Friday, December 21, 2007

Out of the Frying Pan...

I'm seriously conflicted as to how I feel about this.

On the one hand, the tri-state area doesn't really need as many of those uber-tacky 1950s-60s ranch houses as it has.  Still, I was a little bit uncomfortable to learn how very few of the Levittown houses have remained in their original state.

--Photo AP

Photo courtesy Redwood Coast.
On the other hand, everything is looked upon with disdain once its heyday is over.  I'm sure even the overwrought pomposity of a Victorian was seen as disgusting by someone or another.

At one time, somebody loved that little ranch house.  Selling their grimy old townhouse in Brooklyn where they grew up, they loved the clean, new, plastic, aluminum-sided illusion of suburban homeyness it provided them for the first time in their lives.  They had a lawn to plant flowers and barbecue!

There's also the argument that very few houses don't have good enough bones that they couldn't be rehabilitated to preserve their charm without having to tear them down.  And I'd be very surprised to learn many of those homeowners are recycling any of the materials from these teardowns.

--Photos Christine Fontana, Douglas Healey

But the point is, really, look at what they're putting up in its place! Every once in a while I see a McMansion that I actually do think is done well.  Oddly, a neighborhood development I had the opportunity to visit in Columbia, SC surprised me with the overall quality of its architecture.

But this one (above)?  That is some of the most pathetic, disgusting "architecture" I've seen (if you can even call it that--since I'd bet you 3.5 million dollars they got the floorplan out of one of those stupid floorplan books).  Do you really need all those damn gables?  I mean, really?  And just how many different sizes and types of window do you need on the front of one house?  Seriously, who buys these pieces of crap for 3.5 million dollars?  

I'm actually of the opinion that very few human beings don't have some innate aesthetic sense.  There are some qualities that are so primary: order, symmetry, proportion, that they must be ingrained.  The grandmother of a friend lives on a street where the neighbors complained about the exterior color of one of the houses, so in defiance, the owners painted it the most awful shade of blue, like a periwinkle, but way too dark.  These people aren't necessarily artists or designers, but everyone just knows it's ugly.  If the house in that photo had columns sized for the Parthenon slapped onto the front of it, people would just know they were way too large.

So why do people buy these things, and not only that, but pay SO much money for them?  Has the symbolism of that "suburban homeyness" become that valuable of a commodity?  Has the gaudy, overblown use of those symbols become that much of a measure of status?  Perhaps the specifically unsophisticated use of architectural forms has, itself, become codified.  In other words, wearing blue-jeans with your suit jacket, rather than the pretentious (alienating) "tuxedo" of a well-designed (especially if Modern) architectural marvel.

To be fair, the new home pictured lower down in the article is really quite nice, but I'm pessimistic that it's merely the exception to the rule:

--Photo Kirk Condyles

Perhaps the Green Movement, as it gains momentum and popularity, will have further-reaching affects on aesthetics.  For one thing, I don't think you can take a floorplan out of a book and really do much that's ecologically sound with it.  You need an architect to prescribe something unique to your individual household requirements and site.  We can only hope.

©2007, Ryan Witte

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