The Alaina Rautio Interview

A controlled rainstorm, dolls that come to life, an accidental fire. Joshua Allen talks with architect Alaina Rautio about a house she built in a bottle in Portland, Maine.

Architect Alaina Rautio first gained notoriety in 1989 with her design for the revamped Sigismund Biehl Research Library at the University of Southern Maine. She retrofitted access ramps and lifts for the handicapped, added a new wing off the southeast corner, and made a number of cosmetic changes. Six months after construction was completed the head librarian noted an unusually high number of complaints of nausea from students who were working in the new wing. Richard Drew, sent by Central Maine Power to check for gas leaks in the building, was the first to notice the slightly off-kilter angles of the rooms and the gentle shifts in the floor’s incline.

Ms. Rautio’s subtle manipulation of vanishing points, skewed paneling, and non-standard sizes and shapes for doorways and stairs resulted in inner ears going haywire. It also resulted in Ms. Rautio losing her accreditation and her business. She then worked a series of odd jobs in the Portland, Maine, area before settling in as a layout editor for the Casco Bay Tribune, which, incidentally, ran a series of stories on the aftermath of her latest experiment.

Alaina Rautio
Alaina Rautio

The Bottle House, as it became to be known, quickly went from a minor curiosity to a hot-ticket item to a shard of glass flying into the face of onlooker Mr. Harris Menna, who is out of the hospital but in the midst of filing a lawsuit against Ms. Rautio.

I recently had the opportunity to meet with Ms. Rautio in the lobby of the Portland Regency and discuss the Bottle House project. What follows is an abridged transcript of the conversation.

TMN: OK, the Bottle House.

AR: Yes. [laughter]

TMN: Could you sort of give us an overview of your thoughts behind the project? Like, your initial plans?

AR: Well, I’d—I used to be an architect—

TMN: Right.

AR: And I think if I had to pick what I was meant to do, you know, my real calling, it’d be architecture. And even though that’s not my line of work anymore, I miss it. I miss that type of work. So I started thinking about building stuff on a smaller scale, something I could do in the privacy of my own home.

TMN: So like airplane models, or—

AR: [laughter] Yeah, basically. My grandfather, probably everybody’s grandfather, had the ship in a bottle up on his mantle and I decided that’s what I wanted to do. Construct a little something inside a bottle.

TMN: So where’d the idea for building a house come from?

AR: I know houses, I don’t know ships. And the Creedy Outpost—that’s up the coast a little, near Phippsburg?

TMN: I don’t know but OK.

AR: Well it’s this old, crumbling building, from the early 19th Century, just a little two-story stone house—well, it looks pretty much like the one in the bottle. I basically stole its look because I liked it, but mostly because it’s tall and narrow and would fit inside the bottle I had.

TMN: What was that, a moonshine jug?

AR: I think it was used for cider. Originally. We used it as a kind of piggy bank for years. I have no idea where it came from.

TMN: Was it difficult to adjust to working with—like, going from macro to micro?

AR: Yeah, it was a nightmare. It was actually no fun at all. Doing the plans, the blueprints, making sketches, that was all great, that’s what I enjoy doing. Actually building the little thing was just grunt work. Dealing with, you know, dentist mirrors and tweezers. And…you know, and I think that’s why I decided to do more with it. I finished it and didn’t feel—I just felt annoyed by the whole thing. [laughter] I felt like, OK, if I’ve spent all this energy making this house inside a bottle, I might as well really go whole-hog. Really just go ahead and add a bunch of features to it.

Side view of the Bottle House
Side view of the Bottle House

TMN: Well, the first time I remember hearing about it was pretty early on in the summer. When did you install it downtown?

AR: ‘Install’ is probably too lofty a word. I just snuck out there and—there’s that pedestal right there in the middle of town, you know, in front of the art museum, just begging to have something put there.

TMN: So you just snuck out there and dropped off the bottle?

AR: In the middle of the night.

TMN: Weren’t you afraid of molesterers [sic]?

AR: I was more afraid someone would swipe it. Which is why I decided to slowly reveal what all it could do. I figured if it kept surprising people, no one would touch it ‘til it’d done its thing.

TMN: OK, then let’s run down the list [of things it started doing]. The lights went on inside…

AR: Yeah, that was the first thing. There was a timer so they’d come on at sunset.

TMN: And then I remember hearing about the rainstorm. That’s when I hustled down there to see what exactly was going on.

AR: Well, first were a bunch of littler things, the flag going up and down, smoke coming out of the chimney. A little breeze now and then. I did it all by remote control.

The location of the Bottle House, in front of the Portland Museum of Art
The location of the Bottle House, in front of the Portland Museum of Art

TMN: What, were you hiding somewhere?

