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Susan Orlean

The author and New Yorker writer details her love of architecture and a youth spent pining for a house with nooks and crannies

"I only lived in two houses growing up and they weren’t very far apart. The first one I lived until I was in fifth grade, and it was a house that my father, who was a real estate developer, built. It had a very particular meaning for us kids. It was a classic 1950s suburban house that I can picture very vividly—I remember, it had a funny little built-in bookshelf/ room-divider thing. We loved it, but it was a small house so we moved a mile away to the next suburb over, into a considerably bigger, more upscale house. It was, again, very conventional in many ways: a center-hall Colonial probably built in the ‘60s, at a time when big, open rooms were the style—there were no quirky nooks. My parents were of a generation where they couldn’t wait to have a new house. They didn’t think there was anything cool or charming about an oddball house with eaves and crannies so we had a very straightforward, solid upper-middle class house with nothing that let your imagination run wild.

I always dreamed of a house with odd eccentric passages. I remember when my husband and I were building our house in upstate New York. My stepson kept saying, "You have to put in a secret room!," like a fantasy out of The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe where there’s a secret portal.

I've become a maniac about architecture. We bought land upstate in 2000 after looking for quite awhile. The nature of rural property is that it’s a great property with an awful house, or a great house with a terrible location, next to a road. We were seized with the idea that we’d buy land and build. We didn’t buy a traditional farmhouse, but we’d thought we’d build an old-looking farmhouse to be a part of the indigenous vernacular architecture. But then a friend of mine asked, Why wouldn’t you build something contemporary and be a little adventurous? After a couple of false starts we ended up with an architect whom we just loved—James Cutler of Cutler-Anderson Architects who made a house that blends into the landscape.

It has a lot of indoor and outdoor space and is influenced by Japanese design, which goes back to the idea of open space from my childhood home, yet totally different. There aren’t secret rooms, but it’s an individual house that is very much built to respond to the landscape. There are a bunch of old stone walls from the 1800s all over the property, and a lot of stone inside the house. One issue about building in the country is whether you want to have it sticking up and wrecking everyone’s view. But you really can’t see ours from the road or any other house, so in a sense the whole house is a secret.

These days, I mostly live in Los Angeles—and on the West Coast, there’s a lot more experimentation. We have a Rudolph Schindler house [Ed. note: the Roth House, built in 1946]. Our house in New York and our house in California reference each other in terms of space, and angles, and a non-traditional entry. Our house in Studio City is small but the outside counts as another room.

Both my husband and I love architecture. When we were looking at houses, we saw so many that are overbuilt, giant, built to the very limit of the property—almost grotesque in their size and teetering on retaining walls. They really turn me off. We walked into this house, and it was fascinating. Schindler really adapted it to the site. There’s nothing about it that’s the typical LA "look at me"; it’s a pretty quiet little house. Like living inside of sculpture.

I’ve always collected lots of odds and ends and oddball things—like a collection of birdhouses. In traveling for work, I’ve found so many interesting objects that remind me of these narratives in my life as a writer. I have a donkey saddle in our living room that I got when I was doing a story in Morocco. It instantly reconnects me to that experience, and the people I met on that journey."

For Home Sweet Home, Curbed talked to 30 engaging personalities across a range of industries to learn about where they grew up and what home means to them. Follow Susan Orlean on Twitter.

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