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And He Built a Crooked House

Robert A. Heinlein

  ...And He Built A Crooked House -- Robert A. Heinlein

  (Version 2004.02.06 -- Done)

  Americans are considered crazy anywhere in the world.

  They will usually concede a basis for the accusation but point to California as the focus of the infection. Californians stoutly maintain that their bad reputation is derived solely from the acts of the inhabitants of Los Angeles County. Angelenos will, when pressed, admit the charge but explain hastily, "It's Hollywood. It's not our fault -- we didn't ask for it; Hollywood just grew."

  The people in Hollywood don't care; they glory in it. If you are interested, they will drive you up Laurel Canyon " -- where we keep the violent cases." The Canyonites -- the brown-legged women, the trunks-clad men constantly busy building and rebuilding their slaphappy unfinished houses -- regard with faint contempt the dull creatures who live down in the flats, and treasure in their hearts the secret knowledge that they, and only they, know how to live.

  Lookout Mountain Avenue is the name of a side canyon which twists up from Laurel Canyon. The other Canyonites don't like to have it mentioned; after all, one must draw the line somewhere!

  High up on Lookout Mountain at number 8775, across the street from the Hermit -- the original Hermit of Hollywood -- lived Quintus Teal, graduate architect.

  Even the architecture of southern California is different. Hot dogs are sold from a structure built like and designated "The Pup." Ice cream cones come from a giant stucco ice cream cone, and neon proclaims "Get the Chili Bowl Habit!" from the roofs of buildings which are indisputably chili bowls. Gasoline, oil, and free road maps are dispensed beneath the wings of tri-motored transport planes, while the certified rest rooms, inspected hourly for your comfort, are located in the cabin of the plane itself. These things may surprise, or amuse, the tourist, but the local residents, who walk bareheaded in the famous California noonday sun, take them as a matter of course.

  Quintus Teal regarded the efforts of his colleagues in architecture as faint-hearted, fumbling, and timid.

  "What is a house?" Teal demanded of his friend, Homer Bailey.

  "Well -- " Bailey admitted cautiously, "speaking in broad terms, I've always regarded a house as a gadget to keep off the rain."

  "Nuts! You're as bad as the rest of them."

  "I didn't say the definition was complete -- "

  "Complete! It isn't even in the right direction. From that point of view we might just as well be squatting in caves. But I don't blame you," Teal went on magnanimously, "you're no worse than the lugs you find practicing architecture. Even the Moderns -- all they've done is to abandon the Wedding Cake School in favor of the Service Station School, chucked away the gingerbread and slapped on some chromium, but at heart they are as conservative and traditional as a county courthouse. Neutra! Schindler! What have those bums got? What's Frank Lloyd Wright got that I haven't got?"

  "Commissions," his friend answered succinctly.

  "Huh? Wha' d'ju say?" Teal stumbled slightly in his flow of words, did a slight double take, and recovered himself. "Commissions. Correct. And why? Because I don't think of a house as an upholstered cave; I think of it as a machine for living, a vital process, a live dynamic thing, changing with the mood of the dweller -- not a dead, static, oversized coffin. Why should we be held down by the frozen concepts of our ancestors? Any fool with a little smattering of descriptive geometry can design a house in the ordinary way. Is the static geometry of Euclid the only mathematics? Are we to completely disregard the Picard-Vessiot theory? How about modular systems? -- to say nothing of the rich suggestions of stereochemistry. Isn't there a place in architecture for transformation, for homomorphology, for actional structures?"

  "Blessed if I know," answered Bailey. "You might just as well be talking about the fourth dimension for all it means to me."

  "And why not? Why should we limit ourselves to the -- Say!" He interrupted himself and stared into distances. "Homer, I think you've really got something. After all, why not? Think of the infinite richness of articulation and relationship in four dimensions. What a house, what a house -- " He stood quite still, his pale bulging eyes blinking thoughtfully.

  Bailey reached up and shook his arm. "Snap out of it. What the hell are you talking about, four dimensions? Time is the fourth dimension; you can't drive nails into that."