AR: I was in a window above the Kinko’s. People’d be standing there watching the bottle, waiting for it do something, and I’d wait until they gave up and left before turning something on.

TMN: That’s terrible.

AR: I just wanted it to live. You know? I didn’t want anyone to see it coming to life.

TMN: So, smoke in the chimney, the lights—

AR: Yeah, and then I started doing the weather stuff.

TMN: You had rain, thunder, fog…

AR: A kind of cheap-looking lightning, too. Basically just a light flashing through the little clouds that’d form in the top of the jug. I only did that a couple of times because it looked too fake.

TMN: And this was…what, a month into it?

AR: It was about six weeks between the time I first put [the bottle] out there and the time the first doll stuck her head out.

TMN: I saw that on the news. They were doing a story on the bottle and the front door opened.

AR: Yeah.

TMN: But I thought you didn’t want to activate anything while people were watching?

AR: It was TV. You know. I had to put on a show.

TMN: Everyone kind of squealed, I remember. The door opens and out comes this doll and she starts sweeping the front porch. Everyone went nuts.

AR: I couldn’t do a whole lot with the dolls in such a confined space, which was a little disappointing. They were all controlled by tracks at their feet and that really limited how much I could move them. Sweeping was pretty easy, just jerking back and forth. And the little one in the upper window, since she was mostly hidden from view—I could get a little more elaborate with that one.

TMN: You still managed to squeeze, like, a pretty good amount of drama out of them, though.

AR: I guess. If I’d known that’s where this whole thing was going I would’ve planned it out better beforehand. I sort of had to wing it.

TMN: I almost think…I’m thinking it almost worked better being so simple, because people just looked inside and drew their own conclusions about what was going on. You couldn’t tell, exactly, what the little gestures meant and all, so everyone filled in the blanks themselves.

AR: I guess so. Yeah. But I hated being misinterpreted. It was so aggravating.

TMN: What if I tell you what I thought was going on and you say yes or no.

AR: Go ahead. But I won’t say yes or no. I’m really afraid that whatever other people come up with will be better than what I came up with.

TMN: There’s a dad and his three daughters. Mom died in some kind of tractor accident.

AR: [laughter] OK.

TMN: Dad goes up on the roof to drink moonshine.

AR: Again with the moonshine.

TMN: Yeah, he’s drinking moonshine all day and he hides behind the clothes hanging on the clothesline up there. And the daughters are sad about their father being sad and want to do something to cheer him up, so they work on some mysterious project. Because there’s all the hammering noises? And the oldest girl is gathering wood from out back and bringing it in, and they have those secret meetings on the porch while dad is on the roof. Am I close or what?

AR: No comment.

TMN: I’m thinking they’re making a go-cart, since, well, because their dad used to be a famous racecar driver but gave it all up after the tractor accident. I don’t have any proof for that.

AR: [shrugs]

The Bottle House Family
The Bottle House Family

TMN: So they’re about to finish work on it when something goes wrong, they spill some oil or gas or something, something malfunctions, somebody drops a cigarette, maybe? And the youngest girl catches on fire. She opens up the window and yells for daddy but it’s too late. She’s on fire, the house is on fire and…and the house burns down.

AR: Goodness.

TMN: I mean a go-cart or, or anything, really.

AR: I’ll tell you one secret.


AR: The fire was not planned.

TMN: It wasn’t?

AR: A circuit blew—I think this is what happened—a circuit blew, there were some sparks, the doll caught fire and then everything caught fire.

TMN: So the bottle shattering, that was an accident, too.

AR: Well, yes, of course.

TMN: I heard a theory that it was a commentary on voyeurism-as-entertainment, maybe, or like the dangers of thinking that you, that you the Audience, is innocent, detached as a viewer—

AR: That guy getting hit in the face with glass was not part of the plan.

TMN: This wasn’t my theory, by the way.

AR: It was an accident. The main problem, I think, was that all of these theatrics were added to the house after the fact. It was all kind of jury-rigged. If I’d initially designed the house to support it, it would’ve been fine, and better, and probably not so misunderstood, and it definitely wouldn’t’ve caught fire like that.

TMN: So you’re saying maybe you’re thinking of doing another one?

AR: [laughter] No, no, I don’t think so.

TMN: Oh well.

AR: Not on such a small scale, anyway.

[ photos courtesy of Alaina Rautio ]


TMN Contributing Writer Joshua Allen is a complex and exciting young man. He is a hard worker and always gives 110 percent. He is a people-person unless that person is a crab and not pulling their weight for the team. If enthusiasm and get-up-and-go are drugs, then he’s a hardcore drug addict. He’s pretty obviously an only child. He lives in Fireland, USA. More by Joshua Allen