I wonder sometimes, I really do. I imagine some people find the Bleat because someone linked to a gust of blather, and after six or seven visits they wonder hey, why arent you Defrosted Angry Neocon all the time? Maybe because Im not Defrosted Angry Neocon. I have my moments, of course. But mostly this page is what it is. Some movie reviews, some kid stories, nostalgic tripe, dispatches from middle age, sugared chaff, small beer, red meat. I am resigned to the fact that I will disappoint everyone, eventually. But just so you know: I discuss politics, but I am not a politician. I discuss music, but Im hardly a musician. I write about movies, but Ive only been on one side the camera, not the other. I write about art, but I cant draw. I write about parenthood, but like most Im making it up as I go along. Appearances to the contrary, I do not mistake my ability to write about something as proof that Im right. It could just mean I have a gift for ordering my ignorance into pleasing shapes.
That said, I would now like to talk about architecture.
(Admission: I am not an architect.)
Wednesdays Strib ran a NYT story about Mayo Woodlands, an expensive planned community near Rochester Minnesota. It sits on land undisturbed for a century, a combination of deep quiet forests, lovely meadows and majestic prairies. No one wants to live there, because the houses look shoeboxes. At least the ones they want you to build. Says the article, with the de rigeur sniff:
With its low, linear houses and free-standing garages designed by David Salmela and Tim Alt, Mayo Woodlands is winning awards for its daring approach but getting the cold shoulder from conservative Rochester, which loves its McMansions, shingled pitched roofs and three car garages attached, if you please.
Yes I do please, and Ill tell you why. It gets cold here. Bone-cracking cold. Getting food into the house is not as easy as nipping round the corner to the Deli or the Thai take-out. You drive to a store, buy your provisions in bulk and schlep them home. Often you have a child with you. Or two. Maybe three. The reason we like attached garages is now stay with me, because were going to take some hairpin turns its easier to get goods and kids into the house if youre already, you know, IN THE HOUSE. While the idea of a free-standing garage appeals to our historical senses why, its an outbuilding! Just like in the old days! Let's churn some butter, shall we? its not always practical. Designers may appreciate the stark perfection of the free-standing garage. People who build houses according to the way people live picture themselves slipping on the icy walk with a bag of groceries in one hand and a bottle of wine in the other. Not to say the house isn't cool, in a way; it is. And the garage has a stark presence I admire. But I'll be switched if I'd pay a half a million for it, and I am not surprised that some clients aren't demanding that they impose their own aesthetic preferences. I know, I know: the gall.
The other reason the project might not have caught on immediately? Not everyone around here wants to live in an IKEA showroom. (Keep clicking on the picture.)
The McMansion crack is telling, too what they mean is one of those big houses where the master bedroom closet is bigger than the living room of most Manhattan apartments. Ive lived in small houses. Bigger is better. To a point, of course. I dont like those vast rambling multilevel monsters with four spare bedrooms, the only point of which seems to be to give someone something to decorate. Those grand entryways with massive staircases are a little pretentious, unless you are Vivian Leigh. But big kitchens are better than small kitchens. Big bathrooms are better than small ones. Doesnt mean the occupants of the former are somehow better than the occupants of the latter, any more than those who choose the Not So Big House option are morally better than those who choose the Somewhat Bigger House. Jasperwood, for example, feels right to me, and it was built in 1915 - it's larger than Lileks Manor, our previous home, but smaller than the 1920s homes up the street. If I won the lottery I would buy lots of land by a lake and build an Arts and Crafts uberbungalow with a bowling alley and a screening room and a library and an underground pool and Jet-ski course, but the living spaces wouldnt be that much bigger. Were small people. We could get lost.
