I have a very powerful reaction to these buildings that, I believe, has nothing to do with having been a Tolkien fan for most of my life. In fact, some of the most Tolkien-specific details – the round doors, the dragon motifs in the pub – could be removed without attenuating that reaction a bit.
To me, they feel right. They feel like home. And I’m not entirely sure why, because I’ve never lived in such antique architecture. But I think it may have something to do with Christopher Alexander’s “Timeless Way of Building”.
Alexander’s ideas are not easy to summarize. He believes that there is a timeless set of generative ur-patterns which are continuously rediscovered in the world’s most beautiful buildings – patterns which derive from an interplay among mathematical harmonies, the psychological/social needs of human beings, and the properties of the materials we build in.
Alexander celebrates folk architecture adapted to local needs and materials. He loves organic forms and buildings that merge naturally with their surroundings. He respects architectural tradition, finding harmony and beauty even in its accidents.
When I look at these buildings, and the Tolkien sketches from which they derive, that’s what I see. The timelessness, the organic quality, the rootedness in place. When I look inside them, I see a kind of humane warmth that is all too rare in any building I actually visit. (Curiously, one of the few exceptions is a Wegmans supermarket near me which, for all that it’s a gigantic commercial hulk, makes clever use of stucco and Romanesque stonework to evoke a sense of balance, groundedness, and warmth.)
I want to live in a thing like the Hobbit House – a hummocky fieldstone pile with a red-tiled roof and a chimney, and white plaster and wainscoting and hardwood floors. I want it to look like it grew where it is, half-set in a hillside. I want the mullions and the butterfly windows and the massive roof-beams and the eyebrow gables. Want, want, want!
I don’t feel like this desire is nostalgia or a turn away from the modern; there’s room in my dream for central heating and Ethernet cable in the walls, not to mention electricity. I feel like it’s a turn towards truths from the past but for the future – that, in our busy cleverness, we have almost forgotten what kind of design makes a building not just physically adequate but psychologically nourishing. We need to rediscover that, and these buildings feel to me like clues.
I think it might be that Tolkien, an eccentric genius nostalgic for the English countryside of his pre-World-War-I youth, abstracted and distilled out of its vernacular architecture exactly those elements which are timeless in Christopher Alexander’s sense. There is a pattern language, a harmony, here. These buildings make sense as wholes. They are restful and welcoming.
They’re also rugged. You can tell by looking at the Hobbit House, or that inn in New Zealand, that you’d have to work pretty hard to do more than superficial damage to either. They’ll age well; scratches and scars will become patina. And a century from now or two, long after this year’s version of “modern” looks absurdly dated, they’ll still look like they belong exactly where they are.
One mathematical possibility I find plausible for explaining their appeal: these buildings exhibit something like fractal self-similarity. The rooflines resemble 1/f noise. Small details echo large ones; similar forms and proportions show up at multiple scales. These are features by which the human eye recognizes natural forms. Perhaps this is why they seem so restful.
I wish we could learn to build like this again – not as a movie set or a stunt, but as a living idiom. Factories and offices don’t need what these buildings have, but homes – the places where people actually live – do. I think we’d all be saner and happier for it.