The Community Oven - about 2006

The Community Oven

In 2004 I took a sabbatical from my teaching of architectural theory and a recess from the construction of imaginary places within the confines of my New York City studio and moved to the North Fork of Long Island to plunge, hands first, into the reality and gravity of building a house in the woods. I had an urge to lift the weight of plywood, to dig into the earth, to feel the texture of stone. I wanted to tire at the end of the day; I wanted to sweat and to blister. I needed to lay shingles, to point brick, to dress stone, chisel a mortise, to hammer a nail, to cut a 2x4.

I gathered materials by asking local builders, demolition contractors, the highway department and landscapers to dump excess stone, used brick, cinder blocks, broken concrete, tile and construction debris onto my property. They were happy to avoid costly dumping fees at the town landfill and in return this provided a cost savings to us.

Ellen spent that summer with me in the small cottage in our woods, but as cold weather arrived she spent more time in the comfort of our New York City apartment. I slept on the couch in front of the wood stove. When the weather turned too cold for the wood-burning stove to bring the temperature of the cottage above 55 degrees, I slept on the couch in front of the stove. I constructed an enclosure using a light frame of 1 x 2 firing strips that was just large enough to include the couch and the wood-burning stove. Onto this frame I stapled fiberglass insulation to create a protective and warm cocoon.  The color scheme of gray couch and pink insulation comforted me in a 1940’s interior design way.

Wrapped in blankets with hammer and chisel, I tapped away fragments until a stone formed a contour that could nest nicely against a jagged fragment of concrete, chiseled the concrete to caress the curve of a concrete filled glass bottle, concaved the straightness of a brick to mirror the convex form of a toilet bowl fragment.

On clear days I worked on the site and by spring the north wall of the house was complete. Stone and rubble protected and shielded the house from the street. The wall is a diary, an unedited collection of discrete elements glued with concrete.  The wall of the house is a remembrance of things past.

I envisioned a fireplace carved into the wall with a fire so intense and hot it was capable of melting the stone, brick and concrete. The molten stone, rivulets of green glass, streams of white porcelain and rivers of terra cotta flowing lava-like through the house would harden onto an extended steel plate to become hearth, kitchen counter and dinning table.

I carved our kitchen sink into this counter.  In the winter when the fire is roaring in the fireplace you might notice puffs of steam rising from the wet pots, pans, glasses and dishes that are placed on the counter. These dry quickly and provide humidity to the dry air that is typical of a well-heated and insulated house.

The hearth/table continues to flow through the back south facing glass wall to the outside cantilevering into a picnic table. Weber grills have leg support problem so I removed the legs and placed the grill bowl into a hole in the table. The enameled red steel bowl looks lovely embedded in the stone. With its dome shaped lid in place it forms a sphere bisected by the horizontal plane of the table, which reminds me of the Cenotaph for Isaac Newton by the French architect Pierre Boulee.

The wall was almost complete when I was awarded the Rome Prize from the American Academy in Rome. I put construction on hold. Ellen and I were off to explore ancient Roman architecture. I photographed, sketched and documented ancient stonewalls constructed from fragments and parts of older buildings.  Our construction of the Southold House more than 4000 miles away had similarities. 

I visited hilltop villages in Umbria and saw community bread ovens built into exterior walls of public piazzas.  Until a generation ago these were fired up and used by woman to bake bread and cook meats. Contemporary Italian women hop into their cars and pick up bread at the local bakery and the ancient ovens stand cold.

Returning to the Southold House from Rome, I asked why was I so determined to buttress the Southold House from my neighbors? I broke through the back wall of our fireplace, opening it out to the street. I installed a steel door that, closed, allowed us to use the fireplace inside during the winter, or, open, in summer, outside, as a barbeque. A blackboard is mounted below the 25 mile per hour road sign and a schedule of firings is updated weekly. Neighbors are invited to cook hamburgers, hot dogs and steaks; a few Food Channel devotes bake bread. Sometimes when fireplace firings are not scheduled I place a television set into the fireplace opening facing toward the street. For the past three summers, I have also scheduled showings of DVD’s borrowed from the library.