Perhaps the Mc part of McMansions refers to the construction techniques; you can put your hand through the wall of most of these houses, if you wish. The newness hides the insubstantial quality of the building, and the scale of the luxuries obscures the unimaginative nature of the design. So? Unless a tornado comes by, the house will stand; unless the owners wake up one day possessed by the spirit of Corbu, theyll be perfectly content with ersatz classical geegaws or faux-Tudor timbers. (I remember the immortal words of a French acquaintance describing classic Victorian houses in an old St. Paul neighborhood: "Stupid American cartoon shit." It's all relative. Your mileage may vary.) Again, Jasperwood is in a neighborhood that filled out in the 1920s, and its historicism-a-go-go here. It looks sedate; it looks timeless to modern eyes. Comforting. There are a few 70s houses, standard bearers of a stern and brutal future. They don't work well. Dr. Architecture prescribes vines, and 20ccs of bushes, stat.
Theres one house in our old neighborhood that has all the trappings of 30s modernism, and I love it glass blocks, curving walls, impractically flat roof (they had points for a reason, you know) and other trademarks of Depression Moderne. You would be obligated to fill it with black and chrome furniture; your wife would be obligated to wear floor-length silver dresses and smoke with a holder, and you would most certainly feel required to change into a tux before you crossed the threshold. Its nifty. But would I want the entire neighborhood to look like that?
Hell yes. I cant think of anything cooler, in fact. The great sad fact of American architecture: the most serenely human and sophisticated variety of modernism came along when no one was building anything except Post Offices. Glass and steel Miesian monsters are grossly insuperior to the Moderne and post-Deco skyscrapers. Would you rather live in Blade Runner LA or the Emerald City? If someone had built blocks and blocks of houses in the 30s style, it would be one of the most desirable neighborhoods in town. After half a century it would still look imperturbably cool, and the big tall trees would have softened the HERE COMES THE SCARY ROBOT FUTURE vibe that made some people turn away and stuff their sitting rooms with beaded lamps and claw-footed sofas.
Will these the Mayo buildings give off the same air of romantic futurism as the 30s buildings? I doubt it. Theyre modern, not futuristic, for one thing. They dont point to what might or should be, just a different notion of what is. Second, theyre going to look like all the other minimalist efforts, and to the eyes of most people, less is less. I understand that. I love Mondrian paintings; I just dont want to live in one. Id rather live in a Sargent painting and read about Mondrian.
Heres the part that made me cock an eyebrow. (Coen and Partners) asked Salmela and Alt to design houses the echoed the vernacular materials and forms of the Mayo barns, which have small square windows.
True. Because theyre barns. Cows live there. Cows dont look out the window. The windows are usually on the second floor, too they provide minimal light and ventilation. For the cows. I can imagine the owner of the 30s house in my neighborhood visiting one of these houses, and hearing the owner say these small square windows are based on the windows in old barns.
Really, the visitor might say. Mine are round, and theyre based on zeppelin portholes.
But what do you expect from someone who has just spent the last week daubing his eyes again and again as he looked through the glories of the 1939 Worlds Fair. The book linked to the left is the most comprehensive photo survey Ive ever seen its just beautiful. Id give a year of my life for one day at that place.
Ah, but it sowed the seeds for our destruction, dont you know. While doing some research I found this passage about the famous GM building tour.
But, Democracity, the model of the futuristic city contained inside the Perisphere, like most of the exhibits at the fair, emphasized the triumph of commerce over art, highway over city.
Oh, put a sock in it. The Fair displayed the marriage of commerce and art, if nothing else. And perhaps a society that had spent the last decade in a Depression liked the idea of commerce more than art. Art feeds the heart, but commerce feeds the stomach. The latter matters more. You cant eat a fresco. You cant even lick it.
Major corporations, AT&T, GE, and General Motors, among others, gave the American public their visions of America's future. Consumer products and modern devices -- machines that would deliver ordinary people from the darkness of the daily drudgery of work -- were marketed to consumers as if, through the purchase of a vacuum cleaner and a dishwasher, they could find salvation.
