Sippican Cottage

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A Man Who Has Nothing In Particular To Recommend Him Discusses All Sorts of Subjects at Random as Though He Knew Everything

What Can I Do To Help?

Something is broken in American housing. I don’t know how to fix it.

The problem we face is a good sort of problem to face. We are well housed. As far as I can gather, better than anywhere else on Earth. And no fair telling me you’d rather live in an apartment in Paris and eat baguettes from the corner bakery every day. You’re rich if you live like that. People of very modest means can afford to live decently in the United States. That’s what I’m referring to. Rich people can live well just about anywhere. I’ve been to Europe and seen how the lower middle class lives. Hint: hot water, clean water, working toilets, cooling and heating intermittent if not downright optional.

So the utilitarian aspect is more or less covered. But a house represents a lot more than running water. It is the symbol of a society. It’s got a great big anima in it. It represents things, to and about its occupants, neighbors, community and country, planet. It’s not just a box to live in. Or it shouldn’t be. I’m afraid that’s what it’s becoming, though.

There have been various periods of boom and bust in American architecture. The most interesting work I ever did out in the landscape was always restoring things that had come and gone, and now come again. I liked places that are invested with the zeitgeist of their times. You can sort of feel it while you’re banging on it.

I’ve offered an overview of American architecture here on this page. We got as far as Second Empire, and will return to that magnificent skein of building style vivisection shortly. But while I was doing it, going over it, writing about it, wallowing in it, I realized it was all being lost.

Not the particular items themselves, exactly. It’s hard to tear down anything that’s notable, or just plain old anymore without a picket line immediately forming in front of it. People often lovingly restore notable things now, and have enough funds to do it, too. That’s not the problem.

We’ve lost our way in another way. It’s the approach to building things that we’ve lost. Post-modernism has killed the soul of American architecture. And I’d like it back, please.

Post-modernism is the idea that everything is just an affectation, and so you can pull it apart and make little jokes out of the bits. I reject the approach, and not just in architecture. The problem with the Daily Show and Colbert is not that they are smarmy wags, it’s that they derive their smugness from making fun of a establishment that no longer exists, if it ever did. Yes, everything sucks. But I hate to break it to you: You’re the everything now.

Every radio station is “alternative” now. The problem is there is nothing much to be the alternative to anymore. Mindless oppositionism is stupid. A little stupid is fun. When the preponderance of anything is stupid, the fun’s gone and it’s just stupid.

Architecture in America has always been an assemblage of affectations. And don’t kid yourself; the lack of ornamentation that was pursued as a fetish for the last 70 years by the modernist is neither modern nor a lack of fussiness. And listen up you rich ascetics: There’s nothing fussier than trying to achieve absolute plainness.

So the 1860s church was not really a Greek temple, after all, it just used that affectation as a symbol. But what a symbol; what an affectation. They understood the meaning of the things they applied to the fabric of the buildings, and the proportions and materials and finish and everything. They didn’t paste a bunch of Greeky crap on a weird box to get a laugh.

I’m growing sad that the average American house has become a three car garage with an enormous rubbery box of a house nailed on the ass end of it. We used to do better. We can do better again.

7 Responses

  1. Remember the movie Edward Scissorhands? I was never much horrified by the monster with the scissors where hands should be, but the suburb where his girlfriend lived… that was terrifying. Row after row after row of identical, bland, box-houses, with nary a tree in sight. Hideous.

  2. Pat- The first time I noticed it was in ET the Extraterrestial. Blank streetscenes, just rows of garage doors. Now it’s everywhere.

  3. The question has oft been raised. And I appreciate the idea from the standpoint of one who bangs and toils all day. For the last 30 years.

    Outside of a narrow spectrum, I’d say that the wide part of the wedge don’t want anything different. Don’t know, don’t know, high ho to the Depot we go.

    There lays the pity. Tell Norm Abrams to lay off, will ye? Isn’t her a neighbor? He’s killing off splayed entrances 30 minutes at a time. And AWI sold out to the machine makers 20 years ago.

    Love the library of B&W pictures. Thanks very much for that.

    I used to comment as “outfoxed”, my new digs are

  4. Hi backwater. Glad you like the pictures. I’m generally in backwater too here in the swamp.

  5. The problem is that your house is not your home, it’s real estate. Take a look at Zillow. You can get your house value normalized to $/sg ft of house and lot. This drives size and also a perception that the current “french georgian” style must be followed. This holds true for beach and lake houses today as well.

  6. The problem is the “free market” has provided unlimited access to vast capital–however, it first passes through the hands of “the developer” and there we have proof that money does not guarantee good taste. The purchaser in the vast majority of cases no longer has the ability to indicate a choice. There is very little difference between development house and the house in the development across the street. NO input–no quality

  7. The problem is that your house is not your home, it’s real estate.
    Truer words have not been spoken. It used to be that you had a pretty humble house. The furniture was a mix of whatever you had. The sheets didn’t match. You weren’t out to impress anyone and you didn’t worry all that much about resale value. You hoped to pay off the mortgage one day. You made it yours.

    I sold mine last year, the first and only house my husband and I have ever bought. We couldn’t deal with the ever increasing taxes. We weren’t happy in the city. So we live in an old Silver Streak trailer, back in the woods that have always felt like home. One of these days, we’ll build a small outlaw shack. And it will be far more homelike than any McMansion.

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