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Why I wanted to work in academia


Designing my dream house
Carl Djerassi Scientist
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That disciple of Frank Lloyd Wright made then that model, and I remember my wife and I visiting them. They lived in Sausalito, a marvellous place just outside San Francisco, and he had it actually covered with a... a cloth, and he, sort of, dramatically opened that.  And first of all I just looked at it, and I had this intuitive feeling it was all wrong, and I couldn’t put my finger completely on it. I sort of, looked at my wife and... well, all wrong, as the roof was removed.  And in desperation I said, 'But where would... where would I put pictures?' And he said, 'Ah, there’s a place right here where you can...' and he showed me then a design, 'where you can lean a picture right there'. He said, 'a picture', and I said, 'Yes, and..?' He said, 'Well, then you remove it and you put another one there'. Well, you know, I mean I already realised we were just not communicating on the same wavelength, and extricated ourselves from that, and that’s when I felt that architect should live with us, because he has to understand it’s going to be my house... our house, and that is... he has to find out how we live.  And we... well, we want to have privacy for everyone in the house, so that was essential. We wanted to have a large living room, not broken up, and we didn’t even want to have a dining room, so we ended up with a 40ft long living room, you know, which is substantial, and there was plenty of space for pictures and... and books, and stuff like that here, and the same thing with the children's rooms and the study, and it worked beautifully.

So, then he got a very good builder, and so that was probably January of the year in which we were going to move on September... let’s say the 6th or 8th, something like that... early September. So, we said we want to move into that house when we arrive. So, on September 6th, let’s say, that house has to be finished, so that when we arrive from the airport we can sleep there, and we ordered some bed... most of the furniture was going to be... some was going to be shipped, but most of it was going to be new furniture anyway, and so we ordered beds, so they would be available.  And finally, we met the builder, which was a wonderful Finnish builder, very high quality, but he drew up his contract, and I said, 'But you know it’s September 6th?' He said, 'Yeah, okay'. I said, 'But we are going to do what we do in Mexico, that is there is a penalty clause, and you pay X dollars a day that you are late', and that was a significant sum, and you know, by that time the man was withdrawing and said, 'Yeah, but you know, how do I know?' I said, 'Well, but that’s, that’s part of the thing. I’m willing to pay for this, but that’s what it is', and I said, 'I’ll make it quid pro quo. I’ll pay you for every day you’re early'. So that, of course was a real incentive, but it turned out that, in fact, they met exactly the deadline, and what was so amusing is that I... it shows again why I’m a tough client to have, I had one... one thing I’ve always... I’ve been always interested in art in the places where I work, on walls, in offices, and things like this, and particularly in office structures, where there are frequently long gangways, and you know, you walk, and you have... everything is empty and there are just doors on the side. And if you had something to focus on at a distance, particularly if it’s something artistic, in one way or another startling, then you focus on that and you don’t see the doors behind you. The gangway becomes just a tunnel where you focus on the light at the end of the tunnel. And there was such a corridor in that... in that house, with bathroom doors, and my study door came off, and that led to a bedroom door. And I said, 'What I would like you to do to that bedroom door, I would like you to convert the entire bedroom door', and I sent him the design, 'into a Mondrian painting'. Of course, not a painting, either you could... yeah, a Mondrian, and after any painter... house painter can, of course, copy a Mondrian. It’s not a Mondrian, but the design is there, and the Mondrian design worked quite well for that, to focus on, even from the distance, but you don’t have to see any real details there. The architect loved this, but said, 'Okay, I’ll modify it, we’ll make it really out of very high-quality plastic, rather than painting it'. Now, that was more complicated, but I said, 'Fine', so that was that.

So, there we arrive on 6th September, and the architect was so excited he actually met us at the airport. We were going to drive there and stay the first night there; it’s quite exciting to see your house. It was an experience for the... for the builder that he couldn’t believe, because we didn’t show up there before. You see, usually people come all the time, they want to change things, and so on, and we said, look, we’re going to make all the detail. We picked right at the beginning, the doorknobs, everything, so therefore it’s absolutely... there will be no changes, because otherwise this can... the other complication, of course, was the deadline comes in, when you always change everything. All the decisions, to the finest detail were made at the beginning, which usually you don’t, not in a residential house. And then I said... and the architect said... and he said, 'You’re not going to come', and I said, 'The architect is going to be responsible, so I don’t want any excuses, and I want him to show up there every day, therefore...' instead of thinking that we should catch any mistakes. I paid for that, so he became a real supervising architect then.  He couldn’t just wash his hands of this, so... and he... they all accepted that, but... so we were very peculiar clients.

So then we arrived from Mexico City the builder hadn’t... essentially only had met us once, and there we arrived at this house and everything was superb, but that door wasn’t there. And that’s the first thing I noticed, and I said, 'But listen, didn’t I tell you about this door?' And the man felt terrible and said the plastic hadn’t been quite delivered yet, the... it was really a very fancy Formica, a coloured Formica that had to be cut, OK. And I said, 'All right, I don’t pay until you have that'. And it was a joke, of course, but until that door’s in, the house is not completed.

And that house was superb, and it was perhaps the most dramatic aspect of my eventual divorce that my... my wife ended up with that house, but I ended up with the exquisite one on the ranch, so it was not... but that house always was just... it was really perfect. It’s very rare that you end up in a house that has everything that you want, and it hasn’t changed. I mean this house was... it was built in 1960, this is 45 years later and it is a superb house, unbelievably high quality, and very well maintained.

Austrian-American Carl Djerassi (1923-2015) was best known for his work on the synthesis of the steroid cortisone and then of a progesterone derivative that was the basis of the first contraceptive pill. He wrote a number of books, plays and poems, in the process inventing a new genre, 'science-in-fiction', illustrated by the novel 'Cantor's Dilemma' which explores ethics in science.

Listeners: Tamara Tracz

Tamara Tracz is a writer and filmmaker based in London.

Tags: Pieter Cornelis Mondriaan, Piet Mondrian, Frank Lloyd Wright

Duration: 7 minutes, 41 seconds

Date story recorded: September 2005

Date story went live: 24 January 2008