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Dream House
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As if in a dream, I found the house. The winding path was overgrown, and the twisted, almost horizontal, vine trunks rose gradually to announce a sudden wall with a small door to a kitchen: a transition from messy overshadowing leaves to white-domed domesticity. From there, like servants, we entered the grander spaces. Every room delighted me, and we walked round the abandoned house in awe, our sole guide saying as little as possible.

What can I really remember? The purity of the repeated arches throughout the house; the triumph of the main room looking out at the blazing Mediterranean, empty but for a Steinway grand; the decadent promise of the sunken bath cut into the floor with four submerged marble armchairs facing each other like compass points; the colonnade-arched swimming pool; the intimate bedroom in a separate annex, and most of all, on another terrace facing the garden, the outdoor table of black marble with fluted square black marble legs, and not a chair in sight. I imagined the parties, the poolside antics and conversations with Greta Garbo, Jean Cocteau, Somerset Maughan and Cecil Beaton.

I walked out to the lawn overlooking the beach, drunk with the perfect house. So simple, so pure. Nothing forced, all in place, numinous. I was ready to move in. The guide drew on a cigarette and I assumed the private tour was over, and that it was time to tip him. But he had more. We walked down an unpromising path, to the beach, I supposed. Turning right through the dunes it led to a perfect amphitheatre facing out to sea. An unseen Chorus sang of the battle of ancient civilizations, the victors building on the demolished stones and then being drawn back to the same places, a palimpsest held together with garum.

The rest of the holiday was something of a haze. The kids were selling oranges, and pestered us interminably. We swam in hotel pool, I suppose. A visit to a souk. That was it.

It would be too much to say that I have spent the intervening 45 years searching for it, but I never forgot it. Long before the Internet I might have tried some guide books, or simply asked some architects to name it, so that I could find out more about its history. Perhaps that would have been too easy, and would have broken the spell of a tour conducted somewhat against my will, with no great hopes, just the two of us and the very quiet guide, doing his duty on a slow day.

Frank Lloyd Wright rated it “the most beautiful house I have ever seen”.

Guided by accounts of new archaeology on the events of 21st July 365, I found it last night, just like the first time, rising barely visible from the overgrown path of memory.

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  1. Beautiful essay. If you want a cheat code on what it’s about, given the hints and using said internet mentioned above, I looked it up. 🙂

    The house, maybe estate(?), is Dar Sebastian in Tunisia. Some pictures



    • Replies: @James Thompson
    , @hyperbola
  2. @Nathan Taylor

    Congratulations. I make a rule never to take down a comment, but if you take it down and re-post it once a day I will keep congratulating you.

  3. dearieme says:

    Somerset Maughan: any relation to Somerset Maugham?

  4. hyperbola says:
    @Nathan Taylor

    Looks like pretty standard mediterranean architecture, with local Tunisian variation. A few thousand years of architectural evolution in a privileged climate produces some stunning beauty. Frank Lloyd Wright is pretty provincial and overrated.

    Casas mediterráneas 55 fotos e ideas de fachadas e interiores

    • Replies: @James Thompson
  5. EH says:

    A beautiful place. It’s too bad vaulting and real plaster has fallen out of favor in building over the past few decades, it gives an open and expansive feel that concrete and Sheetrock can never match. Though lacking vaulting, the smooth curves remind me of the adobe lodge buildings at Ghost Ranch, Abiquiu New Mexico, where Georgia O’Keefe lived and painted from the 1930s on, and where the Intermountain Yearly Friends (Quaker) Meeting is still held. I was there in the early ’80s, age nine and ten, which may brighten my recollections.

    I remember old Brinton Turkle there, a children’s book writer and illustrator best known for his “Obadiah” books about an early 19th century Quaker boy on Nantucket. Though Brinton was monochrome colorblind, he painted well in color, which he accomplished, he said, through a well-organized paint box and “knowing what colors things were supposed to be.” He also had many amusing anecdotes about his childhood in the mortuary business.

    The Mediterranean is always beautiful, but never more so than the weeks around the equinoxes, when the golden hour lasts most of the day, the air is clear and cool and everything appears supernaturally sharp in the brilliant sunlight. Your Tunisian dream house reminds me also of my dream village, where I stayed for Easter week back in 2004: Olympos on Karpathos, the least visited of the large Mediterranean islands, located about midway between Crete and Rhodes (the latter near the Anatolian coast). Olympos is extremely isolated, taking hours to get to over bad roads from the other end of the island, perched on a crag overlooking the sea in order to deter pirate raids, surrounded by ancient terraces covering much of the island, some of which still grow emmer wheat for the heavy local bread, but also with wild highlands and deserted coasts that let one imagine that they are now as they were in the days of Odysseus.

    • Replies: @James Thompson
  6. EH says:

    There are still craftsmen who can economically build vaults such as would be needed to make a house modeled on Dar Sebastian, for instance these Mexican masons doing Catalan-style vaulting (13 min. YouTube video)(such as Gaudi often used), which does not require formwork; with the right consistency of mortar the bricks (or stone blocks) simply adhere to the vertical edge of the vault in progress as if by magic. The Mexicans often do fancy patterns with the various shades of burning on the bricks that the local kilns produce (an innovation over the old Catalan style), but if plastered the vaults have that light and airy look of Mediterranean architecture. Besides a speeded-up video of them constructing a vault, the video also gives links to the correct mortar mix and contact information of the masons. It also notes that multiple-story vaulting and other variations are not difficult.

    Other formless vault construction methods are possible, such as the Nubian vault, which lays the courses / arches at an angle to the vertical (working with mud brick and mud mortar) and the Guastavino tile method, which uses the adhesion of the mortar across horizontal faces of tiles instead of vertical or oblique edges of bricks as in the other two methods.

    I suspect that despite vaults being proven over millennia, convincing the local building inspector to sign off would likely be more difficult than actually constructing a vaulted house.

  7. Renoman says:

    I dream of a small house and a big adjoining barn. Cleaning and maintenance have taken all the joy out of a big house for me. A place for all my stuff of which we all have too much that I can clean with an open door and a leaf blower. Lots of asphalt for lots of parking and less lawn, all the gardens on raised benches that I don’t have to bend over to weed. That’s what I want.

  8. Studley says:

    Thought it might have been Maugham’s pre-war Villa Mauresque from the description.

    Funny, sort of, hbd story that an American tourist on the Riviera with the surname Maugham went to the Villa and politely asked, “It’s such an unusual surname I just wonder if we might be related?”
    The author’s response on looking at him was that he had no doubt due to the resemblance.

  9. @hyperbola

    Thanks. To my eye the Greek houses at the end of the list of photos come closest to the simplicity of Dar Sebastian.

  10. @EH

    Olympos is very beautiful. Let us hope they have not improved the roads.

  11. @dearieme

    Somerset Maughan: any relation to Somerset Maugham?

    I think he’s closer to Maughan Vonroe.

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