Thursday, April 19, 2007


In response to Witold Rybczynski's series on building New Daleville.

One of the most interesting things about watching Queer Eye for the Straight Guy is seeing people trying to articulate what they think they want. When it comes to architecture and design, they often lack any sort of language to identify the causes of their discontent. One guy will say "I was thinking of a place just to chill out, relax. Maybe a black leather sofa and some bar stools." Poor Tom (I think Tom is the architect) will listen to this with a blank look on his face, then ask a series of questions to figure out what the guy wants. Turns out he feels hemmed in, needs light. Tom knocks down a wall, puts in a skylight, adds a sofa (not leather) and all is right with the world.

What made me think of Queer Eye was the revelation that people go to developers' show houses for decorating tips, which strikes me as truly desperate. The spaces we inhabit -- the way we move, the people we encounter, the access to outdoors or to solitude -- shape the way we live. Most of us haven't studied architecture, nor given much thought to space at all (I didn't until an architect friend started talking to us about our house). So when we make choices among pre-fab houses, we don't really know what we want. Just as bad -- look at the evolution of the design for the Freedom Tower. You'd think Americans want nothing more than to make our country ugly.

I'm not knocking suburbs. I know the complaints about the godless, ennui-ridden teenagers and the David Lynch colors, but I respect people who see such places as sanctuaries. I also think pre-fab can work very well at low cost. Konyk for example, offers remarkable choices that show real thought about what might take place inside the house, not simply attempts to recreate a neo-colonial ethos among the wannabee gentry.

I think people tend to reproduce what they have seen and are mostly not familiar with problems of design, or the vast array of possible solutions. I think there are low-cost ways for people to have houses that actually make their lives better, that facillitate, for example, better family dynamics (ever read "A Room of One's Own"?). Developers, of course, have no interest in such matters unless the market drives new choices.

For me, the "Design, Life, Now" exhibit at the Cooper Hewitt in New York has been eye-opening -- a glimpse at possible futures. You can't make choices if you don't recognize that you have choices. It seems to me that this kind of exhibit is the kind of thing that might help change market dynamics. I'm feeling optimistic about the tools that will be available to improve our lives, pessimistic about our capacity to use them.