Tuesday, January 18, 2005

California Delight #3: Suburban Architecture

The argument has been made, persuasively I think, that suburban design is the heinous antithesis of every worthwhile architectural value that preceded it. I’ve even bought into this argument to the point where my family now lives in a century home. We're continually budgeting for the next upgrade, or maintenance project, but I love the high ceilings. I’m mad about the tall, vertical windows, and I note with special gratitude that no one view out any of our windows looks directly into the window of a neighbor’s house.

Just over the hill, in a recent development, live my in-laws. When I look out their living room window, I stare directly into the living room window of their neighbor across the street. On a sunny day, I can see straight through this neighbor’s house into their back yard, thanks to the correspondingly large window on their back wall. Perhaps I’ve seen too many Oliver Stone movies (actually, there’s no question: I have), but it occurs to me that an assassin with a high-powered rifle could set himself up on my father-in-law’s picnic table, aim said rifle through my father-in-law’s house and through his neighbor’s house, and easily tag the yappy little dog in the back yard of the house behind them. For all I know, a powerful scope could achieve an even larger range, thanks to all those windows so artlessly lined up.

So there it is: suburban design highlights and exacerbates our vulnerability. (Perhaps this explains the SUV’s popularity?) I’m glad we got that out of the way, because now I can confess: I love to look at it. In the same way Lt. Col. Bill Kilgore loves the smell of napalm in the morning because “it smells like victory”, I love the look of early suburban design, because it looks like ... progress!

It’s not just the live-in design from the late 50s-early-60s that turns my crank – it’s the commercial design, too. Those jutting angles that cast sundial-like shadows on the Main Street sidewalk; the sweep of a dysfunctional eave, swinging out overhead like a giant artist’s palette; enormous plate-glass windows held in place by large aluminum frames, with stenciled lettering modestly proclaiming the occupant:

Mildred Shroom, B. Hom. Ec.
Fingernail Aesthetician
Phone 862-4360 for Appointment

When I was a small-town youngster (i.e. young enough not to object to being called a “youngster”), my second-favorite building was the bowling alley (my favorite was the newly-built Senior High School, a 70s-era construction with confusing hallways and fluorescent lighting, populated by curvaceous babysitters and their swaggering, long-haired boyfriends – material for a future entry, perhaps). The bowling alley was an anonymous cinder-block building, except for its auqua-green paint-job, artist’s-palette-eave and the angular neon sign in the parking lot. Inside, the floor was linoleum tile and hardwood, the counter and table surfaces all formica. The bowling balls (this is five-pin bowling I’m talking about) were painted with psychedelic colors to highlight the wood grain. And with the press of a button, I could initiate a whirring, clanking mechanical extravaganza to sweep away leftover pins, and replace them with a perfect, upstanding V-configuration. For a kid who had yet to witness an automatic garage-door-opener, this was marvelous, marvelous stuff. It was like I was visiting the Jetsons, or Gyro Gearloose’s Duckburg workshop!

Driving San Jose, with its Eichlers and Wursters and Lautner-knock-offs, is like driving through the future of my past. It’s a dangerously heady whiff of nostalgia, a glimpse at a fabled vista that once overlooked the future, but now gives view to the nation’s largest automobile graveyard. These buildings remain steadfast, ever-gaining in their property value. They are glistening testaments to a hardheaded optimism that was going forward – making progress, and damn the consequences. I certainly wouldn’t want to live in something like that – just as, had I been forced to spend the night either in the bowling alley, or the “haunted” house two doors down, I’d have gone for the house. But I’m grateful these jarring sweeps and angles are still standing. If nothing else, it’s worth recognizing the “context of no context”, if only to return to aesthetics that value and contribute to human dignity.

Get your Eichler here.

California Delight #2

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