Daily Rituals

Great Architects Love a Good Nap
Arts, entertainment, and more.
April 26 2013 5:35 AM

Daily Rituals

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It’s OK to nap.

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If you're going to get up at sunrise, drink a couple dozen cups of coffee, and embark on a three- or four-hour-long walk, you may find that you could really use a nap at some point during the day.

Not surprisingly, many artists love a good nap—and napping itself is something of an art form. Joan Miró practiced what he called "Mediterranean yoga"—a nap after lunch, but just for five minutes. Thomas Mann, by contrast, needed a solid hour of napping, beginning at 4 in the afternoon. (His children were strictly forbidden to make any noise during this sacred hour.)

Balzac's coffee-fueled "orgies of work" were punctuated by a 90-minute nap. After a boozy lunch, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec would take a nap before he began painting. The composer Franz Liszt slept poorly at night, so he took an afternoon nap lasting two hours or longer. Franz Kafka, another insomniac, set aside time for a four-hour nap in the late afternoon—although he said these were "usually only attempts" at sleep.

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We have already heard about Frank Lloyd Wright's early-morning system: He would wake at 4 a.m., work for three hours, then return to bed for a nap. During the afternoon, Wright would often take an additional nap, lying down on a thinly padded wooden bench or even a concrete ledge; the uncomfortable perch, he said, prevented him from oversleeping. The architect Louis I. Kahn also napped on a bench: During his professorship at the University of Pennsylvania, Kahn would teach during the day, head home in the afternoon, then go into his architecture office at night and begin a new “day” of work at 10:30 p.m. When he got tired, he would sleep on a bench in his office for a few hours before moving back to the drafting table.

Admittedly, it is somewhat depressing that so many of these nap-lovers were not relaxed, well-rested folks but obsessive workaholics who used sleep to recharge briefly before resuming their punishing schedules. Orson Welles is another good example. Colleagues were amazed by his ability to pursue film, radio, and theatrical projects simultaneously, apparently leaving no time for sleep. But as David Thomson writes in Rosebud: The Story of Orson Welles, "Those close to him observed his trick of catnaps, collapsing for twenty minutes, then surging ahead."

Perhaps the best napping story I ran across in my Daily Rituals research involved the American architect and inventor Buckminster Fuller. In the early 1930s, Fuller decided that ingrained human sleep patterns were no longer practical for modern lifestyles. He figured that if he could train himself to sleep less, he could have vastly more time to work. So, as J. Baldwin explains in Bucky Works, Fuller embarked on an experiment in “high-frequency sleep”: For every six hours of work, he napped for 30 minutes. If he noticed his attention flagging before the six hours were up, he would start his nap sooner, but these naps were his only periods of sleep. Baldwin writes that Fuller also “disconcerted observers by going to sleep in thirty seconds, as if he had thrown an Off switch in his head. It happened so quickly that it looked like he had had a seizure.”

Remarkably, the scheme worked—Fuller could go on tirelessly like this. But he did not stick with it indefinitely; eventually his wife complained of his odd hours and Fuller went back to a more normal schedule, although he continued to take catnaps during the day as needed.

Mason Currey is the author of Daily Rituals: How Artists Work.