  Teal shrugged him off. "Sure. Sure. Time is a fourth dimension, but I'm thinking about a fourth spatial dimension, like length, breadth and thickness. For economy of materials and convenience of arrangement you couldn't beat it. To say nothing of the saving of ground space -- you could put an eight-room house on the land now occupied by a one-room house. Like a tesseract -- "

  "What's a tesseract?"

  "Didn't you go to school? A tesseract is a hypercube, a square figure with four dimensions to it, like a cube has three, and a square has two. Here, I'll show you." Teal dashed out into the kitchen of his apartment and returned with a box of toothpicks which he spilled on the table between them, brushing glasses and a nearly empty Holland gin bottle carelessly aside. "I'll need some plasticine. I had some around here last week." He burrowed into a drawer of the littered desk which crowded one corner of his dining room and emerged with a lump of oily sculptor's clay. "Here's some."

  "What are you going to do?"

  "I'll show you." Teal rapidly pinched off small masses of the clay and rolled them into pea-sized balls. He stuck toothpicks into four of these and hooked them together into a square. "There! That's a square."


  "Another one like it, four more toothpicks, and we make a cube." The toothpicks were now arranged in the framework of a square box, a cube, with the pellets of clay holding the corners together. "Now we make another cube just like the first one, and the two of them will be two sides of the tesseract."

  Bailey started to help him roll the little balls of clay for the second cube, but became diverted by the sensuous feel of the docile clay and started working and shaping it with his fingers.

  "Look," he said, holding up his effort, a tiny figurine, "Gypsy Rose Lee."

  "Looks more like Gargantua; she ought to sue you. Now pay attention. You open up one corner of the first cube, interlock the second cube at the corner, and then close the corner. Then take eight more toothpicks and join the bottom of the first cube to the bottom of the second, on a slant, and the top of the first to the top of the second, the same way." This he did rapidly, while he talked.

  "What's that supposed to be?" Bailey demanded suspiciously.

  "That's a tesseract, eight cubes forming the sides of a hypercube in four dimensions."

  "It looks more like a cat's cradle to me. You've only got two cubes there anyhow. Where are the other six?"

  "Use your imagination, man. Consider the top of the first cube in relation to the top of the second; that's cube number three. Then the two bottom squares, then the front faces of each cube, the back faces, the right hand, the left hand -- eight cubes." He pointed them out.

  "Yeah, I see 'em. But they still aren't cubes; they're whatchamucallems -- prisms. They are not square, they slant."

  "That's just the way you look at it, in perspective. If you drew a picture of a cube on a piece of paper, the side squares would be slaunchwise, wouldn't they? That's perspective. When you look at a four-dimensional figure in three dimensions, naturally it looks crooked. But those are all cubes just the same."

  "Maybe they are to you, brother, but they still look crooked to me."

  Teal ignored the objections and went on. "Now consider this as the framework of an eight-room house; there's one room on the ground floor -- that's for service, utilities, and garage. There are six roo
ms opening off it on the next floor, living room, dining room, bath, bedrooms, and so forth. And up at the top, completely enclosed and with windows on four sides, is your study. There! How do you like it?"

  "Seems to me you have the bathtub hanging out of the living room ceiling. Those rooms are interlaced like an octopus."

  "Only in perspective, only in perspective. Here, I'll do it another way so you can see it." This time Teal made a cube of toothpicks, then made a second of halves of toothpicks, and set it exactly in the center of the first by attaching the corners of the small cube to the large cube by short lengths of toothpick. "Now -- the big cube is your ground floor, the little cube inside is your study on the top floor. The six cubes joining them are the living rooms. See?"

  Bailey studied the figure, then shook his head. "I still don't see but two cubes, a big one and a little one. Those other six things, they look like pyramids this time instead of prisms, but they still aren't cubes."

  "Certainly, certainly, you are seeing them in different perspective. Can't you see that?"

  "Well, maybe. But that room on the inside, there. It's completely surrounded by the thingamujigs. I thought you said it had windows on four sides."

  "It has -- it just looks like it was surrounded. That's the grand feature about a tesseract house, complete outside exposure for every room, yet every wall serves two rooms and an eight-room house requires only a one-room foundation. It's revolutionary."

