Gargoyle 2cover woodcut (Climbing to the Sun) by Carl Wilfandpublication date 9/3/1976
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 annualclots. At one of the gatherings, in 1969, I fell in with an ancient man namedHans. I felt apart as usual, not speaking German, and we spent some timetalking. Hans was building a house, it seems, and had been since 1948. Ithought he was an interesting case, as people go, but when you are an architecturestudent you develop a rather perverse sense of professionalism and I recallsaying to myself at the end of the day, “What an earth could that oldhoodlum know about architecture?”
By 1974 I had separated, grown up a bit more and felt like I might beready 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 andfoot, to his hermitage in rural New Jersey. His story is an interestingone, 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 familywas huge and his father was a despot. In the ‘teens there was no food inGermany and his siblings were dropping like flies from consumption. Thejoy 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 1928Hans borrowed $112 to come to America and be rid of depressions. He washeddishes and stole food in New York City instead–until 1934 when he simultaneouslybecame a citizen and got a job–upholstering. He was drafted in 1935 andspent theduration questioning German prisoners of war (and detained American Germans)in a Texas POW camp. It was never quite clear whether Hans was a prisoner toobut 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 oneday 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 sitethe day after and lived in a tent for the next four years until the first habitableportion of the house was finished.
The following concerns a certain section of the house and is taken froma four-hour tape-recorded interview with Hans, taken in the Spring of 1974.
“Why did you decide to build the Tower?
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-foot2″X 3″–
Right; it’s not curved block.
Exactly. With a twelve-foot diameter it disappears, see. And this is thenicety of–
No, I’m curious about this because Jung, you know, the psychiatrist, builthimself 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 muchstrength anymore, but would love to build–
Yes, and to make it the real entrance to the house, right? (pause) Andalways my house is filled with Mozart, right?”
Since that conversation I’ve wondered about Towers probably more thanwas really good for me and I’ve found out some interesting things. Jungsays, in his autobiography:
“Gradually I was able to put my fantasies and the contents ofmy unconscious on a solid footing. Words and paper, however, did notseem really enough; something more was needed. I had to achieve a kindof representation of my innermost thoughts and of the knowledge I hadacquired. Or, to put it another way, I had to make a confession of faithin stone. That was the beginning of the Tower, the house which I builtfor myself at Bolligen . . . The feeling of repose and renewal that Ihad in this Tower was intense from the start. It represented for me thematernal hearth. . . There I live in my second personality and see lifein 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” andexplication of the “collective unconscious,” a vast sea of archetypes:symbols, images, ideas, talismans that we all share in–whether we likeit or not. Another “discoverer” of the collective unconsciouswas William Butler Yeats, who says in his autobiography:
“Seeing that a vision could divide itself in divers complementaryportions, might not the thought of philosopher or poet or mathematiciandepend at every moment of its progress upon some complementary thoughtin minds perhaps at a great distance? Is there nation-wide multiform reverie,every mind passing through a stream of suggestion, and all streams actingand reacting upon one another no matter how distant the minds, how dumbthe lips?”
Yeats, guess what, was also powerfully interested in Towers. He purchaseda ruined tower called “Thoor” at Ballylee, in Ireland, for thirty-fivepounds 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 Inspectorfor the “Congested Districts Board” said that its value as aresidence was “sentimental and therefore problematical.” Ah,things change so little! Yeats took an American lecture tour in 1920 toraise money for the renovation.
What didthe Tower mean for Yeats? The tie of the collective unconscious might leada capricious mind to think of antennae, but Yeats also says:
“From the moment when these speculations (above paragraph) becamevivid, I had created for myself an intellectual solitude; most argumentsthat could influence action had lost something of their meaning. Howcould I judge any scheme of education, or of social reform, when I couldnot measure what the different classes had contributed to that invisiblecommerce of reverie and of sleep; and what is luxury and what necessitywhen a fragment of a gold braid, or a flower in the wallpaper may bean originating impulse to revolution or to philosophy? I began to feelmyself not only solitary but helpless.”
Yeats was a lonely child and although solitude pained him he was usedto it. Certainly it was essential for writing poems. In fact, he was aterrible student because as a lonely child he developed a rich imaginationthat forever prevented him from clearing his head enough to concentrateon 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 certainlypart of it. Another part is buried in the third paragraph of his autobiography:Yeats recalls a melancholy memory, that of “sitting on the groundlooking 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 beforeI am finished with it.”
There is a certain obviousness to that. In a more general way a toweris certainly a redoubt as the towers of Bologna and San Gimignano testifyto. It is an eminently defensible form. I think that is at least partlybehind 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’vehad 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 Warshot towers, silos, smokestacks, etc. They have to be habitable. Also,a Tower cannot be a nuclear power station cooling tower or a high-risesince 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. Theexamples shown are all “attached” but the Tower clearly dominatesin all cases. Nineteenth century “Italianate” domestic architectureoften featured corner towers but they were seldom much higher than therest of the house. H. H. Richardson tended to roundness in his houses butthe forms never quite became Towers, independent of the fabric of the wall.Besides, they were fat, just like he was. Carcassone is a veritable penitentiaryof 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) thingscan be. Yeats remarks “I was always discovering places where I wouldlike to spend my whole life.”
The Tower proved quite useful in Yeats’ poetry. It is, for instance, thepursuit 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 inBecause, it may be, of the candle light . . .An image of mysterious wisdom won by toil;And now he seeks in book or manuscriptWhat he shall never find.”
Yeats also knew, through his critical faculties (which were immense) thatTowers had figured prominently in the minds of other poets, other thinkers,and he specifically mentions Milton, Shelley, Count Villiers de I’IsleAdam, 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 Ballyleeand wrote to a friend that she thought it “the most beautiful placein the would. ” That fall she found a house where Yeats had brieflylived near Primrose Hill in London. She was, in fact, house-hunting. Shewas the first to apply and signed a five-year lease for much more thanshe could afford, elated not just because she had found a flat, but becausethe place and its associations seemed preordained.
By the time Yeats won the Nobel Prize he had used the Tower as a symbolfor himself, conquering the trauma of the mastless toy- boat;
“I declare this tower is my symbol; I declareThis winding, gyring, spiring treadmill of a stair is my ancestral stair .. .”
Which brings up a fascinating sidelight. The series of poems that follow “TheTower” series is called “The Winding Stair” and consistsof poems about women. The winding stair is clearly the other side of thecoin. In Thoor, the winding stair is inside the Tower, as at Bollingen:
“Now that we’re almost settled in our houseI’ll name the friends that cannot sup with usBeside a fire of turf in the ancient tower,And having talked to some late hourClimb up the narrow winding stair to bed. . . “
Both Yeats and Jung were happily married men. Hans’ winding stair curvesup around the outside.
There are, I think, many kinds of research and some produce results ofgreater accuracy than others. Accuracy is very important, especially instrengths of materials and so forth. But it is also the case that the moreprecise one’s tools become the less versatile they are and there are somethings in life–and in architecture–that are no less valuable becausethey are vague. I also believe that whatever one man has felt keenly, allmen must feel, just a little, and having a Tower here and there in oursubdivisions (to rent by the hour?) strikes me as hedging the bet.
A safer conclusion is that the humanities, whether manifested as a realhuman (Hans) or a dead poet or psychiatrist, harbor useful things for architectsto speculate about.
Yeats’ autobiography is not self-effacing: “I think the man of lettershas powers of make-believe denied to . . . the architect.”