We live in a time of unadornment, and have for many years. New buildings are just boxes, with meager attempts at visual design, such as mirrored windows. For decades, stripped-down, modified Modernist-style has been king, and every industrial park, medical complex and suburban office aggregation is reminiscent – no, identical – to the one you passed just down the road: unfriendly to pedestrians, uncaring of environment, unaware of surroundings, unknowable because there is nothing there to know.
This is no new revelation: the lines of this battle and public assault were drawn long ago; it’s just amazing that the winds of fashion or time or human vagaries and fickleness haven’t blown sand over the old lines and led us to the making of new ones. Like many things now, this, too, is indicative of a slump. Controversial Postmodernism looked, for a while, as if it might enliven the cityscape – and the discussion – even if only in odd ways, but it soon was co-opted and subsumed, and now seems as just an eccentric interlude, a test-run of warped iconography and Chippendale toppings before its predestined use as the architecture of Las Vegas and Disney World.
Beyond the commercial building, the same one-note malaise infects the housing stock. Actually, here in our town, it’s two-note. Here, where the red-brick rowhouse is the lingua franca of house-building, there are, spreading like unimaginative but persistent bacteria, the three-story, bay-windowed, one-car-garaged, part stuccoed, part-bricked, part-stone-face, part-sided, lone dwarf-conifered structure that in the suburbs is called a townhome. In the city, where they are being built in profusion, three or four crammed into lots designed for one or two, the same blueprint used in ex-urban developments is being applied. They don’t fit, they don’t accommodate and they don’t age well. The term “cookie cutter” comes to mind; “boring,” too. Built fast, sold expensive, they are as much extruded as constructed, with lowest-grade materials slapped together by unlicensed, barely-skilled workers hired by fly-by-night, carpet-bagger, self-described “developers.” Exploitation aside, these organisms are – to all those who do not dwell inside them, admiring the granite countertops and stainless-steel appliances – characterless intruders.
The other form of new construction here is the modified Euro-style residential unit – informed by Bauhaus principles, sleek and rectilinear, with worker-housing lines and industrial materials, with a whiff of Scandinavian Utopian-community architecture about them. For a while, they were exciting additions to the neighborhoods: cool and stylish, imported and forward-looking. What wasn’t seen, looking forward, was how soon they would proliferate, and by the hands of fast-buck contractors looking to cash in on a trend, to the point where they have now become, if not ubiquitous, then monotonous, and without their original spark and surprise. What wasn’t seen, either – or what wasn’t cared about, even if seen – was that a mass of them, devised by recipe, would soon look like Soviet-era living spaces, or higher-aesthetic public housing – and which, like new cars rolling off dealers’ lots, look immediately dated, rapidly losing monetary and style-points value.
Odd that we tolerate sameness, save for color or flower-bed choice, with our homes, for it is not as if we are a creature with no interest in external adornment: we sculpt our hair, paint our faces, spend fortunes on clothing and jewelry, all to decorate ourselves, to define a more distinct, beautiful or striking or singular us. (Of course, this is a semi-fallacy, because we cut our hair in popular fashions, cosmeticize and accessorize ourselves to resemble the current hot luminary. We conform in our striving to show our difference, and those who are truly different are shunned or mocked.)
Still, we alter our outsides, even in rote ways – but, when it comes to our houses, all the adornment takes place behind the facades, in the rooms, where only residents can see them – unshared. Are we so estranged from our shelters that we do not see them as extensions of ourselves and, therefore, worthy of extended identity?
We were in New York City recently, and, with some time before our bus home, we strolled up and down the numbered streets, on the Upper East Side, in the 60s and 70s, crisscrossing the easternmost avenues. There are magnificent, real, venerable townhouses lining those streets, and while many are classic brownstones, they come in similar but varied styles and colors. And, every once in a while, we would encounter a house that had been modernized, or had been built new in recent decades where once an older house had been; they stood gleaming and brazen and out of context, attached yet detached – cool, flat statements of an architect. Still, among the houses of these streets, the adornments are primarily inside the homes, not out – you can spy the painting and mouldings, photos and weavings, through gaps in the curtained windows (except in the modernized homes, which have, for the most part, used metal or smoked glass to screen from view any errant peeping).
But what is missing, despite facade variations, despite the modernized materials, is personalization – the truly personal expression: a resonating link between the person inside the house and the house’s public face to the city, to the street, to the passerby, to the human-scale experience – to the creation of placeness, a statement that is, intentionally or not, art.
So, soon, we nearly ceased to look at the places, each beginning to look like the next or, worse, feeling like the next, or the one across or up the street. And we ceased, too, to be stopped by or drawn to the newish kids on the block, each with a sameness in their often-strained difference.
It was just about then when we saw it. It was a grayish brownstone house, somewhat less regal or commanding or rich-looking than many of its neighbors. But it had a band of something, some design, stretched across its front, just above the first-floor entry door and windows. It seemed like something extra, but nothing special. We almost missed it. But we looked again and saw it: what that perhaps 18-inch-high strip of dark metal had punched out of it was a series of squirrel shapes – a long row of them, as if in a conga line. And, more, we then noticed that atop the newel posts flanking the front stoop were sculptures of, yes, squirrels.
Why? Who knows. But all of it was too expensive, too thought-out, too well-done an act to have been merely a whim. The metal band, the squirrel statues – these meant something to the people inside who designed them or paid for them to be designed and installed. Was it a tribute to the city’s second-most widespread wildlife form in the city? (Perhaps somewhere, maybe in Greenwich Village, there was a similar homage to the pigeon?) Was it a play on someone’s name? Or was it just a work of subtle, friendly, individualistic, idiosyncratic art, symbolic of something or nothing, fashioned to catch the eye of people walking by, and make them stop, and smile, and wonder? We don’t know. And, frankly, we don’t care. It broke up the monotony, it brightened our day, it personalized a city that can drub the spirit of anyone. It was, in its way, a buried acorn, happily discovered when needed.
And we were reminded of the sentiments at the end of Arlo Guthrie’s “Alice’s Restaurant”; that is, if one person does such a thing, they might be considered odd, but if more did it, it could be seen as an organization, and even a movement. Think of it: a movement to break down the divide between dwelling and dweller, and between them and the public at large. A movement to take back design, or alter it, to truly personalize the little shelters we call home. To make the concept of placeness, or arslocii, an operating concept in all our lives. To find our inner squirrel.