  "That's putting it mildly. You're crazy, bud; you can't build a house like that. That inside room is on the inside, and there she stays."

  Teal looked at his friend in controlled exasperation. "It's guys like you that keep architecture in its infancy. How many square sides has a cube?"


  "How many of them are inside?"

  "Why, none of 'em. They're all on the outside."

  "All right. Now listen -- a tesseract has eight cubical sides, all on the outside. Now watch me. I'm going to open up this tesseract like you can open up a cubical pasteboard box, until it's flat. That way you'll be able to see all eight of the cubes." Working very rapidly he constructed four cubes, piling one on top of the other in an unsteady tower. He then built out four more cubes from the four exposed faces of the second cube in the pile. The structure swayed a little under the loose coupling of the clay pellets, but it stood, eight cubes in an inverted cross, a double cross, as the four additional cubes stuck out in four directions. "Do you see it now? It rests on the ground floor room, the next six cubes are the living rooms, and there is your study, up at the top."

  Bailey regarded it with more approval than he had the other figures. "At least I can understand it. You say that is a tesseract, too?"

  "That is a tesseract unfolded in three dimensions. To put it back together you tuck the top cube onto the bottom cube, fold those side cubes in till they meet the top cube and there you are. You do all this folding through a fourth dimension of course; you don't distort any of the cubes, or fold them into each other."

  Bailey studied the wobbly framework further. "Look here," he said at last, "why don't you forget about folding this thing up through a fourth dimension -- you can't anyway -- and build a house like this?"

  "What do you mean, I can't? It's a simple mathematical problem -- "

  "Take it easy, son. It may be simple in mathematics, but you could never get your plans approved for construction. There isn't any fourth dimension; forget it. But this kind of a house -- it might have some advantages."

  Checked, Teal studied the model. "Hm-m-m -- Maybe you got something. We could have the same number of rooms, and we'd save the same amount of ground space. Yes, and we would set that middle cross-shaped floor northeast, southwest, and so forth, so that every room would get sunlight all day long. That central axis lends itself nicely to central heating. We'll put the dining room on the northeast and the kitchen on the southeast, with big view windows in every room. O.K., Homer, I'll do it! Where do you want it built?"

  "Wait a minute! Wait a minute! I didn't say you were going to build it for me -- "

  "Of course I am. Who else? Your wife wants a new house; this is it."

  "But Mrs. Bailey wants a Georgian house -- "

  "Just an idea she has. Women don't know what they want -- "

  "Mrs. Bailey does."

  "Just some idea an out-of-date architect has put in her head. She drives a new car, doesn't she? She wears the very latest styles -- why should she live in an eighteenth century house? This house will be even later than this year's model; it's years in the future. She'll be the talk of the town."

  "Well -- I'll have to talk to her."

  "Nothing of the sort. We'll surprise her with it. Have another drink."

  "Anyhow, we can't do anything about it now. Mrs. Bailey and I are driving up to Bakersfield tomorrow. The company's bringing in a couple of wells tomorrow."

  "Nonsense. That's just the opportunity we want. It will be a surprise for her when you get back. You can just write me a check right now, and your worries are over."

  "I oughtn't to do anything like this without consulting her. She won't like it."

  "Say, who wears the pants in your family anyhow?"

  The check was signed about halfway down the second bottle.

  Things are done fast in southern California. Ordinary houses there are usually built in a month's time. Under Teal's impassioned heckling the tesseract house climbed dizzily skyward in days rather than weeks, and its cross-shaped second story came jutting out at the four corners of the world. He had some trouble at first with the inspectors over those four projecting rooms but by using strong girders and folding money he had been able to convince them of the soundness of his engineering.

  By arrangement, Teal drove up in front of the Bailey residence the morning after their return to town. He improvised on his two-tone horn. Bailey stuck his head out the front door. "Why don't you use the bell?"

  "Too slow," answered Teal cheerfully. "I'm a man of action. Is Mrs. Bailey ready? Ah, there you are, Mrs. Bailey! Welcome home, welcome home. Jump in, we've got a surprise for you!"

  "You know Teal, my dear," Bailey put in uncomfortably.