This sort of condescension is typical. (And timeless: attached garages, if you please.) No one expected salvation. They anticipated an easier life. Vacuum cleaners meant you didnt have to move all the furniture, drag the rugs outside and beat them twice a year. Dishwashers meant you could put the plates away and read a book, or listen to the radio. Note the ominous alliteration: deliver darkness daily drudgery. Those misguided souls, in thrall to marketing. Those simple fools who looked at a vacuum cleaner and thought: I want one. Didn't they know that Amalgamated Hoover was peddling a LIE?
General Motor's Futurama had the longest lines of any pavilion at the fair. Visitors sat in moving chairs, which circled like traffic around a 360,000-square-foot model of the United States in 1960. . . In the world according to General Motors, New York City would become a collection of skyscrapers spaced out from one another by fourteen-lane highways. New Yorkers would live in one-family homes outside the city that would be accessible only by car. Subways, streetcars, and railroads were conspicuously missing from the model. General Motors presented a vision of a future city where no people lived, all people had cars, and all of them drove from their jobs to homes outside the city.
Not a model for urban life I endorse, but no more a dystopia than a utopia. Just an idea. In context, however, the absence of mass transit was not a bad thing. No one reared back in horror: no clanking hot stuffy subways? What fresh hell is this? They thought: in the future, everyone has a car. What a strange and wondrous idea. See also, the jetcopter we were promised in the 60s.
But General Motors would not be spending the money to build the highways. It would not be spending the money to build the pre-fabricated homes in the suburbs. It could only reap where the government sowed. The goal of the Futurama display was to sell Americans on the idea that public money should be spent on highways and new housing so that demand would increase for the privately built car. . . GM had presented in the New York World's Fair a blueprint for the city's destruction. To the fairgoers, the car still seemed liberating, and GM's sales pitch seemed to echo Moses' vision.
A tad overdramatic, eh? Im ambivalent about Moses; I really need to read Caros bio of the man. Right now I just see Moses as a guy looking at gigantic maps, seeing neighborhoods where highways should be, thinking: let my people flow. But the paragraph seems to assume we all know that highways and cars are Bad, and that only by trickery and scale models were Americans reluctantly persuaded to pay for the interstate system. But the car and the possibilities of the open road are part of the American mystique, and for good reason. No immigrant ever comes here so he can achieve his dream of riding a train, after all. The paragraph is also inaccurate of course GM didnt build the suburbs, but public money didnt build the houses in the subdivisions. And at the risk of sounding like some Randian nutjob: single-family houses are good things. People like them. There seems to be this idea that Levitt hypnotized New Yorkers and convinced them to move to the potato fields, and those who didnt leave the brownstones and rowhouses voluntarily were driven out with pitchforks.
A blueprint for the citys destruction? Last time I checked, Manhattan still stood. To the fairgoers, the car still seemed liberating. The implication being that we know better now, of course. Well. I think youd be a fool to have car in Manhattan whats the point? But if I may be so crude: outside of dense compacted urban environments laid out in the early 19th century, cars are still liberating. I can get downtown in ten minutes. I can drive to green empty lands in half an hour. Traffic around here isn't pretty, but the towers of our city outshine the Futurama displays - and our cars, even if slowed and stalled on the two-lane beltway, contain the pleasures of the private sphere. We listen to our radio, talk with our children, tote home the things we've bought for our homes. Subways may be faster; subway culture has its own amusements. It's all relative. Your mileage may vary. Diversity, in other words.
The article, in short, seems a bit snide and misguided, and typical of a particular mindset I find depressing, and common among some intellectuals: they are annoyed by a certain variety of American optimism. They consider themselves the heirs of JFK, but they would have snorted at the idea of going to the moon while America remained unperfected. Yes, but. It's always Yes, But. Sit down and eat your spinach. Our limitations define us, not our dreams. If you must look out a window and wonder what's beyond, well, make it a small one.
The quote above are from the PBS Kids site on the Worlds Fair, if you wondered.
Note: I am not a PBS Kids webmaster, either. Take all this with a grain of salt. And no, insuperior is not a word. But it should be.