Durham News: Opinion

Hannah Mitchell: We built this city

By Hannah C. Mitchell

Hannah C. Mitchell
Hannah C. Mitchell

I’ve been building houses for the last month.

Out in the loading bay behind the Anthropologie store at The Streets at Southpoint.

Using 2 x 3 framing studs and cardboard and a staple gun.

The holidays are here in the retail world, and my colleagues and I are mounds of sawdust into creating an original 10-foot wide by 10-foot tall window display for our store.

What we have constructed is a large-scale village built to look as if it were made of sugar cookies.

“Little Amsterdam,” we’re calling her. She is, after all, inspired by the row houses along the Amstel River.

And I realize that I’m starting to talk about her like she is a real city.

Louis Kahn has said, “the first thing that an architect must do is to sense that every building you build is a world of its own, and that this world of its own serves an institution.”

Now there’s a thought for you.

When I was a kid, my siblings and I established a society in the woods behind our house which we called Leaf Town.

Leaf Town was a matrix of roads raked (or bush wacked using saws and clippers and yard tools we were not allowed to be using) out of the underbrush.

Along these roads, we staked property claims, and built residences.

Typically tepees.

We never could quite figure out the structural engineering necessary to get a flat roof and four walls to stay together.

In Leaf Town, real estate agents made up the highest socioeconomic class. More powerful even than the president.

Because to be an agent also meant to be city planner, zoning law enforcer, and arbiter of the aesthetic and architectural integrity of every house in town.

You became invested in every stick and piece of garden twine.

You saw potential in a rotting log, or you vetoed the use of landscaping plastic for house siding.

You made the world.

The memory of this satisfaction from my Leaf Town career came back to me as, in my adult life on my day job, I leaned naked cardboard house frames up against the bushes outside, and sprayed them all down with wall texturizer to give them that cookie look.

At the beginning of the project, I never expected I might develop an emotional attachment to a cardboard gingerbread house.

But as the craftsmen and artists, I, my display coordinator Jordan, and our intern Maggie, have discovered the truth of Kahn’s words, and demystified the magic of Leaf Towns everywhere.

The hours and hours spent sketching to scale, prototyping, constructing, and then detailing gives each house a personality all its own.

Within Little Amsterdam, we all have favorites:

Maggie: House No. 6 with the difficult-to-cut windows that turned out perfectly straight.

Jordan: House No. 2 with its greenery swags and intricate sills that took forever.

And me: House No. 3 with its dormer windows we had to scrap and rebuild twice to get perfect.

These have become the worlds-of-our-own that serve the institution of community delight.

My parents and the parents of neighbor kids would occasionally visit Leaf Town to chuckle at our outlandish or occasionally ingenious stick houses.

And similarly, this month while we have been working in the window, a wide cross-section of Durham residents have gathered on the other side of the glass.

They have grinned and laughed and pointed at the tiny cardinal on a ridgetop, or the model Fiat with working headlights driving through the snow over a bridge.

And I suspect, by the way they linger, that this construction reminds them of worlds and buildings all their own.

You can reach Hannah C. Mitchell at remarksbymitchell@gmail.com