The Bookshelf: Howard Mansfield Deconstructs the New England 'Shed'
The Bookshelf from NHPR is New Hampshire Public Radio's series on authors and books with ties to the Granite State. All Things Considered host Peter Biello features authors, covers literary events and publishing trends, and gets recommendations from each guest on what books listeners might want to add to their own bookshelves. If you have an author or book you think we should profile on The Bookshelf, send us an email. The address is email@example.com.
This week, The Bookshelf features author Howard Mansfield. The shed, according to New Hampshire author Howard Mansfield, is “above all, practical.” It is “the shortest line between need and shelter.” The structure itself seems like the essence of New England. And the simple design of a shed—the plain walls, doors only where they’re necessary, the pitched roof—reappears in covered bridges, barns, old homes, and meeting houses.
In his new book, aptly named Sheds, Howard Mansfield teams up with photographer Joanna Eldredge Morrissey to showcase this element of New England architecture and explain why we’re so drawn to these old structures. Scroll down to read Howard's top five reading recommendations and read the transcript of his conversation with Peter Biello.
Howard's Top Five Reading Recommendations
1. The Poetics of Space by Gaston Bachelard. "All houses are houses of dreams, said Gaston Bachelard, the philosopher-poet of dwelling. We live in houses and so we dream houses. We daydream there and daydream about them. They give us the shelter to enlarge ourselves. They are the vessel in which we go forth into the universe. A good house is a good daydreaming space. It is the universe, he says.
"The Poetics is a daydreamy, daydream-inducing book. It’s a dream-by-the-numbers book. He encourages you to daydream and so you drift along with him. He restores the luminous being to objects and thoughts. He finds the cradle in the house, the eye in the light in the window, the shelter in shelter. Houses live through us, for us, live eternally. The blueprint of childhood rooms never leaves us; we walk the floor plan in our daydreams. 'We comfort ourselves by reliving memories of protection.' This is a book that reads you. It walks you back to your childhood home.
2. The Timeless Way of Building and A Pattern Language by Christopher Alexander. "People who discover Alexander too often skip the first book, which is too bad. The Timeless Way is a poem about living in towns and cities that make us happy. It’s about the search for the animating spirit, 'the central quality' of places and people. 'The search which we make for this quality, in our own lives, is the central search of any person, and the crux of any individual person’s story,' Alexander writes. 'It is the search for those moments and situations when we are most alive.'
"This has been Alexander’s search as an architect. With his colleagues he wrote A Pattern Language to give people a way to build places that had 'the quality without a name.' Well-built places are made of patterns—parts—in the right relationship. Patterns are key to understanding what is ailing our landscape. There is an order, a language, for the way a good room or building or street or city is created. For example, there are recognizable parts that make up a good village townscape. Each part—a fence, a lilac, a walkway, a wall, a front door, a roof—each part works with the other parts to create a place that could only be that place in the whole world.
"A Pattern Language shows us that the relationships between things matter—and that there are no things, really, but relationships. There isn’t a chair, but the relationship of the parts that make up a chair. There isn’t a house, but a series of patterns—a pattern language that creates a house. And that house is a part of other patterns creating a yard, a street, a city.
"'The more living patterns there are in a place—a room, a building, or a town—the more it comes to life as an entirety, the more it glows, the more it has that self-maintaining fire which is the quality without a name.'
"This is the brilliant insight of A Pattern Language, a yellow brick of a book that presents 253 patterns. There are large patterns for country towns, neighborhood boundaries, and ring roads. And smaller patterns for street cafes, pedestrian streets, porches, fruit trees, compost, alcoves, fireplaces, children’s secret play-spaces, dancing in the street. This book can be read in any order—just as a walk across a city or town can take you many places. And it can be read as a long poem in praise of the delights of ordinary places. It’s a stirring book, and like a first encounter with Bach, it opens a view to a better self, a better place. Alexander makes you feel like you can go out and build something beautiful.
3. The World of Silence by Max Picard. "Picard wrote this surprising book while living in Switzerland during World War II. Hitler was screaming on the radio and all around him Europe was in flames. Picard, a Catholic philosopher, made an eloquent case for silence—not as the absence of noise, but as the wellspring of the soul.
