Architecture as a Reflection of Human Potential

I grew up in an old house in Simsbury, Connecticut during the 1950’s and 60’s. The land in our town was made up primarily of rich alluvial soils that were used for growing shade tobacco to make cigars. When the tobacco was picked in August, it was dried for several weeks in long tobacco barns that dotted the landscape of our community. Local kids, like me, were hired as cheap labor to do menial tasks like opening up barns.

Connecticut tobacco barns in winter

I would walk out to the tobacco barns, about half a mile from our house. Most tobacco barns are built on a north-south axis, broadside to the early morning sun rising in the east. They have no windows, just large pairs of doors at each end wide enough to drive a tractor through. I would unlatch the big entry doors on the southern end, swing them 180 degrees back against the wall, and lock them into place with a metal hook. Then I would stand in the doorway and look into the barn. It was absolutely dark, an abyss of nothingness. Scary. I would take one large step into the gloom, turn right, and stride eight paces forward. Reach down near my ankles to find a metal latch attached to the vertical siding of the barn, open the latch without being able to see it, and then swing the board into the open position and lock it in place. The morning sun would slice through the opening, across the dirt floor, in a brilliant stripe of light. I could now see the space around me. The task of working my way along the east side of the barn, opening every other vertical board, became rhythmic, taking one pace forward and bending down to open the next latch, over and over again. Most barns have several hundred vertical siding boards mounted on hinges. As I progressed along the side of the barn opening the slats, the pattern of lightness and darkness caused by the sunlight hitting the floor moved along with me. The pattern was exquisite, and enhanced by the sun heating the moisture in the dirt floor, causing steam to rise from the ground. When I finally reached the far end, I would open the large doors and proceed to work my way back along the west side of the building, opening every other vertical board until I returned to where I had started.

Connecticut tobacco barn interior

The 14 feet by 14 feet darkened doorway had become a great portal, framing a rhythmic sequence of alternating lightness and darkness, drawing my eye down the center aisle of the barn. The aisle felt important. It was processional, defined by the perspective of the columns on the left and right, leading to the altar of the fields and sky in the distance. The enclosure of the structure punctuated the vastness of what lay beyond. The stillness of the barn floor offered a visually profound contrast to the movement of the steam rising from the floor. The manipulated, square opening of the door at the other end of the building stood in stark contrast to the natural forms of the trees and clouds. The space was even alive acoustically with the pattern of the barn siding creating an undulating sound and silence of the wind and tractors and voices outside in the fields. This was my cathedral.

Years passed and I became an architect. After decades of studying and practicing architecture, I found myself most awed by buildings like Ronchamps, designed by Le Corbusier, the Guggenheim Museum in New York by Frank Lloyd Wright, and Bilbao by Frank Gehry. Each inspires without conforming to any historical style. The simple but powerful contrasts in a tobacco barn that touched a chord in me as a child are the same building blocks of beauty through which these more sophisticated buildings communicate: enclosure and vastness, stillness and movement, sound and silence, lightness and darkness, natural and manipulated form, perspective, axis, texture, color, scale… these are the elements of a building that touch our innate aesthetic senses, and speak to the human soul.

A few weeks ago, driving through Simsbury, I saw the barns. I stopped the car. Times had changed. No longer in use, the barns had begun to deteriorate badly. The rural town of my youth had urbanized, changing from a farming community to a banking and insurance industry hub. Traffic lights peppered once peaceful, unconstrained roadways. Housing and businesses blanketed former farms and forests. The barns and the world around them had morphed, as had I, now quite a bit older, larger, and (hopefully) wiser. I walked to the most easily accessible structure through the dense weeds that had burgeoned around them. The doors and side slats lay wide open, apparently abandoned at the end of a drying season with no one caring about ever securing them again. I stepped inside. The long, cadenced pattern of alternating bands of light and shadow greeted my eyes instantly. Unruly shafts of sunlight intruding through gaping holes in the roof couldn’t obscure the rhythm; it still moved me, along with the rising steam, the rows of columns, the distant horizon visible through the far door. The tobacco barn was still my cathedral.  

Whoever designed the tobacco barns certainly would have adhered to the architectural principle of “form follows function,” giving a low priority to the barns’ aesthetic qualities in favor of utilitarian considerations. However, both missions coincided serendipitously. Many factory buildings and agricultural structures demonstrate the same – often unintentional but nevertheless happy – marriage of form and function, and as a result manage to embark on new lives after their industrial or farming activities have become obsolete. The main barn at Listening Rock Farm enjoyed just such a rebirth. Ideally, architects should always focus on both needs to the same degree. Beauty should not be sacrificed for practicality, and practicality should not be sacrificed for beauty.

Listening Rock Farm renovated barn

The house on Oak Hill Road won’t look like a Connecticut tobacco barn, but I hope it will speak to people in the same way that the tobacco barns spoke to me. The adventure will unfold this year. We will share monthly construction photos. By next summer – bonfire time – you can judge if the house in Livingston has reached its potential.