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Too much of a good thing


Or do I mean wretched excess?

“House Hunters International”, a so-called HGTV reality show, shows us case studies of people seeking housing in countries other than their own. I can be dispassionate when a Briton evaluates three alternate units in Ulan Bator where he has gone to teach English to Mongolians. Or the Canadian from Vancouver going to live the dream on Australia’s “Gold Coast”. When both the person and the place are foreign to me, I can concentrate on urban, architectural, and economic issues; I can assess the implications of relative distance from the beach or the night life. All of that changes dramatically, however, when my fellow countrymen and women are involved.

A couple from Houston and their three children accepted a corporate transfer to the U.K.; San Diegans find themselves in Milan; or North Carolinians in Helsinki. Their issues are chump change compared to the folks from Wichita faced with the scale of personal space in Hong Kong. In all these and virtually every other case, Americans come off badly: the fridge is too small; the freezer won’t hold more than one ice tray; there’s only a single vanity in the master bath (if there is a master bath) or the single bath is down the hall, rather than en suite. Do you have any idea of my revulsion to that phrase—en suite?

Plumbing issues rate at or near the top of American housing concerns but may vary considerably from one family to another. If there is anything that trumps pipe and porcelain, however, it’s the general need for space, epic openness, “honey-have-you-seen-the-kids-today” quantities of interior volume in the McMansion. We are simply spoiled by how much of it we’re able to consume, especially in middling towns or the suburbs of larger cities. Europeans understand our gluttony and smirk at Daphne’s irritation over the lack of a dishwasher or that the mattress is too short for Dwayne’s six-six frame. These people shame us all with their decadent demands that Shanghai be like Houston.

This rant comes, oddly enough, from the image posted yesterday: the Burrel Apartments in Fargo photographed before the porch alterations. I’ve been privileged to visit twenty countries since the summer of 1971. And the lessons I’ve brought home fall in three broad areas: 1) a strong preservation ethic; 2) the possibility for life without automobiles; and 3) compression—Europeans simply do more with less.

I’ve looked at the Burrel photo again and been impressed by the layering of space from left to right, from public to private, inclusive to intimate. Neither the curb nor any street lights are showing, but the boulevard is recently mown. The public walk leads to short private stubs and stairs. The screened porches are three stories tall with a secondary pattern of wood frames. We can barely see beyond the screening but realize there are tuscan columns at the corners and that there must be a rhythm of windows and doors inside. These layers define a half dozen zones compressed in twenty feet or so. But my appreciation for such simplicity comes directly, I think, from the public housing of designers like Michael deKlerk, Viljo Revell and Ralph Erskine. Especially Erskine [1914-2005], Brit-turned-Swede, whose work I admire.


Clare Hall is an Erskine project from the late 60s, graduate student housing at Cambridge University. I imagine that many of its residents are married, some with children. What impressed when I saw this project in 1977 was its compactness. This central court, for example, made very clear while we walked through it where I belonged (as a stranger) and where I did not. Within four or five feet, I could be on a public path and yet within reach of a front door. Pavement patterns, changes of level (the Brits lack an equivalent ADA, as far as I can tell) and of color and of texture define space.

There is so much to learn from the European experience and also one reason we won’t: it’s Socialist and anathema to any but the most urban and urbane among us.

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