Growing Up in a Glass House: What Is it Like to Be the Daughter of an Uncompromising Modernist Architect?
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This article was originally published on Common Edge as “Growing Up in a Glass House: An Architect’s Daughter Explores Modernism’s Shadow.”
Elizabeth W Garber’s new book, Implosion: A Memoir of an Architect’s Daughter (She Writes Press), tells the story of growing up in a glass house, designed by her father, Woodie Garber, once called “Cincinnati’s most extreme, experimental, and creative Modernist architect.” The memoir, which will be released in June, focuses on a family caught in a collision between modern architecture, radical social change, and madness in the turbulent 1960s in Cincinnati. Recently I talked to Garber about the book, the strictures of Modernism, and why she couldn’t live in a glass house today.
Baron Wormser: Your book offers a personal story about what it was like to experience the ethos and ideology of modern architecture from the inside—growing up with an architect father. How did you take in the spirit of modernism as you grew up?
Elizabeth W Garber: The language of modernism was one of the first languages I learned. My father trained my mind in the aesthetics of modernism, like religious men train their children to recite the names of saints and memorize sacred texts. I was drawn to the magnetism of his enthusiasm. I was hooked on performing well because I wanted to shine in his attention. It is a seductive dynamic to introduce a child into a heady magnetic language. I repeated the names of architects, like mantras, Mies, Alto, Gropius, Saarinen, but especially Le Corbusier. By age eight, I declared my favorite Corbu house was Villa Savoye. How many children chant the words “hyperbolic parabola” while looking at arching roof lines? At my dad’s office, before my legs were long enough to reach the floor, I studied photos of Le Corbusier’s buildings. I was trained to read plans and tried to visualize the spaces these pencil marks described.
BW: Your father was, in many ways, an impossible man. Do you think his attachment to modernism affected him? What did it mean to him?
EWG: My father was not always impossible. That came later when he was under pressure and embattled. His father was a Beaux Arts architect, a German patriarch, and his mother, a very proper Victorian lady, who was strict with her sons. This familial constraint and rigidity collided with the 1920’s. The first time my father heard jazz it split open his world, even though he was forbidden to even say the word “jazz” at the dinner table. Something similar happened in college when he was introduced to modern architecture. He latched onto it with all his being, it became him. The principles of modernism became more important than his family. It was a repudiation of his mother’s long skirts, of heavy decorative furniture, of his father’s architecture copied from Greek columns, and Thomas Jefferson’s designs. He and his father had furious battles about architecture in his father’s medieval-styled library. My father would have to fight for nearly every modern building he would design in conservative Cincinnati from the 1950s to the 1970s. Sometimes the battles enlivened him, but over time were embittering.
My father loved to teach and loved his students. I was a devoted student which guaranteed his love and attention, until I became a teenager. My brothers and I came of age in the 1960’s, with the culture engulfed in radical change. Suddenly our father, the radical modernist inspired by architects of the 1920s, was pitted against the new radicals who he felt challenged what he believed in. He became embattled against us, his children and his wife. He made us the enemy. He was caught in a web of increasing fury fueled by mental illness. That made him impossible.
BW: What did the modernist house in which you grew up mean to you?
EWG: When I grew up in a Victorian home, where my family had lived for three generations, I felt like a girl in a Louisa May Alcott novel. But when I was five, my family stayed for a week in a modern cottage my father designed for friends on Nantucket. This was my first experience of living in the modern. I felt sun, wind, and light burnished by the house as much as the sea. Some of my most vivid memories of my childhood came from that light-filled space. I was a different girl there. I waited excitedly, enticed by my father, for when we would have our own modern house and leave the past behind.
In the mid-60s, when we moved into our family’s glass house, the feelings about our house were complicated. At first it was a rough, unfinished plywood box with glass walls surrounded by muddy fields. We lived in a construction site where our family worked together every weekend to finish the house. My loving, fascinating father for the most part vanished and become a taskmaster running a construction job, and at ages twelve, nine and six, my little brothers and I were often found lacking. This was the beginning of our being lectured regularly. It was strange to move into a space designed for us but that we had no voice in. I felt sick when I studied the plans and realized that the two twin beds and chairs in my room were already drawn in. I didn’t even have a say about my own room.
As the house was finished, filled with modern furniture, art, sculpture, overhead lights and huge speakers for the record player, it became a “masterpiece,” breathtakingly beautiful and almost too much. We were just kids. We wanted a home without saws and sawdust. We were proud of this accomplishment. We had attained what we had all wanted. But it was too bright, too loud. Not cozy. No privacy. Sometimes I felt exposed by day, and felt self-conscious when the long glass walls became mirrors at night. Like living in a museum to all things modern.
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BW: Was there something frightening in your father’s version of modernism?
EWG: I felt a shadow over our life in the glass house, a kind of dark mirror we were caught in. There were rules of modernism that controlled our life. Corbusier said no couches, no curtains, no floor lamps, and we couldn’t question the rules. We had nowhere we could sit together. We sat isolated, islands in Knolls and Eames chairs under ceiling spotlights. My father’s bi-polar intensity, that had been subdued in our Victorian house with its many passageways, now expanded in the vast glass-walled Great Room. As he turned the lights brighter, the music louder, he amped up, living his dream of modern life. Our lives became overexposed and boundaries forbidden. It was a dangerous cocktail. Our life imploded.
