I love this image of the entrance to a basement apartment in New York from the 1920s, there’s just so much character and all the plants. Some serious entrance goals.
Over in London, UK there is a trend to expand mansions below ground since there is such a scarcity of land to expand out and bylaws against building up. This blew my mind. Does one really need that much space? And then I had so many questions. What about the light, air circulation?
What do you think? Here I am just happy to have natural light throughout the day . . . but I guess a swimming pool would be pretty nice.
P.S. I’ll try and find some images of these below-ground mansions.
The above image is from a 2012 Guardian article on “Billionaires’ Basements,” written by Oliver Wainwright.
*All images: Cornell’s basement studio, 3708 Utopia Parkway, Flushing, New York, 1964. © Terry Schutté.
Joseph Cornell’s studio was in the basement of his home, located aptly on Utopia Parkway in Flushing, New York. Hidden in the shoe boxes, folders, tins and other assorted organizing containers, was the source material for his art. Each receptacle was painted white and labelled in Cornell’s hand and indicated what was inside. These include descriptive labels, “Watch Parts,” “Love Letters,” and “Seashells.” But Cornell also used more poetic phrases for organizing his source material, such as “Centre of a Labyrinth,” “Celestial Theatre,” and “Childhood Regained.” Inside these boxes and files were assorted objects, images, newspaper clippings, and other archival material that was collected with dedication. While other artists use paint, marble, or other mediums – Cornell used the detritus of life to create his artwork.
But what do we make of Cornell using his basement as a studio? Cornell did not live alone in the house on Utopian Parkway. Sharing it with his mother and brother, one can imagine space was tight. Where Virginia Woolf, in her extended essay “A Room of One’s Own,” claimed that space was needed to write – one could easily expand Woolf’s concept to include the artist. In the lowly basement, Cornell claimed the space he needed to create his work.
The use of a basement for his studio makes me think of the interiority of his work. A basement is typically limited to small windows, if there are any at all. From the first picture above, we can see Cornell’s studio had at least one window. And yet, Cornell created these miniature universes within six-sided shadow boxes. These containers work like windows into small constructed spaces, and isn’t that what windows do? Compose a view out into the world? Contained and interior, much like a basement, Cornell’s boxes afford the viewer an access point into the interiority of Cornell’s life. Both window and world.
For my fiction reading I primarily rely on the simplicity of book exchange boxes or what is also known as Little Free Library movement. In Kingston there were several that I would use and when I moved to Toronto I was a bit concerned that there wouldn’t be any in the neighbourhood. Turns out I had nothing to worry about. There is not only one, but two just up the road from where I live (one is geared for adults and the other for children).
Book exchanges are a great local and community orientated way of sharing books. The idea is that you bring unwanted books to exchange for others. These individual boxes are placed on peoples front yards and each one I have encountered and used has been as individual as the owners who placed them there. Today’s “Living Below Ground” comes from one of the books I got at a book exchange box in Kingston and brought with me to Toronto. The basement is a minor detail in the narrative but the way Annie Dillard describes it makes me want a basement just like the one described – open to the sea. Here’s an excerpt:
“When he first moved in after their wedding, Maytree got to work enlarging the beachside crawl space. Now they had a wedge-shaped basement furnished with a galley and head. He finished it off by installing many-paned French doors right on the beach. When storms came, he removed both doors so the seas could pour in without breaking glass. In ordinary weather, friends entered the front door, went downstairs, and opened the French doors to the beach.”
Annie Dillard, The Maytrees (New York: Harper Perennial, 2007), 47-48.
The joy of a book exchange place is that your choices are limited to what is available, thereby taking the stress out of choosing your next book. And, if that wasn’t enough, you are sharing the books you have read with others.
“The point now is that I found a home—or a hole in the ground, as you will. Now don’t jump to the conclusion that because I call my home a “hole” it is damp and cold like a grave; there are cold holes and warm holes. Mine is a warm hole. . . . My hole is warm and full of light. Yes, full of light. I doubt if there is a brighter spot in all New York than this hole of mine, and I do not exclude Broadway. Or the Empire State Building on a photographer’s dream night. . . . And I love light. Perhaps you’ll think it strange that an invisible man should need light, desire light, love light. But maybe it is exactly because I am invisible. Light confirms my reality, gives birth to my form.”
Condensed excerpt from Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, first published 1952 (New York: Random House, 1982), pages 5-6.
In the summer of 2009, I took part in a school trip to Paris. On a visit to the Musée du Quai Branly I was fortunate to see an exhibition on the evolution of Jazz music. Jazz Century was a fantastic exhibition, full of art, artifacts, and music. One of the highlights was close to the end of the exhibition, Jeff Wall’s After Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison (pictured above). Presented as a large scale backlit colour transparency the joy of seeing this work in person is the amount of detail Wall packed into the image.
“Mine is a warm hole . . .” The narrator states discussing his basement dwelling. I have never read the book (it is on my list of books to read this summer) so I can’t speak to the importance of the basement within the larger arc of the story but the quote is lovely and deals with one of the major issues I will have to tackle once I move in – warmth and light.
Since this blog is supposed to be primarily about basement living, I thought I could look at different ways of living below ground is found in literature and art. When I initially thought of doing this, my mind immediately went to the dugout in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s book On the Banks of Plum Creek (the fourth book in the popular Little House on the Prairie series). Built by a Norwegian settler named Mr. Hanson, the dugout was located on the banks of Plum Creek, near Walnut Grove, Minnesota. The Ingalls family lived there between 1874 and 1876, after moving away from the prairies and the dangers associated with their time there.
As a child, I remember being enchanted with the idea of living under a grassy knoll. From the description in the book the interior walls were whitewashed and the only natural light came from the one window that was set far into the earthen wall, as Wilder explains, “But the wall was so thick that the light from the window stayed near the window.” While I know my wee basement apartment will not have the charm of living as Laura Ingalls did in a handmade dugout, I like the idea of associating basement living to one of my favourite childhood books. Hopefully the lighting situation will be better in my new place . . .