It took me a few weeks of working on-site before I realised something was off. At first, the commonality of the surroundings waylaid me into believing that it was just another suburban residential project. The other labourers on-site went about their business as usual, erecting makeshift tents for our lunch breaks, stacking the wooden planks at the far end of the site under a tarp (it was early Autumn, so rains were not uncommon) and messing about whenever the foreman wasn’t looking.
We made swift progress on the foundation, filling it with cement without any hitches (not that there usually were) and then moving onto the pillars for the basement and ground floor.
We weren’t a large team - just twelve of us per shift, excluding the foreman - and we only went six days per week. Apparently the client was a friend of the constructor, and they had struck a better deal on the promise of a more lenient delivery schedule. All this was fine by me. Who was I to complain if we didn’t have the foreman down our throats every time we took a break to smoke? Or just joked around, as one is bound to on-site. After all, there’s only so much sawing and hammering one can do before tiring.
No, I first became concerned when we started laying down the planks on the basement floor. I had already started lining up the sanded oak planks when the foreman intervened.
Foreman: What are you doing?
I: Laying down the planks for the floor.
Foreman: Why so much oak?
I: I thought we were doing oak for the floor.
Foreman: We are!
At this point I got a bit confused, but we continued.
I: So what’s the problem?
Foreman: You’re only laying down oak.
I: What else do you want?
Foreman: We’ve got such great maple over there.
He points to the pile of maple planks.
I: So you want maple for the floor?
Foreman: And birch too. And we’ve got cherry, pine, redwood. Some mahogany too, if I’m not wrong. Right?
Another labourer was standing nearby, to whom the ‘right’ had been instructed.
Other labourer: Yup, mahogany too.
I: Wait, so you want them all together?
The other labourer left.
Foreman: Yes, just a nice, big variety.
I was trying to figure out whether he was joking or not.
I: Are you joking?
Foreman: I’m not.
It appears that he was not.
Well, to hell with that, I thought. Even if he is joking, he already gave me instructions. Thus, I went about my 'right' business, stacking up a nice variety of wooden planks and then laying them down next to each other. I must admit that I had some misgivings regarding the situation, and the ease with which everyone else on the crew lay down awful combinations of fir with pine, and cedar with beech, did little to reassure me. However, the day passed without the foreman giving any other instructions, and by the time the sun had set, the basement floor was coloured with what must have been thirty or forty shades of brown. I remember shrugging before setting off home. Wasn’t going to be my head getting chewed off when the client saw.
The next day was much the same. I had begun working on the ceiling for the ground floor, and the foreman once again instructed me to use a variety of finishes. This time, I didn’t question him. At some point in the early afternoon, I spotted a couple of tiles wedged vertically between the planks, i.e. visibly protruding from the planks. Certain that there must be some mistake (I mean, different types of wood is one thing, but this was an actual hazard) I approached the foreman.
Foreman: What is it?
I: I think there’s a problem. Have you seen that tile?
Foreman: What tile?
I was already pointing to the tile, about ten feet away, but he didn’t seem to notice. I stepped closer and prodded it with my foot, pointing down once more:
I: This tile.
Foreman: Oh, that tile.
Foreman: Well, what about it?
I: It’s a stone tile.
I: Wedged between wooden planks…
I waited for the moment of realisation to come, but the foreman’s face did not seem to register any shock.
I: On the floor… A stone tile wedged between wooden tiles.
Foreman: Why are you wasting my time with this?
I stared hard at him, the confusion from the previous day surfacing once more. Was he being serious?
I: Are you be-
I then remembered yesterday’s response so I cut my question short. Instead, I tried a different approach.
I: It’s placed vertically.
Foreman: Yes. This way you can see more of it.
I: But it’s dangerous. Someone might trip over it.
The foreman grew visibly annoyed at my comment.
Foreman: That isn’t fair.
I: What do you mean? What isn’t fair?
Foreman: You can’t just neglect the stone tiles because you’re afraid someone won’t be looking were they’re going.
I didn’t really know what to say to that.
I: I don’t know what to say.
Foreman: Just get back to work. The client’s coming by at the end of the week and I want the ground floor finished by then.
I nodded sullenly and got back to work.
The next few days kept getting worse and worse. It was as though all the principles of construction had been tossed out of the window. I spotted co-workers cementing planks of wood together, trying to nail stone tiles to the floor, and even placing a flimsy layer of glass where the door would be installed.
I: What’s this here?
I asked incredulous.
One of the other labourers: A glass plaque.
He did not seem to share my concerns.
I: What ever for?
He again: When someone’s waiting for the door to open they’ll be able to look down and see themselves.
That seals it, I thought. The constructor must hold some grudge against the client, and this is some terrible kind of practical joke.
But the end of the week came around, and when the client visited, I was met with a reaction entirely contrary to expectations.
He was a great big man, with a large, practically spherical belly, and a shock of blonde hair that seemed to extend equally on all sides. When he clasped the (comparatively puny) foreman’s hand, he enveloped it wholly, and all that was a left was a ball of soft flesh. Now, none of this is particularly relevant when it comes to his opinion on the house, but I thought I’d give you the flow of information as it came to me. Perhaps there’s something of importance - something justifying this peculiar sequence of events - that I happened to miss.
