Design Matters: A Look Inside The Turtle House

CIERA PASTUREL / AGGIE

Well-known co-op coins design aesthetic all its own

An outdoor study space was the first area to catch my eye at the Davis-famous “Turtle House,” which is located on 2nd Street and gets its name from the large turtle figure that hangs on the top porch. Old, rusting desks surrounded a long table made out of a dinged surfboard while overhanging trees provided a canopy of shade. There are various artifacts across the front yard — among slightly overgrown grass was an antique carved coffee table with a couple of empty craft beer bottles and a heap of lawn clippings placed artistically on top. It’s an odd pick, but there was something enchanting about the setup. These artifacts decorate this massive property, not just the front yard.

The four-unit house, currently housing 18 student residents, has been an oasis for cooperative, creative living since the late 1990s. One can feel the history of the house in every speck of dust and creak of the floorboards. It is chaotic, not out of distress or a lack of care, but rather out of unwieldy genuineness. The Turtle House’s unique living style emphasizes how decoration and the setup of a home directly impacts its inhabitants. There are lessons to be learned in the ways humans intentionally decorate and interact with their living space, and the vibrant entity that is the Turtle House is no exception, grass-heap decorations and all.

One of the defining features of the Turtle House is its close integration with nature and its surrounding environment. This feature, in turn, has made the outside world part of the design, and even the focus of the house. No wonder the beautifully janky study space is among the trees in the front yard.

“We try to make the space available for animals to live in,” said Marco de la Fava, a fourth-year neurology, physiology and behavior major and resident of the Turtle House. “We have a possum, two bluebirds, a small flock of birds, six chickens, two cats, baby squirrels and adult squirrels, a variety of bugs and insects, fish and microbial communities.”

A once-feral cat brushes its back on the sun-stained couch.

Beyond the various animals that live on the Turtle House property, the focus on nature has become integral to the design of the house — a compost area and multiple vegetable boxes take up the majority of space and design of the front yard.

“It’s nice to have a house centered around [nature] and that has so much open outdoor space,” said Mimi Pinna, a third-year international relations major resident of the Turtle House. “It made me realize that I need to have a garden to take care of or a reason to go outside. Being outside allows me to be quiet, and that is my favorite thing about living here.”

Pinna’s comment was almost ironic after considering the design aesthetic of the house — couches, random blankets and pillows filled the space. Various lights, banners and dried flowers were hung on the ceiling. How can a space with so much be so quiet?

“No one knows what’s going on with the design,” de la Fava said. “It is obvious that the Turtle House is unmanageable. But in a house where there are just four people it’s less obvious that it is unmanageable, so people cling to the illusion that they can control every aspect of their area. It’s nice here because it is so in-your-face.”

However, there is a beauty in the disordered aesthetic of the house; the focus of the house is not how one can make the house aesthetically pleasing, but how the design can make an experience of communal benefit to the rest of the housemates.

As Pinna put it, you are “submitting to what is. The style of the Turtle House [simply] is. I felt like a lot of the complications of my life fell away once I moved in here because I got to be my normal healthy self without a lot of distractions,” Pinna said.

For de la Fava, the house has been a practice in his submission to what he cannot control. To explain this, he recited a Serenity Prayer to me that he had memorized:

“God grant me the serenity of the things I cannot change and the courage to change the things I can,” de la Fava said. “Even though I don’t have control in the overall design and the house itself, I can still have fun, small, creative projects that are actually really rewarding. It’s a weird balance — I can’t have it exactly the way I want it, but I can have it pretty close, and I can make a big difference if specifically I am willing to make the difference.”

What makes the house communal is the design as well. Since there is no dictation over design, the design itself becomes a canvas for spontaneity.

“Empty, usable space for people to enjoy is our design,” de la Fava said.

Such empty space is often used for music performances — the basement is one of multiple venues used for informal jam sessions as well as professional concerts. For fourth-year chemical engineering major and Turtle House resident Obin Sturm, such emphasis on music changes the design and the feel of the house, letting fluidity contribute to the creative atmosphere of the house.

“Space isn’t just physical but audial,” Sturm said. “Often the physical space opens up possibilities for audio space. The two together is what makes an overall space.”

Sturm spoke specifically of a free piano he and [Turtle House resident] Noah Rosenberg found on Craigslist, which is an example of the fluctuating design of the house. As seasons change, the piano is moved spontaneously to fit the moment of the jam session.  

“Spaces can change with the seasons, but spontaneous decisions move it,” Sturm said. “They completely alter the effect the Turtle House gives to people. Sometimes the space gets rearranged into a way that I like. Since we have so many people having different projects, things move around and then they accidently are part of the look.”

Simply put, the residents change the house as much as the house determines its visitors.

“Different designs bring different types of people in,” Sturm said. “The fact that it is changing allows for different experiences to come my way, from raucous jam sessions on the cottage porch to quiet basement jams on a winter night in the basement. The very changing space of the Turtle House has given a lot of diversity to experience.”

The Turtle House is proof that design in itself is not always for an aesthetic purpose, but rather a catalyst for personal experiences. While unconventional, the Turtle House is as alive as its residents.
Written by: Caroline Rutten — arts@theaggie.org

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