewalk by his car, probably twenty feet away.
So I guess thats just the way it goes, Greg was saying
to my father.
It doesnt have to be, Greg, my father said.
But its the way I want it to be, Dad! my brother responded.
This is the fucking way I want it to be! You think something horribles
going to happen? Its not! I dont need this shit anymore!
My father didnt say anything for a moment. When he did speak,
what he said still, to this day, surprises me. He said, Youll
need to call your mother.
I know, Greg said. Then he walked around the back of his
car and opened the drivers door.
I looked at my father, watching him watch Greg. I felt that all my father
had to do was say something, that he had the power to keep Greg from
leaving, if only he would say the right words. But he didnt say
anything at all. He just stood there, briefcase in hand, and watched
as Greg climbed into his car, slammed the door, and started the engine.
We both watched Greg drive down the street, and after his car disappeared
around the corner, my father turned and walked right past me. Without
saying a thing, he climbed our front steps, went into our house, and
closed the door.
I sat on the front lawn for a long time. At first I stared at the point
down the street where Id last seen Gregs car. Then I stared
at the spot along the curb where his car had been parked, the place
on the sidewalk where hed stood and told my father he was leaving.
But finally I just stared at the lawn--the grass I was sitting on, the
blades beneath my fingers--and I started pulling it out. I grabbed the
grass tight in my fists and pulled, tossing the clumps away from me,
where they fell in a little brown heap. I stopped only after I realized
Id completely destroyed a whole patch of grass, and the cold bare
ground was showing through.
When I stood up and turned to go back inside the house, the color seemed
off--our house was green, but in the winter light it looked gray. There
seemed to be more steps up to the porch than I remembered, and I didnt
remember the lattices as having been there before. The whole house seemed
too far forward, as if it had slid a few feet toward the street. It
looked structurally sound, but it didnt look like my house, and
I realized that I couldnt picture the man that had just walked
into it as being my father.
My mother drove up then. She smiled and waved to me as she pulled into
the driveway. I couldnt remember her ever waving to me that way
before. It was a forced, self-conscious wave, and both of us knew it.
But there was a pleading in her expression, as if she were asking me
to forgive her for the fraudulence of the gesture even as she made it.
And I did. I waved right back. And I knew that after she parked the
car in the garage and got out, she would go into the house, and I would
follow her in. I had nowhere else to go. And although our houses
floor plan must have been exactly the same as that of at least twenty
other houses in the neighborhood, I knew our house was the only one
I could walk through safely with my eyes closed if I wanted, because
our house was the only one in which I knew where everything was.