Tuesday, October 23, 2007

The shock of the new



There are changes afoot in my neighbourhood, which have brought my concerns about lost gardens and space to the fore. When we first moved to to our area, it was touted in the real estate literature as "bohemian south" (bohemian = run down rental properties), now it is "on the fringes of the city" or "a short walk to the Paris end of Charles St" (Paris end of Charles St = two cafes and a bakery, with seating outside, how European!). One by one the houses along the streets leading to ours are getting paint jobs and the ubiquitous new french doors + back deck combo. The overlooked spaces are disappearing under big houses with teeny tiny yards, and generally, there's a lot of people drawing down their housing equity to tart things up a little. It is not an over-statement to say I hate it.

I do admit this response is partly because I am curmudgeonly and suspicious of change. Also, I'm frugal and am not comfortable with people drawing down equity, which isn't real money - just possible profit - to transform their perfectly functional houses into boring sameness, pushing up my interest rates in the process. In part, I like my space, any old space, but especially that which holds mystery and delight within it, and find I this is fast disappearing.



In part, my concern is aesthetic - I like the humble, the tumbledown, the rough around the edges (Lu said to me yesterday, sounding concerned, "I don't want to move in to a dump, Mummy", which isn't as crazy as it sounds - each dump for me holds great possibility; Lu on the other hand, likes impersonal motels and stainless steel - these kids, always rebelling).



But there are other more symbolic and less personal issues informing my grumbling about the McMansions across the way.

Richard Sennett - a deeply under-rated sociologist, but aren't we all? - talks about the city as a place for encouraging tolerance. As we move through the space, confronted in a real way by difference, we learn to live with and indeed look for diversity in our lives. In a time of great social change, with ongoing debates about who 'we' let in, and what 'they' should believe, every day in cities we come across the Other, the stranger, and on the street they become people, transformed from the bogeymen on our imaginations and political rhetoric.

But others have pointed to the rise in gated communities, high front fences and underground carparks, drive throughs, the reliance on cars, and even ipods as indicators of our growing reluctance to face difference in our communities. We barricade ourselves from threat, discomfort, distaste, and in so doing we add to, rather than protect, ourselves from the fragmentation of our social worlds. If we unplugged our ipods and took a bus, the world would seem a lot less scary place.

I'm thinking the same things about how we treat our surrounds. I don't like the big houses with their high fences and paved or pebbled yards because they refuse to acknowledge any world but the one they have created in their boundaries. Things are hard edged, clear cut, with no blurring between inside and out, then and now, wild and tame.


For me, they are the architectural equivalent of the bubble world that hides us from social interaction; the bricks and mortar protects the inhabitants from acknowledging we share our space with others: present others, past others, and others who are not people at all.

Where I live, when flash new houses are built, a piece of the past is erased. The footprint of an old house is destroyed by the earth movers, the previous gardens trampled, and the needs of current creatures - the birds and bugs and furry things - are utterly denied.

It smacks of a disdain for the history of the place, and a discomfort with the messiness of our environment. Little Jenny Wren mentioned in my last post an old rose that has been destroyed as new flats go up - is it hard-heartedness or a lack of imagination that allows people to deny that which has gone before? We all want to make our lots our own - a woman's home is her castle after all, and her garden her realm - but there's a decided lack of co-operation in how we go about this.

I know in our busy, busy lives there's not much time for gardening, but why does this translate into no interest in our space and those who share it? And the time argument's a bit of a furphy anyway. As I walked by a new lot of lego houses, scowling and muttering, I saw the shell of an in-ground pool awaiting installation. I've had the misfortune of house sitting places with pools, and the skimming, chemical-ing and creepy-crawling take up far more time than my garden does, and for no great return. I also raised my eyebrow at the idea of an in-ground pool in a town where swimming is only very for the strong (or well-insulated) and in a state in drought. The rest of the yard covers its shame in pebbles and paving - all of which will require a lot of up-keep and weed-killer to keep the green bits at bay -


- and there's no inch given for the birds and the bees. But somehow, it's just fine to install one of the most unnecessary and environmentally useless domestic features currently available to home owners. It's enough to drive a scruffy, organic suburban householder to tears.



