short lease in a slick machine: a personal essay about apartments
Hi Everyone, you may have wondered where I’ve been for the last few months. The truth is, I, like most people must at some point in their lives, needed to take a little break and figure some things out, needed to go on some long personal journeys, needed to meet some heroes, needed to just not do this website for a short amount of time, but don't worry, I'm back now, and I'm bringing the feels on the way in.
Before I present this essay, I would like to offer my deepest thanks to the people who kept supporting me on Patreon during this soul searching. I owe you everything.
I’m moving again. I’ve moved every single year since I’d left my parents’ house at the age of eighteen, with the exception of the apartment I had on the second story of a Queen Anne on S. Mendenhall Street in Greensboro, in which I stayed in for two years. The rest of my dwellings have been painfully temporary, with life inevitably coming around to its annual migratory upheaval. There have been many reasons why, of course, quotidian reasons that always feel devastating at the time – jobs, school, pestilence, crazy roommates, despicable slumlords, partners to be moved closer to, relocating just to get away from where one has been before. I could rank every apartment on a scale of worst to best, from most to least livable, but none of them were permanent.
above: the only apartment I ever lived in for more than a year, a sacred place.
I wanted to write about the apartment I’m moving away from in Chicago even though perhaps it’s not prudent to do so – it’s never prudent to be personal on the internet. Don’t worry, though, I won’t include anything incriminating that could be construed as defamation or whatever. You can just feel angry on my behalf, which is really, truly in the spirit of McMansion Hell. And this is, well, apartment hell. The apartment I’ve lived in this past year quite frankly and very succinctly encompasses everything I kind of hate about architecture, about design, about the ways people in the profession are expected to live their lives for the benefit and the consumption of others.
When I first saw the apartment, it was the nicest apartment I’d ever been in, the finest I'd hitherto walked the halls of in my rubber Birkenstocks. It was big and full of light, with lovely maple floors, the kind where, at the right time of day, you could sometimes see the tiger pattern emerge in flecks and ribs like those on the backs of violins. When the landlord, an architect, showed it to us, he had his stuff in there still. A Bertoia chair that was probably real. Very carefully selected items from Design Within Reach alongside enough pieces from other places to make the whole getup seem more authentic. Sparse hangings on the walls, each big and well-framed. Single potted plants. A well-oiled cutting board.
There were European bath and kitchen fixtures and recessed lights that dimmed at the press of a button, which meant we could get rid of all of our floor lamps. In the kitchen, tall, elegant white cabinets above a slab of marble, dubbed, reverently at the time, a living material. Blinds on rollers meant no need for hanging curtains. A soaking tub and a Duravit toilet, you know, the floating kind cultured people had. Europeans. The rent was at the top of our budget but still doable. I signed the lease fast, with unbelievable giddy excitement. Finally, a nice place to live after years and years and years in what could only be deemed as shitholes. Shitholes and the nice midcentury apartment building I lived in in DC, but that was a studio and DC was a place I wanted to get so immensely far from that we ended up in Chicago, the only city in America I ever really wanted to live in.
cracks in the facade, so to speak
As soon as we moved in, an unsettled feeling crept in. I can place it now as the sense that this apartment was too nice for people like us – people with particle board furniture and student loan debt. That it wasn’t really ours, we were just borrowing it before someone worthier came. Subconsciously, we knew this. We never hung anything on the walls save for the Mondaine clock my husband bought at the MoMA Design Store and the Giro d’Italia jersey signed by Tom Dumoulin, which I’d had framed. The walls were a blinding white. Putting tacks in them felt like an unlawful penetration. Our landlord fussed over the stuff we had on the back porch. One time he criticized where my husband had situated the soap on the kitchen counter, the living material which, in reality, is just a fancy term for “stains easily.”
All of a sudden, we were living under a microscope.
