v 2020

Notes on Solitude

A piece on solitude in lockdown for House & Garden.


It always comes as a surprise

To find I’m here with you

You smile and I am rubbing my eyes

At a dream come true

Pet Shop Boys

Mexican architect Luis Barragan’s Pritzker acceptance speech was a list of truths on the power of architecture, and what forms it.

Human life deprived of beauty is not worthy of being called so;

A perfect garden – no matter its size – should enclose nothing less than the entire universe.

The one I have returned to, for obvious reasons, in the last couple of weeks is this:

Only in intimate communion with solitude may man find himself. Solitude is good company, and my architecture is not for those who fear or shun it.

I suspect my work is the same, my own flat, where I’m locked down, included. Architecture should provide space for all moods. But not always somewhere to hide.

Instinctively, we reach out.

On Hampstead Heath, my early morning designated exercise venue, I have developed an interest in blossom. There is a fenced-in area over which I’ve watched a soft white blossom cloud hover for the last week. The cloud is fading now, and this morning there’s a single tree with a brighter white bloom taking its place, as if it pierced the cloud. Plant-minded friends holed-up in Dorset are bemused to be receiving photos of twigs from me asking for identification [blackthorn turning to bird cherry, it is thought]. I would like to garden in blossoms, I think, imagining I have just invented a new genre of gardening, until I think of the Ryoan-ji temple on the outskirts of Kyoto, with its blossom garden from the fifteenth century.

London feels like the World Cup final is in its last few minutes, with England about to lose.

Distancing comes naturally to the middle class walkers of the Heath.

The first thing I did at my home desk was to clear the line of sight. A beautiful space is pretty easy to achieve. Terence Conran had it pat when he said his advice whenever asked for interior design advice was: Take everything in your house out onto the street and only let what you need back in.

Enforced solitude is putting life under a lamp of inspection. This doesn’t seem the time for hiding, or, as my neighbour put it this week, for flim flam.

Back home, I lie on the sofa in the late morning sun with eyes half closed, with the summer-like breeze coming through the open windows. The sun turning everything blue feels like childhood, playing on the lawn in the garden.

I feel the urge to strip back, and then a bit more, and face what is coming with equanimity.

And hopefully a little humour. There’s a suspicion that solitary spaces lack humour. Is a joke funny If no-one is there to hear you laugh?

I stir to play the piano – modest Bach, Haydn and Arvo Pärt. Tomorrow, as I head for my daily shop, a neighbour will ask across the street if it was me playing the piano, to which I will diffidently stumble an answer, fearing I have invaded the street’s solitude through open windows. “It was beautiful”, they will tell me.

Is it the curse of solitude, or the luxury,  “Are you ok on your own?”  or  God, I’d kill for some time to myself”? In this time when the kindest thing you can do for someone is to stay away from them, when the new polite is to give a wide berth.

Is solitude a burden, a privilege, an indulgence, a freedom? It is all of those things. Right now, it is a dictat.

Solitude is not loneliness, though this is not to say that the two do not know each other.

Friends message through the day with random thoughts, updates on art projects… one has downloaded Sim and sends me the virtual house he has built himself, encouraging me to sign up. Building virtual houses is what I have been doing all my life, I think.

You have to work alone to find peace in solitude, it is hard to cheer people along in solitude, though we are trying. It is hard to share a meal in solitude. It is hard to read someone’s thoughts in solitude, it is hard to change the world in solitude. It is surprisingly hard to concentrate in solitude. It is hard to care for someone in solitude. Although we are learning that none of these is impossible.

Is keeping sole company with a dog mad, sad, touching or touched? For his part, Dylan, the dog, is not into solitude. He has perfected a rolling eye “Oh, you again” look, paired with a nod towards Samuel Becket’s famously impossible stage direction ‘The door is imperceptibly ajar.’

For lunch I flash-fry floured sardines from the fishmongers I have found on the way back from the Heath, and eat them outside in the sun with lemon and a restrained glass of Chablis (I am controlling consumption by upping quality, which seems to be working). My terrace is the exact size of a person lying down, which is what I do on it afterwards.

Solitude has limits. What I’d like to be doing during lockdown is re-learning the ‘cello, last played (badly) when I was a student.  But that would not be kind on my neighbours, separated by Georgian walls.

For Bruce Chatwin, a bare room was all that was needed – in your mind you can travel anywhere: For, no matter how small the room, providing your eye could travel freely around it, the space it contained was limitless. Though so said the man who had travelled everywhere. “Gone to Patagonia. Back in six months” is not currently open to us.

It’s almost the opposite. Rather than my room stretching to fill the world, the world has shrunk to fit my room.

Ironically, the world feels less global and more local now. From my locked-in solitude I feel more connected to the world than I did before.

In the afternoon I paint, satisfactorily (which is actually excellent). I am interrupted by a delivery, a food box from a local restaurant. I’d slightly forgotten it was coming (with people captive, the delivery slot is all day), so the pleasure is doubled, and then quadrupled by a bunch of the brightest blowsiest red and white tulips, a gift from the chef. (Posting a picture of them on Instagram later, an Insta-friend messages that two-tone tulips are the result of a bacterial infection, encouraged by growers for commercial benefit, which makes these seem an apt bunch for the times.)

Perhaps through lack of empathy or imagination, but growing up I only understood history through buildings, until one day I reflected that, presumably, man has always dreamt (aren’t there ancient dream paintings?). I can connect with anyone of any time when I think of their nightmares. We are all vulnerable. We all share fear, and so the world has become smaller.

Bach’s St Matthew’s Passion is on the radio for Good Friday evening. A friend and I were supposed to have gone to Hamburg this week to hear it performed at Herzog & de Meuron’s gargantually over-budget Elbphilharmonie concert hall. Architecture and music: a perfect (and much-anticipated) trip; pilgrimage really. (Plus it’s always heartening to see other architects’ budget overruns). It was cancelled of course, and the radio concert tonight is dire, but I find a moving recording by our performers to stream instead, and make a contribution to them in appreciation.

I have the simultaneous vicarious pleasure of having persuaded a friend, deeper into lockdown in Rome, to watch A Single Man tonight (after initial scepticism now one of my favourite films), and of receiving rave reviews through the evening.

The biggest challenge I find working alone is not space so much as time: with less to measure it by, time seems to move non-linearly. Five minutes take an hour; an afternoon passes in moments. How do you plan for that?

This time, the magic hours that go like minutes, this is the true solitude.

And here’s a thought: a bit of disarray is good. Achieve the perfect state, and then what?

Perhaps once you’ve come to terms with that,

Solitude is good company.

Confirmation. The strategy is working and there is still Chablis for tomorrow.