343 comments:

1 – 200 of 343   Newer›   Newest»
blue milk said...

Gosh, you're so very thoughtful.

gary said...

Hello Kris,

Found your blog just the other day. I like what you have to say in this post. These new style houses push up housing prices, minimise useful space outside and create an unnatural living environment; and they're ugly, too.

Regards, Gary

zose said...

I dream of a slightly more modern house. We have done double storey victorian (1883) and now a Queen Anne era bungalow (1916) and while the latter is certainly the sunnier of the 2, we are beginning to realise how ecologically stuffed it is.
Cold in winter, hot in summer and not much you can do about either that won't compromise the environment/original architechture.

We put in quite a modern (read, affordable) fanta orange kitchen, which has worked beautifully, and the pretend victorian plastic bathroom put in by previous owners looks naf.

I dream of a cleverly designed gently modern house with windows and internal gardens and nooks to sit/lie in. Views of the sky and the weather and the kids and my garden and not someone else's kitchen.
With enough gap around the edge that I'm not inhaling 4 household's worth of fag smoke everytime I open my windows.
I won't mind living without the cosmetic issues of a century old house that has been buggered about with in the 1960's.

Those modern template dwellings are as souless as the people who design them, make money out of them or dwell in them. With their stone-covered "easy maintenance" gardens and cleverly coloured rendering, its all the nice and safeness of the suburbs without the stigma of a brick facade and palm tree out the front.

Media rooms, parents retreats, childrens retreats, "professional outdoor multi tiered entertainment spaces" and probably underfloor heating, airconditioning and $4000 annual cost in having the glass washed free of Aussie dust.

(half my family have moved to Bruny Island last year. we entertained dreams of Flowerpot for a while, but my husband couldn't be the super geek he needs to be down there, so we are sniffing around VIC instead.)

zoesquid said...

What a great post. I stumbled across you via peasoup of the day blog. I shall return.

Theresa Bakker said...

Oh, this is not whining. This is a beautiful example of taking time to stop and notice what's happening in the world around you. I love our old, crumbling house and am committed to helping it stand up as long as we're here. Thanks for reminding me.

lightening said...

We drove down my grandparents old street the other day. They lived in their home from new until they had to move into a smaller unit. Now it's gone.... They're replacing all the houses in that street with 2 homes. It has such a claustrophobic feel to it that I'm not sure we'll go back there again. I just felt like I couldn't breathe. I LOVE my outdoors space. Of course, we're spoilt here on the farm. :-)

Kris said...

For me, it's not so much the look of the new - which is an aesthetic issue, partly, and each to their own and all that, though personally I'm not a fan of the rendered cube - as how it relates to its surrounds and what it says about our approach to history and difference. We live in a gorgeous older house, built so far as we can tell in the late 1930s, with beautiful proportions and dreadful design re: heating, cooling and light. I think you can have both newness and sympathy. Indeed, it may be in new houses you can't have one (respect for the environment) without the other (environmentally sound design).

On the space issue - I tend to smirk when I see high front fences attached to houses cheek by jowl, so tightly packed you must be able to hear your neighbour snore. Where's the privacy there? And why choose to build like that?

Marjorie said...

You're striking at the core of everything I'm trying to figure out for my family as the kids are starting to get older. Schools, home, space, safety, privacy, convenience, ethics, nature ...

I'll be re-reading this again, I'm sure, to help me keep figuring things out about what I really want "home" to be...

Susan said...

We're a family of seven in an old weatherboard house which is an ongoing renovation/retrofit project. My partner is regularly asked by customers and work colleagues when we're going to get a "decent house". Our place just doesn't have the right status, you see. We love living here, the house and the area meet our needs. We don't want the level of debt that would go with us buying a great, big house in the "desirable" part of town.

meggie said...

This is a wonderful post. Illustrated with lovely pics.
I hate this new obsession with ugly rendered bricks, painted, & damp. Cracks appear, & it is all so plain old ugly.
Older houses had character. Older gardens held charm.
The shabby & humble are not to be despised.

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