BW: You empathized with what your father was doing as an architect. Did you see him as a hero tilting at the enemies of modernism? Or something else?
EWG: When I walked around in my father’s buildings as a girl, especially the Cincinnati Public Library, I was in awe of my father. My grandfather’s buildings were some of the most impressive in the city, including one of the towers on the city’s skyline, Central Trust Tower. I felt like architects were the most important people in the world. I sympathized with my father’s battles to get his buildings completed, which we heard about at the dinner table.
When I was working on my memoir, a mentor said it wasn’t surprising that I studied Greek epic in college. “You grew up in a mythic world, and your father was a hero of mythic proportions.” Like Odysseus, my father was an embattled, trickster hero. But in the epic, the hero eventually found his way home. No matter how conflicted I felt about my father throughout my life, I wanted him to find his way back home.
BW: As a girl and then a woman, did your father’s brand of modernism feel sexist—for men only?
EWG: So much of life in the 50s and 60s felt sexist, and a man’s world. My father’s office was all men working at the drafting tables, and one woman, his secretary. When I announced as a girl that I wanted to be an architect my father nixed my idea immediately. He said the construction world was too tough for women to stand up to men on the job, and they wouldn’t respect a woman managing the job. My father attended an all men’s literary club that didn’t even allow women to serve them meals. My father announced that I would go to secretarial school so I could work my way through college. I was furious. I would not be a secretary!
But there were exceptions with my father having working relationships with two women. As Alice Friedman points out in Women and the Making of the Modern House, many modern houses came about because of remarkable collaborations between the woman client and the architect. There was a client my dad had known since they were undergrads at Cornell who he acknowledged could have been an architect but became an artist and rug designer instead. She wanted a house with no right angles and had very specific requests for the layout of her house. My father acknowledged their collaboration.
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BW: Did you feel you had to carry on the modernist aesthetic, that it was part of your legacy?
EWG: At first when I left home at age 19 and lived in France for a year, I went on pilgrimages to buildings designed by Le Corbusier. I wrote several long letters home about my visit to Villa Savoye. But my father’s world and aesthetic had became entwined with the emotional pain we suffered living with him. I wanted to escape his world and find out what interested me.
Writing became something that was mine, different from my father. I wrote in journals, sometimes 10 pages a day, trying to develop my own voice. In my twenties, acupuncture treatment brought me out of years of depression. I chose it as my profession to help others. After my childhood, I needed something different than my father. I needed a way to understand mental illness and suffering, and this gave me a way to help people heal from terrible pain.
I haven’t felt a need for a modern space to live in. I grew up in a masterpiece. I couldn’t ever repeat that. I’ve lived in homes in a variety of American vernacular styles, many of which I helped renovate. When the glass house I grew up in came up on the market a few years ago, I showed the video tour to my daughter. She got excited about the house. “Wouldn’t it be cool to live there? Do you ever think of going back, Mom?” Despite the financially impossibility, I let myself imagine living there for the first time since I left at 19. My first thoughts were how I’d have to buy modern furniture to outfit the house. There felt an immediate expectation of art and fine things to outfit the house. The legacy of being a showcase, a monument to modernism, and needing the exquisite objects to outfit the house came rushing in. I felt the expectation of perfection, and the seduction of objects that were part of a sensibility that is not how I live now. I rapidly pushed the idea away, relieved to live in my more modest home in Maine.
BW: You do a superb job in your book of delineating what your mother went through in her marriage. How much did she buy into his vision?
EWG: My mother was a naïve twenty-year-old, when she met my dad who was 37 and going through shock treatments to treat his profound depression. She married him because she felt he needed her help. My dad picked out her clothes and jewelry. He bought her art books so she could learn about modern art. She worked hard to please him. It was not a natural thing for her to love modernism. She felt inadequate in his world. She went along with all of his interests, as a supportive wife, holding our family together as we moved to the glass house and built the gardens. She kept defending or excusing his behavior for years. After she almost died, she started questioning his behavior, and stopped denying to herself how bad it was. But she had no idea how she could leave. It took going back to school, getting a degree and a job, before she made her plan to leave, two weeks after I left home.
BW: Do you feel fortunate to have been initiated in your father’s passion for the modern? Or do you feel resentful that it was all too much?
EWG: Since ancient times, many masters have trained their children from an early age in their profession. I think of the lineage of the Wyeths, schooled in painting. Chinese acupuncturists often trained their children to be practitioners. Many masters were tyrants with painful lives. After the journey of my life and after all the healing work I have done to recover from my childhood, I still feel fortunate that I was not only schooled in modern architecture but that I learned from my father’s vast enthusiasm and passionate creativity.
Baron Wormser is the author of sixteen books, including the novel Tom o’ Vietnam. He was poet laureate of the state of Maine (2000–2005) and received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation. He recent book of essays, Legends of the Slow Explosion: 11 Modern Lives, explores modernism from poets’ sensibilities.