So there’s the spherical client and the foreman. Now, usually, I don’t pay too much attention to what the clients say. The foreman also advises to steer clear of them whenever they happen to visit, and, of course, under no circumstance are we to lay about. So you have to understand, I took great precautionary measures to allow me to listen in to their conversation. First of all, I volunteered to fill the cement mixer and, after much bartering (as you can imagine, filling the cement mixer is one of the simplest jobs on site), I made sure I got the mixer to myself. Then, when I saw the client approach I drew the foreman to me, asking obtuse and incoherent questions so as to get him to focus all his attention on me. This meant that he did not see the client, and, consequently, that the client was forced to approach us instead.
Once they began talking, I turned the mixer to the lowest setting and inched closer.
Foreman: We’ll be done in three months I reckon. Two-and-a-half if there no hitches.
Client: Wonderful, I took a look around and it seems to be shaping up well.
Foreman: Yes, I think so too. We’ll start work on the first floor next week, so we’ll install the door then.
I moved closer to the two men, thinking I must have misheard.
Client: And the ladder? Have we decided on a ladder yet?
What were they talking about?
Foreman: There are a couple of designs I’ve got in mind, but I think it’s best to wait until the door’s gone in.
I shook my head in confusion. Either I was hearing things, or something about this house was entirely off. I decided I must act, lest this poor, rotund man - on second thought, given the scale of the house he probably wasn’t that poor at all - so, lest this potentially affluent, rotund man, was cheated out of a functional house.
Perhaps it was because my mind was swirling with a variety of confused thoughts and suspicions that I chose to disregard the breadth of information at my disposal: the client had clearly agreed to the foreman’s ludicrous suggestions, he had also seen the current progress (remember that awful, protruding tile?) and was even friends with the constructor. Hardly the ideal candidate for the foreman to trick. However, for whatever reason, these facts did not register at the time.
I waited until the client was done touring the site with the foreman, and then rushed out of the lot, punching out my break on the timecard. I caught up to him just as he reached his car, a long, shiny black vehicle with a large metal grille at the front - certainly not a poor man. Our conversation went something like this:
I: Hello! Hi, yes, hello!
Client: Hello. How can I help you?
I: I work down at the house you’re building, I just saw you leave.
Client: I noticed.
I: If you don’t mind, I think there’s something wrong with the house.
Client: Why don’t you take it up with the foreman?
I looked around to make sure no one could see us. The coast was clear.
I: Well, you see. How should I put this… I think he’s the problem.
Client: In what way?
I: The construction of the house is all wrong. Why, just yesterday, he had us placing different types of wood on the floor. It’s all different colours now.
The client didn’t seem particularly surprised by my admission.
Client: I told him to do that.
I didn’t understand.
I: I don’t understand. Why would you do that?
Client: Well, it’s simple. You see, when I was a young boy I grew up with many different friends, but as life progressed we all drifted apart, our careers taking us to different cities and countries.
I nodded uncertainly. I couldn’t tell where this was going.
Client: So, at some point I decided I’d had enough. I wanted to settle down and live my life without the stress and difficulties that a career brings.
I: Well, that’s all very well for you, but what does it have to do with the house?
Client: Don’t you see? The planks of wood are my friends, and now our paths have been joined again, despite the fact that we were all cut down from the forest.
He’s mad, I thought, but pushed on.
I: But, don’t you want the house to look good? I mean, there’s even a stone tile protruding from the floor at one spot! That’s a hazard.
The client nodded solemnly.
Client: That represents the inevitable setbacks in life.
I couldn’t help myself at this point.
I: And the door? Are you seriously placing the entrance on the first floor?
Client: Why yes, that was the architect’s suggestion. A genius in his field. He’s received multiple awards by international organisations.
I: But how on earth are people meant to enter the house?
I was practically shrieking by this point. The client looked over me with concern.
Client: Are you alright?
I waved my hand at him to continue.
Client: The door will be accessible by a ladder found in the garden. It represents the struggles one has to overcome in order to start a new venture. And we’ve made sure that each rung of the ladder will be composed from a different alloy, some weaker than others. You won’t be able to tell by sight, of course, but you never know, one might give way as you’re climbing. That’s the beauty of it.
I was speechless. He was clearly insane. And the architect and the foreman too.
Client: The house will become a reference point for modern residential architecture. No longer will be bound by conventional norms of aesthetics and functionality. No, we are building the first authentic living experience. There will be no cutting corners here - metaphorically speaking of course. We might end up cutting some actual corners.
He chuckled at his joke.
Client: From now on, residential living will be defined by the lives of the inhabitants of each house. Each imperfection implemented as accurately as possible. No longer will architects and engineers define what is considered ‘good’ or ‘beautiful,’ that is for us, the inhabitants, to determine. For a house to truly be liveable you do not need experience or aesthetic convictions, just the desire to produce something authentic. Something that recognises the inherent instrumentalism of architecture and design.
I bade farewell to the client and walked back shakily, drawing heavily from my cigarette. Standing by the ramped entrance to the site, I watched my co-workers, erecting the ground-floor walls - two made of wood, and the other two of brick. With no windows in sight. They shouted across to each other merrily, passing up planks and blocks to fill up this prison they were creating. Turning around I gazed out to the city. A cluster of apartment blocks towered above the city in the city, and ahead of it nestled shorter blocks and a few semi-detached houses. All with windows, all with doors. But these too were made out of wood and stone, and who knows how long they would last. Thirty years? Sixty? And what then? What would happen when the time came to replace them with monstrosities such as the client's? To construct a city from mismatched tiles and inaccessible doorways?
And what of the future generations? Who would grow with such houses surrounding them? What would happen on the day a child looked up to this dreadful wooden-brick structure, and thought ‘My, how beautiful our city is!’