We weren’t using the apartment the right way; namely, we didn’t decorate or live like an architecture critic and a mathematician theoretically should. Our apartment wasn’t photogenic. There were too many bikes in the living room. We still had a garbage $300 Wayfair sofa that felt like sitting on cardboard. There was clutter. This beautiful apartment wasn’t meant for our kind of ordinary and this was made known several times in subtle and rather degrading ways, after which our lease was not renewed, to the relief of all parties involved. Even if it meant moving again.
The longer I lived in the apartment, the more I hated it, the more I realized that I had been fooled by nice finishes and proximity to transit into thinking it was a good apartment. As soon as we’d got in there, things started to, well, not work. European fixtures aren’t well-liked by American plumbers. The dimmable lights would sputter and spit little blinking LEDs for reasons totally unknown and we’d have to pull a tab to reset them. Everything was finicky and delicate. The shower head, the kitchen sink that fell in two times somehow (which we had been accused of being rough with, an absurd thought – it’s a kitchen sink!), the bedroom doors that didn’t close right, the bathroom door that would trap you inside if it shut during a hot shower. All of the niceness, the glitzy brand names, the living materials were not meant for everyday use, even by gentle individuals like ourselves. They were made solely for looking at, as though that were the point of all habitation.
Suddenly, we were in a prison of design. This was a place for performing living, and we, as normal people, simply wanted to live – wanted to leave clothes in front of the washer as we pleased, wanted to bake cakes that got flour everywhere, wanted to just collapse somewhere and go to sleep, wanted to have a private life not dominated by the curation and fussiness and pressures of taste that govern careers like mine. Our house was always just for our consumption, not that of others. I spend most of my life in the worlds of design and architecture, and to be honest, you wouldn’t know it aside from all the heavy books and the tapered legged coffee table. I never had it in me to turn my house into a museum of my own clever delectations, a proof of concept of my skills as a critic. I just wanted to dwell naively. Off Instagram.
But the worst part of the apartment was that it was designed by someone who didn’t know how to live, couldn’t think of anyone’s world other than the sparse one of the architect who owned nothing save for color-coordinated books and limited edition lithographs. It had all the functions of living, technically speaking, but the way in which they were allocated and arranged made no sense. There were no closets in any of the rooms, just open storage, which only works for people who don’t actually have things. The tub wasn’t caulked to the wall so that it would appear to float, a nice aesthetic effect which made taking showers annoying and perhaps bad for the walls.
Above all, I hated the kitchen the most. The kitchen was basically ten feet of counter space, with giant cabinets extending to the ceiling, far beyond what any normal person could reach without a stepladder, the upper shelves of which being where things went to be forgotten. A sink punctuated the center of the marble countertop – and marble is a terrible material for a countertop. It stains and wears with water. It shows all mess mercilessly. There was a stove and a fridge just, like, in the kitchen attached to nothing. The gas stove had no overhead ventilation and every time we used it we had to open the door so the smoke alarm wouldn’t go off. It was a kitchen designed by people who never cooked: too small, inefficient, laid out in the way it was, like so many apartment kitchens, so that it shared services with the same wall as the bathroom. We couldn’t put anything in the finicky sink to soak so the counter was always crowded with dishes. We had no dishwasher because that would mean ceding the only bottom cabinet that was truly usable.
It angered me, really, as an architecture critic, that this apartment, which had so very much been made to be ogled and looked at and oohed and ahhed over by people of taste was absolutely, for a lack of a better word, bullshit. That it was beautiful but unlivable, like some kind of joke made only for people like me to laugh at. I love design, obviously, but I hate the pressure to have to perform taste in the most intimate of one’s settings and this was the epitome of that, the untouchableness of it, the smug superiority of its flavorless emptiness. I’m not a curator of other people’s gazes when I’m in my pajamas or sweating it out on the trainer. I’m simply Kate Wagner, living with a husband and a dog, like a lot of twenty-seven year old white girls in cities. By the end of the lease, I just wanted to move somewhere where I’d feel at home, whatever that meant. I never had the type A personality needed for pristine white walls. I hated how the recessed lights made all our stuff look cheap, like a museum of stunted adulthood.