"Part of the book’s strangeness is the shift of background and foreground. Silence is true time, true love. It’s solid and speech is carved from it. Without silence, speech is corrupted. 'Real speech is in fact nothing but the resonance of silence,' said Picard. 'There is … more silence in one person than can be used in a single human life. That is why every human utterance is surrounded by mystery … There is something silent in every word, as an abiding token of the origin of speech … When two people are conversing with one another, however, a third is always present: silence is listening. That is what gives breadth to a conversation.'
"Picard is an explorer mapping the world of silence. He shows us silence and its loss in contemporary and ancient language, the ego, the demonic, knowledge, history, myth, images, love, the face, gestures, animals, time, childhood, old age, peasants, nature, poetry, architecture and sculpture, radio, illness, death, hope, and faith.
"The World of Silence is a book that people stumble across; it’s each reader’s private discovery. They find it in the library catalog or at a used bookstore, or in a footnote or bibliography. Books like this earn their readers. The reader is not driven to the book by a big reputation, or a list of books one ought to read. It’s as if they were called to the book. Max Picard is little known, below the horizon of even a cultish following. I’ve asked tenured and retired philosophy professors about him and gotten blank stares. His work seems to exist on an island. His book emerges from silence, contains mystery, and returns to silence. The book has come to resemble the qualities of silence as Picard discusses them.
4. Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino. "In this imaginative novel Marco Polo tells Kublai Khan about all the cities he has seen in his travels. None of them really exist (maybe), but each is like a city you may know or want to visit. It is said all the cities Polo is describing are really aspects of just one city, Venice. No matter. Invisible Cities is one of the best guides to how we really live in cities, and a good companion for Bachelard’s tours of reverie and Alexander’s celebration of places alive with the Quality Without a Name."
5. "The last book on any list like this is the hardest one to choose. So many other books are clamoring to make the list, so many belong here. But I’ll end with A Berlin Childhood Around 1900 by Walter Benjamin. This is a deceiving book. It seems like just a few scraps of childhood memory, something most writers in the Memoir Industrial Complex could stamp out. But each scene has a psychological density, each scene amplifies the others, and they all point to the destruction of this world that is waiting just off stage."
Tell us where we are now and where we’re headed.
We’re going to go look at our barn. It used to be attached to our house. It was a very common thing in the 19th century. They moved buildings all over the landscape. They moved the meeting house in town back about 50 or 100 feet. This was of course before gasoline, diesel, big machinery. SO they’d do it with levers, pulleys, logs, oxen, and a lot of rum.
I want to show you this because this is a very typical shed and it’s very typical of how sheds change over time and continue to serve us.
All right, let’s go see it.
I wanted to tell you first why we wrote about sheds. Sheds are buildings in which beauty and utility are one. In this era of McMansions, they have some important lessons to teach us about living well. And one of those is that it’s the simple that lasts from generation to generation.
As you look around, you can see this whole history emerge, this history that we can’t really know a lot about. An animal, probably a horse, lived here. You can see how he chewed this particular support to the barn. Back there you can see there was a stall for a horse. You can see where his hooves have dug a hole there. You can see way up top where those notches are that there was a hayloft there. That’s gone. You can see that this part here was built probably out of old lumber from another shed.
Make that connection a little more explicit for me, the connection between living simply, living well, and the actual structure of this particular barn.
Okay, sure. Well, most of the buildings we see in magazines are very fancy kind of buildings. Very polished, very slick. A lot of the things we see, say, on cable TV shows, they rip down fourteen walls, they put in one of those islands the size of an aircraft carrier covered with enough granite to build a monument to Washington. All sorts of stainless steel appliances. We tend to think: maybe that’s it. Maybe that’s what it’s about.
Life, you mean? That’s what’s life’s about? Getting the stuff?
Yeah, but really, the places we’re most happy in are the places that have evolved over time, that have a little bit of today in them, have a little bit of yesterday in them, have a little bit of the day before in them. And they have this kind of permeability, this openness to the outside. They have different amounts of enclosure.
In barns, depending on what it was used for, they’re always a bit open to the day.