  Mrs. Bailey sniffed. "I know him. We'll go in our own car, Homer."

  "Certainly, my dear."

  "Good idea," Teal agreed; " 'sgot more power than mine; we'll get there faster. I'll drive, I know the way." He took the keys from Bailey, slid into the driver's seat, and had the engine started before Mrs. Bailey could rally her forces.

  "Never have to worry about my driving," he assured Mrs. Bailey, turning his head as he did so, while he shot the powerful car down the avenue and swung onto Sunset Boulevard, "it's a matter of power and control, a dynamic process, just my meat -- I've never had a serious accident."

  "You won't have but one," she said bitingly. "Will you please keep your eyes on the traffic?"

  He attempted to explain to her that a traffic situation was a matter, not of eyesight, but intuitive integration of courses, speeds, and probabilities, but Bailey cut him short. "Where is the house, Quintus?"

  "House?" asked Mrs. Bailey suspiciously. "What's this about a house, Homer? Have you been up to something without telling me?"

  Teal cut in with his best diplomatic manner. "It certainly is a house, Mrs. Bailey. And what a house! It's a surprise for you from a devoted husband. Just wait till you see it -- "

  "I shall," she agreed grimly. "What style is it?"

  "This house sets a new style. It's later than television, newer than next week. It must be seen to be appreciated. By the way," he went on rapidly, heading off any retort, "did you folks feel the earthquake last night?"

  "Earthquake? What earthquake? Homer, was there an earthquake?"

  "Just a little one," Teal continued, "about two A.M. If I hadn't been awake, I wouldn't have noticed it."

  Mrs. Bailey shuddered. "Oh, this awful country! Do you hear that, Homer? We might have been killed in our beds a
nd never have known it. Why did I ever let you persuade me to leave Iowa?"

  "But my dear," he protested hopelessly, "you wanted to come out to California; you didn't like Des Moines."

  "We needn't go into that," she said firmly. "You are a man; you should anticipate such things. Earthquakes!"

  "That's one thing you needn't fear in your new home, Mrs. Bailey," Teal told her. "It's absolutely earthquake-proof; every part is in perfect dynamic balance with every other part."

  "Well, I hope so. Where is this house?"

  "Just around this bend. There's the sign now." A large arrow sign of the sort favored by real estate promoters proclaimed in letters that were large and bright even for southern California:



  See How Your Grandchildren Will Live!

  Q. Teal, Architect

  "Of course that will be taken down," he added hastily, noting her expression, "as soon as you take possession." He slued around the corner and brought the car to a squealing halt in front of the House of the Future. "Voila!" He watched their faces for response.

  Bailey stared unbelievingly, Mrs. Bailey in open dislike. They saw a simple cubical mass, possessing doors and windows, but no other architectural features, save that it was decorated in intricate mathematical designs. "Teal," Bailey asked slowly, "what have you been up to?"

  Teal turned from their faces to the house. Gone was the crazy tower with its jutting second-story rooms. No trace remained of the seven rooms above ground floor level. Nothing remained but the single room that rested on the foundations. "Great jumping cats!" he yelled, "I've been robbed!"

  He broke into a run.

  But it did him no good. Front or back, the story was the same: the other seven rooms had disappeared, vanished completely. Bailey caught up with him, and took his arm. "Explain yourself. What is this about being robbed? How come you built anything like this -- it's not according to agreement."

  "But I didn't. I built just what we had planned to build, an eight-room house in the form of a developed tesseract. I've been sabotaged, that's what it is! Jealousy! The other architects in town didn't dare let me finish this job; they knew they'd be washed up if I did."

  "When were you last here?"

  "Yesterday afternoon."

  "Everything all right then?"

  "Yes. The gardeners were just finishing up."

  Bailey glanced around at the faultlessly manicured landscaping. "I don't see how seven rooms could have been dismantled and carted away from here in a single night without wrecking this garden."

  Teal looked around, too. "It doesn't look it. I don't understand it."

  Mrs. Bailey joined them. "Well? Well? Am I to be left to amuse myself? We might as well look it over as long as we are here, though I'm warning you, Homer, I'm not going to like it."