In Robert Asprin’s Myth Adventure books, which I read in middle school, the boy wizard Skeeve lived in a magical tent that appears to be of humble size but actually contains an entire elaborate house inside. It managed this by having its inner halls and rooms sit in a separate dimension from the entrance, effectively annexing space in another world.
I thought of this when I moved into one of my first adult apartments, a carriage house in St. Paul, Minnesota that was something like an apartment posing as a standalone home. Squeezed into my bedroom, I felt as though I’d found a secret chamber, and it felt as though, looking from the outside, you would never guess there was even really a room there. The building was just 20 feet from a major four-lane artery, but my little room felt like it was parked just outside of our dimension.
But, then, houses are always bigger on the inside than the outside. The exterior of even the most elaborate Queen Anne only covers so much surface area, but the interior walls break up the house into a series of interconnected chambers that expand its volume in new directions, curling up into themselves like the compartments of a seashell. Every bedroom wall is its own canvas and every living room is a sculpture turned inside out; the guts of any given house are a grand articulation. You don’t just see a room – you move through it and relate to it a little differently from every point.
The year of the carriage house was also the year that I started seeing the vocabulary of houses. A Field Guide of American Houses, by Virginia Savage McAlester and Lee McAlester, was like a bird watching catalog for people who preferred their subjects stationary and impossible to miss, and it taught me a raft of new words like “vergeboard,” “lintel,” and “dormer,” along with many more. With the language of houses at hand, I was seeing for the first time how each structure was made up of a thousand details.
The mansion that my carriage house belonged to looked onto Summit Avenue, St. Paul’s showcase for many of its finest houses. It was a bit of a feast if you had the Field Guide in hand, and I would often stop at a house for 5 or 10 minutes trying to fit it to one of the styles described and illustrated. I rarely saw anyone coming in or leaving, or any sign of life behind the windows, but I knew that inside, human lives were unfolding, in pedestrian or dramatic fashion. I wondered what it was like to live in such style, in such grandeur. I had once joked that I would never want to live in the mansions of Summit Avenue because I would never feel quite up to the challenge of living there. How could I binge watch the entire fourth season of Bones in my underwear over the course of a weekend in a house that was so impressive? Just living there would demand more refined hobbies than I cared to take up; I pictured myself practicing violin concertos in a cavernous room, not because I had any desire to play the violin, but because it was the only pastime I could think of that would fit the aesthetic demands of living in such a noble dwelling.
Then there was the size of these things. I could only think of two reasons to justify a footprint as large as that of a typical Summit house. One was a sprawling family, but I never saw any evidence of these and it was demographically unlikely. The other was if I were to use the mansion to entertain in extravagant style. The sprawling Summit houses made me dream of bustling, glamorous parties that would fill every room, and yet I don’t remember seeing so much as a barbecue, much less a formal evening affair. Objectively speaking, there must have been a few, but probably not on the junior-Gatsby scale I was conjuring. No, these places were all a little lonely for being so big, and I thought of the owners looking on their many unoccupied rooms and thinking wistfully about the acquaintances they weren’t entertaining there, the parties they hadn’t thrown, and maybe the hobbies (violin, perhaps) they had never got around to mastering to make up for living in such an imposing fortress.
Now, thinking back on the vast, frozen facades of Summit Avenue, I think how much like a face a facade is. It sounds like a notion borne merely out of cute wordplay, but it rings true to me. Consider: Like faces, facades are unfathomably less complex than the spaces they conceal. Every face is expressive, yes – every smile will warm you, every tear can you – yet even so, every face is vastly simpler than what it conceals: tangled webs of ideas, vivid emotions, decades of memories. Like the frontage looking onto Summit Avenue, it’s only one aspect of a densely woven architecture of the inner life. A face can never convey everything of a person, not in a million looks, and the face of a house will never show the complexity of its interior.
Not that it matters. Faces will always be fascinating and grand facades will always cause wonder, even if what they cover is yet more fascinating and wonderful.