Our new apartment has a two-year lease, which is about as much stability people like us could ever hope for or afford. It’s the first floor of a worker’s cottage dominated by a palladian window on the second story that would be pretentious were it not so earnest. The house itself is a hodgepodge of the vernacular, which is what I deserve, as its chronicler. The interior walls are painted lively colors – a soft blue, a slate purple, a taupe, a mint green. It’s gritty enough to be cool and old enough to be livable. There are closets. The bathroom is covered in chiclet glass tile that’s different shades of blue, which I find endearing. But what I love most of all is the kitchen.
All my life, I’d been in search of an apartment with a decent kitchen, and I’ve always wondered why apartment kitchens suck so bad save for the obvious answer (landlords are cheap.) Like I said earlier, the desire to route services (plumbing, electricity) in the most efficient way possible governs most things, though this is more true of renovations or new builds than the adaptation of single family homes into multi-family dwellings. In the case of the latter, the second floor apartments are always the worst off, in fact, almost all apartments are worse off than the one that houses the actual original full-sized kitchen to begin with.
Adapting a space that was meant for sleeping into one where food could be cooked often required some inventiveness with regards to fire safety and ventilation and this usually took the path of least resistance, hence why most kitchens are positioned to the rear of the house, especially if there is outdoor access. (Plumbing in older houses also tends to be positioned on interior walls to avoid pipes freezing in the winter.) In Chicago, most layouts of familiar single-family vernacular housing styles are similar to one another on the ground floor, but the apartments on the second floor are always quite varied, especially with regard to where the kitchen is placed. Often it’s done, again, in a way that allows existing services to be used or for new ones to be built that are on the same wall as another unit. Adding new plumbing where it wasn't before is expensive and a pain.
However, service routing aside, most apartment kitchens are only ever satisfactory – kitchens for people who ate nothing but takeout or miniature versions of the real thing as though apartment living were just an audition for owning a house, something that’s just no longer true in this economy. This one -- with its vintage 50s aluminum cabinetry and its enameled countertops with glitter infused in them like some kind of demure bowling ball and its full-sized appliances and dishwasher, and mint green penny tile, its wonderful quirkiness and its ample cabinet space beneath the counters -- is functional. It works like a kitchen should, towards a domestic life engineered by modernism and scientific management with a dash of feminism to be less arduous. This is nothing short of a miracle to me. When I think about it, I get emotional. I have been searching for so long for any kind of semblance of a place tailored in any way towards my needs, towards my desires, which is to have enough space to help rather than hinder in the preparation of meals. Meals we now enjoy as a very small family. The kitchen was never really important to me until I had someone to share it with, as insipid and mawkish and introduction-to-a-gluten-free-recipe as that sounds. I’m no longer living for one, but for two, and I didn’t realize how much that changed living.
I didn’t realize how much autonomy meant until I lived in a place where I felt I had none.
Our new landlords, a school-teacher and private investigator (what a combo) are there right now cleaning the house, fixing the little nicks left by the previous tenants, pulling out their picture hanging apparatuses, which, they assure us, we can leave too. We can put stuff up on the walls, the very thought! They’ve already stickered our names on the mailboxes, have installed a doorbell, which strikes me as a very post-COVID gesture. They hope we will stay there a long time, and so do we. There’s a yard for the dog to play in with garden beds that house burgeoning bell peppers. Our friends are allowed to come over, which they weren’t before — well, not officially, but it felt like it. There are sounds in the house, of those who dwell above and below, the sounds of life. There’s a window I wish I was sitting by writing, and soon, I will be.
So many of us ask the simple question, what is home? What should it be? And the only real, genuine answer I have to give after ten-odd moves is that home is the only place in the world where one can be truly unselfconscious. Even if that means having particleboard furniture and a bunch of bicycles.
That’s my business, not yours.
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