Friday, January 07, 2011

Stone, tile, carpet, or gingerbread?

Homes should be designed for children – they are the only ones that get any joy out of them. Grownups fluster very properly about all that stuff that’s modern and updated and has been timeless for eleven years and will maximize resale value. To children that’s all boring. I think they can see the soul of a home better than we grownups. If my childish recollections mean anything, every part of the house is fair game for an adventure, and kids are not choosy about materials or fashion. In fact, the weirder the better – children don’t find joy in uniformity.

Adults don’t really occupy their homes the way children do. Well they do, in the most clinical sense they do occupy space somewhere inside the structure. But their movements are circumscribed and usually follow an established pattern. Much of their activity in the house involves outside stimulation displayed on devices that are either very small or very large. Other than the sofa cushion, their surroundings are only able to affect them via peripheral vision.

Adults can also be adventure-resistant. My brother once bought an old home with a long, narrow crawlspace under the porch. A flashlight shone down to its end revealed a lidded urn, inviting great speculation as to its contents. Surely someone should crawl down there and retrieve the object? No no, my brother said. Too dirty in there.

A child would have known better.*

To say homes aren’t for children suggests they ARE tailored for adult tastes, but that isn’t really true either. At least it’s not for any adult in particular – instead it’s for some ur-adult, that great denominator at the bottom of society that craves granite countertops, neutral tones and the rest. I have never met that adult, but I have met plenty who want those things just because they think he wants them.

Are people still trying to please that adult? Because like you he’s probably broke, over-leveraged and has been near bankrupt since 2008 and he won’t be buying your house no matter what the bathroom tile looks like.

Wealth is supposed to free us from material concerns, and allow us to fill our lives with beauty and peace. Instead the opposite happened – prosperity made us risk-averse. When your house was a commodity to be bought, bartered, and readily exchanged for something grander, you weren’t going to settle in and you weren’t going to personalize and you definitely weren’t going to leave any trace that you were ever there.

Even new houses that were built to the buyer’s specifications weren’t actually built for their own satisfaction. This was a distressing discovery in 2010 when looking for a new home. It didn’t take long to realize that of the millions of homes built in the past ten years, very few were suitable for a middle class family. They were too big or too fancy, too far away, too closely packed, too poorly constructed, and situated in some spot that, in all of world history, no one had previously wanted to live.

Oh no, you protest. Maybe others were following the herd but we built what WE wanted.

Then why does it look like everyone else’s? Nobody can agree on what restaurant to go to but our houses still all look the same. Just like most people you played it safe and didn’t do anything risky, because you were concerned that someday you might have to convince a new buyer that the house was worth the top-dollar price you would be asking.

When we were househunting, we walked into many houses that were cautiously calculated to offend no one. All were utterly forgettable. However, months later I still remember the risk takers. I remember the purple carpets, the hanging buttresses, the wood-paneled basements, the stairway that ends at the ceiling, the too-big pine right in front of the picture windows – any sure evidence that some brave soul was enjoying themselves. It made me want to live there. In fact, that too-big pine is right outside the window where I type this.

There was one house with a mechanized roll-up metal sheet that would cover the windows (the wrong windows, if the goal was shelter from the sun). I wanted to live there so bad. Anyone activating the device would be required to say, “Lowering blast shields!”

One of my religion’s doctrines is that we as God’s children participated in the creation of the earth. A rather breathtaking privilege, probably undeserved, and I’m sure we needed lots of help drawing up the plans with our Crayons of Life. However, from my observations of the planet, it appears we tried very hard to create things that please us and inspire joy. And we succeeded marvelously! God was well-rewarded for the trust He put in us.

We were the richest nation in the history of the world. Why did we labor so hard to undo all that grand effort and cover pretty land with ugly houses?

*Good news – eventually my brother's curiosity overcame him. Rather like the Poe story, only instead of a beating heart the urn contained ordinary dirt.