I enjoyed the dry wit and content of Bill Bryson’s “A History of Almost Everything” so much that I’m really looking forward to reading his latest book “At Home, A Short History of Private Life”. Bryson has an incredible knack for making nonfiction especially interesting and at times, painfully funny. The Seattle Times reviews Bryson’s latest publication:
‘At Home’: Bill Bryson Constructs a History of Private Life
By Bharti Kirchner
Special to The Seattle Times
Most people would be satisfied with a home in a village like one in the county of Norfolk, England, and simply go on enjoying it, but not Bill Bryson (“A Short History of Nearly Everything”). A chance inspection of an attic to determine the source of a drip leads him in an unexpected direction. He begins strolling from room to room, pondering domestic objects around him — a fork, a sofa, a cabinet — and also the function of each space, as well as how it might have evolved through time. The journal he keeps results in a new book, quirky but entertaining, filled with observations about the history of everyday life spanning the last 150 or so years.
“Houses aren’t refuges from history,” Bryson says. “They are where history ends up.”
A recent New York Times piece on Mies van der Rohe’s Lafayette Park complex in Detroit belies the notion that the ‘average homeowner’ simply doesn’t like modernism. In fact, there’s nothing simple about it. Taste in housing is influenced by many factors including:
• Sentiment; where you grew up, and the architectural roots of the family home
• Professional aspirations, aka ‘keeping up with the Jones’
• Need, as with a large, perhaps extended family
• Or just proximity. You might not know a craftsman from a Chrysler, but you want to live near the #5 bus line.
“We wanted to hear how residents — especially people with long-term, intimate knowledge of living with Mies — think about this unique modernist environment and how they confront and adapt it to meet their needs. During our research, we were struck by the casual attitude that many residents have toward the architecture. Then again, Detroit has an abundance of beautiful housing options: one can live in a huge Victorian mansion, a beautiful arts and crafts house or a cavernous loft-conversion space in a former factory. Living in a townhouse built by a renowned architect isn’t as noteworthy as one might think. At the same time, such nonchalance is a mark of success: the homes are great because they work, not because they come affixed with a famous name.”
So true, and a maxim that has much relevance today with issues of affordability, sustainability and the idea of building for real people, not the real-estate inflation game.
It’s beyond measure how many times I’ve heard people say “…we don’t use half our house”, and the reason they built a bigger home than they needed was for “resale” considerations. Developers and Real Estate Agents have been touting the “must maximize the property” gospel for years as if it was some golden rule. Thing is, they maximized quantity not quality. This is just another urban myth, and with the recent recession, more and more people now realize that big houses are just a waste. The self-perpetuating myth has been busted.
The turnaround probably started when Susan Susanka published The Not So Big House, a revolutionary book that struck a cord with those who were leaning ahead of the curve. A classic, and worth exploring:
I was a little surprised to come across this urban planning article in The Independent, as most of the talk in the USA is about houses needing to get smaller, not bigger:
“Architects Beginning to Think Big
Britain’s homes have long had the smallest rooms in Europe, now a new generation of town planners and architects is urging us to rethink the way we use our shrinking urban space. Oliver Bennett reports.
Friday, 15 October 2010
Rabbit hutch Britain: Densely packed terraced homes in Blackburn, as elsewhere in the north of England, often date from as far back as the Industrial Revolution.
“In most things we welcome miniaturisation: computers, phones, cars. But not for our homes. Sadly, however, this is the situation that the British house-buying public faces. Homes in Britain have the smallest rooms in Western Europe. The average floor space is almost a quarter smaller than in Denmark – Western Europe’s most spacious country – and we are becoming accustomed to living cheek by jowl in cramped, poky quarters.
It’s not an impressive achievement, thinks Rebecca Roberts-Hughes, policy officer for the Royal Institute of British Architects (Riba), She believes it’s time for British volume builders to start thinking big.”
Planned communities like Celebration, Florida have proved well-planned towns designed to higher densities – enabling walk-able neighborhoods and public spaces – are very well received and successful. As Witold Rybczynski notes on Slate, 10 years after Disney’s town was completed, the planning works well; and the residential architecture is not bad, just a bit bland.
Disney’s Controversial Town, a Decade On
By Witold Rybczynski
“To avoid cookie-cutter uniformity, Disney gave builders the choice of several architectural styles such as Colonial Revival, Victorian, and Craftsman. “Modern,” given the preferences of American home buyers, was not an option. Yet an impression of sameness persists, for the houses share the same contemporary building materials and details. All too often they also share a bland, middle-of-the-road civility. This is understandable, since builders can’t afford to antagonize buyers, but too much politeness can be a bore. The happy exceptions are the bumptious “Mediterranean” houses that occur here and there. They exhibit a good-natured Floridian vulgarity that is refreshing among all the good taste.”
Sarah Susanka is rather ironic, a bestselling author and ahead of her time. And now, every developer and real estate agent who would dismiss her “Not So Small” approach as a “niche” are suddenly all over her maxim. Her latest book on residential architecture is reviewed in the Atlantic City Weekly.
Downsizing the McMansion
Book Review: ‘More Not So Big Solutions for Your Home’
By Sarah Susanka
“Bigness, that staple of American values and culture, is, in the words of Heidi Klum, “Out.” (Note the capital “O.”) Mega, ultra, super, jumbo stuff has generally declined in popularity over this recent recession, first motivated by cost-cutting and, later, by the realization that life smells just as sweet (or even sweeter) without all the “extra” our bodies and budgets are perfectly capable of doing without.
In early 2009, the story broke that American homes were trending down in size for the first year in many. Authorities from the National Association of Home Builders, the American Institute of Architects and even groups of real estate professionals started noticing homeowners at all income levels beginning to express a preference for smaller, better-built homes — some even before the recession. And they project that the trend will continue when the recession is just a memory.
Enter Sarah Susanka, an architect and advocate of homes that are smaller, practically and efficiently designed, yet still beautiful and comfortable. With her first book a decade back, “The Not So Big House,” Susanka likely felt like the lone voice of reason crying out against excessively large homes in the wilderness of rapidly multiplying McMansions that was the American new-home market at the time.”
In a recent gloomy and hand wringing report on Japan’s declining living standards and intractable economic stagnation, the New York Times’ Martin Fackler decries a unique solution to urban infill:
“The downsizing of Japan’s ambitions can be seen on the streets of Tokyo, where concrete “micro houses” have become popular among younger Japanese who cannot afford even the famously cramped housing of their parents, or lack the job security to take out a traditional multi-decade loan.
These matchbox-size homes stand on plots of land barely large enough to park a sport utility vehicle, yet have three stories of closet-size bedrooms, suitcase-size closets and a tiny kitchen that properly belongs on a submarine.”
While over at Inhabitat, a Japanese micro house is featured as a model of intelligent design:
“The Showa-cho House in Osaka Japan is an amazingly airy residence despite its miniscule 59 x 13-foot lot. Architect Fujiwara Muro made incredible use of the limited space available by building up and splitting the home in half with a staircase, which acts as both a transition space and delineates the private and public sides of the home without a wall. Plenty of daylight flows in, and a simplified modern interior streamlines the space, adding a tranquil feeling to a home dictated by a ten foot-wide interior dimension.”