In essence, though, it’s the story of the development of New England. It’s people building something not out of the desire to see something pretty, but to survive.
By nature, and by religion, the first white settlers were very direct people. Their religion, as Puritans, were very stripped down, and the climate demanded that you got down to business very seriously and got yourself undercover, protected from snow, water, heat.
If you look at the early meeting houses, they weren’t painted white. They didn’t have spires, stained glass—they didn’t have anything fancy. They were basically a barn with an altar and some pews and that’s it. They didn’t have heat. They weren’t even painted.
Over time, they’ve gotten more church-like. And yet, still their simplicity still lives on if you go into most of them.
All right, what else should we go see?
Let’s go see the covered bridge that’s on the town line between Hancock and Greenfield.
[Exiting the car] Here’s the thing about covered bridges. People love them. They keep the nostalgia mills going. There’s always calendars of covered bridges. People who tour around to see them…all this kind of nostalgic talk of the sounds of the horses hoof beats as they go through, or stealing a kiss from your best girl in the darkness, or how spooky it was in the dark at night.
But I think what’s really going on is it reawakens peoples’ sense of space, their sense of enclosure. It’s like being in a treehouse. Because when you go in, you’re enclosed but you’re suspended over the river. Usually you can see out through the sides, the windows or the trusses themselves, so you get the sense that you’re hiding out and you’re looking out.
There’s an English geographer, Jay Appleton, and he has this theory that places that appeal to us have “prospect and refuge.” IN other words, we’re protected, but we can see. Going back to the African savannah, we can look out. Is that animal coming to eat me, or am I going to eat it? Is that kith or kin, or is that an enemy. So, prospect and refuge.
When you go through a good covered bridge, it reawakens that sense. And basically—one of the important points is—it’s a shed. It was not built to be on a calendar. The roof is there to protect the trusses holding the bridge up, those little Xs you see. So you have pure utility that became picturesque that is appreciated by many people, so much so that when this bridge was washed out in the great flood of 1936, people insisted that it be rebuilt. Back in 1936 when there was not much money around to do anything. And this is a very simple bridge. It’s not open at the sides. It’s very short. But it’s definitely a part of New England.
Do we need covered bridges now, though? Do they require covers like they used to?
No, we don’t need covered bridges. We don’t need anything beautiful. What we need is someway to get out of the rain, get out of the sun, and, what? 1200 calories a day? Someone can correct me. That’s what we need.
But to really live and be happy we need more than that. So, that’s the need question. But that’s a very good New England question: what do we need? Let’s be practical. Which takes you back to the early meeting house, which is stripped to essentials. What did you need to worship? You needed a box to sit in for six or eight hours to be with God. You didn’t need a spire.
The question comes from—I mean, we’ve been talking about utility and practicality. At one point, all of the parts of this covered bridge were necessary. Now they’re not. It’s gone from zero percent ornamental to 100 percent ornamental.
Yeah. If you replace it today, they’d take a measurement, have some probably pre-fab concrete, steel girders, drop it in a day or two, add a guardrail and then we wouldn’t be standing here.
There’s a noticeable change in you, Howard, when you’re in a structure like this.
Well, you seem much happier, more bright and cheerful while you’re here. What do you think accounts for that? Do you really love these places that much?
That’s interesting. I don’t know. I do. I like looking around at all old buildings and new buildings, too, and I like trying to figure out what do we really feel here? What are we responding to here? Have you ever walked into a room and you just felt spooked immediately?
So what, of all the hundreds or maybe thousands of visual cues you’re getting—sound cues, smells, vibrations—there’s one or two things that told you before you were even conscious of it. What was that? Sometimes you walk into a room and it’s very happy, very obvious. There’s sunlight. Someone’s cooking a good meal. Very obvious cues. And sometimes we walk into a place and say, “This just feels right.”
The architect Christopher Alexander calls it “the quality without a name.” What is that quality? How close can you get to finding that? He says in his book The Timeless Way of Building, the search for this quality without a name is a search that defines most peoples’ lives. They’re looking for that. And it’s those moments that we’re most alive—that’s what he says. I think that’s pretty darn good.