Carol A. Wilson’s Spartan Approach to Heightening Experience

On the website of her eponymous firm, Carol A. Wilson Architect, Carol Wilson quotes T.S. Eliot: “It is not necessarily those lands which are the most fertile or most favored in climate that seem to me the happiest, but those in which a long struggle of adaptation between man and his environment has brought out the best qualities of both.” The line comes from a series of lectures given by Eliot at the University of Virginia in 1933. Like Wilson’s work, as represented in her new book, Northern Exposure: Works of Carol A. Wilson Architect (Princeton Architectural Press), Eliot’s statement gestures toward a definition of art in which creation derives from the subtle symbiosis between people and their surrounding worlds. Read on for an excerpt from her interview with MH+D Inside Out.

Q. What’s something that’s specific to designing in Maine?

A. Maine is wonderful because it’s easy. We’re at a latitude of 44 degrees north. In the summer, we get long 18-hour days, then, in the wintertime, the sun only rises to an angle of 23 degrees and we have less than 9 hours of daylight. It’s a very simple determinate of where you want a house to face, especially if you’re doing houses like ours that often have a glass façade.

Q. How do you help your clients envision their home?

A. We have a reputation for beautiful detailing—I used to be a woodworker. We make lots of drawings, including perspectives and interior drawings. We have never done a project where we did not build several models. Models are one of our most important tools. Once we show the model to the client, they’ll fall in love with it, especially if we’ve listened to their needs and desires. We spend a lot of time making sure our clients understand what they are getting.

Q. How would you describe your aesthetic?

A. My aesthetic is pretty spare, oftentimes too spare for my clients at first. But I tell them if I give you this totally clean space, by the time you move in with your art and your books and your collections, it will be full. By the time the client has moved in, it’s full and rich. If architects are adding many decorative elements and ornament, by the time the clients move in, then it is, or can be in my opinion, chaotic.

Q. Designing a home is often about creating this haven outside of the social realm. What else do you think is important?

A. That’s the number one purpose—habitation and enclosure. It’s also about having something at your back. It’s an animal instinct, people want to see and observe what’s there, the idea of prospect, but the house has their back. In a house we designed on Chebeague Island, the north side is only punctuated with a back door and two dormers. Scientists have studied where people choose to sit in parks. People never sit on the benches out in the open. Rather, people gravitate to benches where there’s something to their back. I love the human psychology of what makes people comfortable. We still experience those animal instincts.

Q. In your book, you say that architecture is an “intervention.” What do you mean by that?

I don’t believe we create anything. We’re designing, and maybe we’re reinventing, but we’re not creating anything new. Architecture is always an intervention because something existed before in that spot, and you are inserting something. Your work can have a huge impact, or it can have little impact. It could heighten the experience, like the Environmental Education Center we designed at Maine Audubon, where we heightened the interior experience with a panoramic view of the orchard and terrace. Note, a turkey at the door of this building sees itself in the glass wall. It thinks the turkey it sees is another bird and stalks it.

Q. What purpose do you see in your work?

A. My own entertainment. No, really, if we’re going to be building, we better be doing it well. We need to be building for the future, and a beautiful building is a sustainable building.

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