10.04.2006

Random thoughts on the homogenization of our society

If that's a word... but anyway.

I was thinking about that post yesterday.. the one about Walmart, and it got me thinking about how our society as a whole has succumbed to existence at the lowest common denominator.

Think about this:

In the early- to middle-20th century, our nation underwent a mini industrial revolution. It was War time, with the Two Great Wars. Prior to that time, all machined items, whether they were parts for farm equipment, logging equipment, whatever, were pretty much produced as one-off, one of a kind items. Henry Ford then moved us to the next step, by putting automobile manufacturing onto an assembly line system, where parts were mass-produced and installed in the same place and same way on every vehicle.

Many of our forbears were factory workers. Props to RiveterGirl, whose Colorado rock band is named after Rosie The Riveter, an icon of that time.

Then it was war-time, and the great majority of those workers went to war. To fight mostly hand-to-hand combat. Now, I'm not taking anything away from today's servicemen, but holy crap, can you imagine the courage THAT took??!! I digress.

Anyway, all those factories were turned over to production of war-time needs. Munitions, military vehicles, airplanes, etc. Daylight Savings was implimented then (and should be abolished now). But I digress again. Sorry.

Then, when they all came back, they had the GI bill that allowed them to buy a home.

At the same time, the nation's homebuilders had taken this production line format over to building homes in a hurry, for $7000, because they needed to. California was a great example of this, where there were great massive communities cranked up almost overnight, because the homes were all the same, and the workers knew what they were doing. Right angles, straight lines. Boxes. This has spurred the trades' specialization to this day - you have drywall guys, stucco guys, brick masons, HVAC, roofing, etc.

The nation quickly filled up with homes that were all the same. The only individuality between them was whether you wanted it garage-left, or garage-right. There was a standard set of acceptable designs: Bungalow - LR/Kitchen one side, MBR/2nd BR other side, bathroom in the middle, Split Level - Main Kitchen/LR, bedrooms up, more living down, and Two-Story, with its cousin, the Split-Entry - Kitchen/LR main, Bedrooms up, unfinished down. Take a look around your neighborhood today, even if you live in a new community, you'll see that this hasn't changed much over time.

Up until this time, Architects reigned supreme, because most homes were designed by them on a one-off basis, or at least a very few of the same designs built in disparate areas. There were MANY residential architects then. Many of them famous to this day. The last great age of "the residential architect for the everyday" ended in the middle 50's and early 60's, when homebuilders went with three, four or five designs, and built the great preponderance of the nation's homes we still live in today.

This month's Dwell Magazine has a short but interesting article about Frank Lloyd Wright, of whom, if you know me or have read here for a while, I am a fan. He built about 90 homes in the 50's, his most productive decade for private residences. MOST of those homes are still owned and lived in by the original owners. What does that say about those people?

1. They were young, and went against the early homogenization of the nation's residential trends.
2. They were more well-off than the regular folk.

While number 1 is true, as witnessed by the fact that many are still in the homes today, 65 years later, number two isn't necessarily so. There was a story about one of those owners who had to wait 7 years to be able to save up the money to be able to engage Wright on a home design for them.

What those people were, however, was willing to go against the homogeneous societal trends and insist on some individuality in their home. Sure, we'd all love to live at Fallingwater, an iconic American home - who wouldn't? I'd give my left nut to live in ANY wright house. But you don't have to have one of those in mind in order to engage an architect either.

I don't know for sure, but I am betting that there are fewer residential acrchitects per capita today than there were 75 years ago. By the same token I am betting that there are fewer homes designed by architects built today than then. And I'm not talking about these huge Garage Mahals, or starter-castles, either. You don't have to build a huge behemoth in order to instill some individuality in your abode. I am willing to bet that there are architects out there who would jump all over the chance to design a home that costs $150,000 - $200,000 these days.

You will say yes, but there are economic factors at play here - things are different now than they were then. Companies make it easier today to work with them, and get your home cranked out in three months, looking just like everyone else's. But that's really the entire point of this post isn't it?? We accept what is easy as the only way to go - we've gotten lazy in what we expect from a service provider, be it our DSL service, our home builder, our grocer.

You have to buy a lot now, get your design approved, etc. It's harder to do it yourself. It's more expensive, you say.

But I will say to you that financing is out there, people just don't know it - it can be about as economical as working with one of the major home-builders - and you will get 10 times the home, I promise.

You'll just have to be a little more pro-active in your thinking, and what you will agree to accept. You can get it done - it's a little more work, but you get back exponentially what you put in.

So, why do I ramble on about this stuff? Especially in connection with the Walmart post I wrote yesterday? It's because we as a society are so willing to accept what is put in front of us as the best thing for us. This is true whether it be where we live, where we shop, what we eat, how we travel. The individual is being stamped out of existence as we are all forced to do the same things, live in the same homes, shop at the same places, buying the same things as everyone else.

Where did our individuality go? Are we not creative anymore? Did we fall asleep somewhere along the way, and just decide that we should all live in the same thing, buy at the same store, eat the same things?

I don't think that's healthy for a society, and it shows in caricature, when we allow huge builders to build massive communities in our cities, or allow massive retailers to tell us what we will buy.

Resistence is futile - you will be assimilated. Now go back to your stucco 2500 square foot split level homes, nothing more to see here.

I'm just sayin'.

3 comments:

RiveterGirl said...

I love this entry for so many reasons.

First you mention me and my band (woot!). My grandmother was a Rosie the Riveter in the shipyards near San Francisco during the war.

I grew up across the Bay from San Francisco in a post-war housing tract that was just as you described, exactly the same, except that every other floor plan was switched.

I earned my BA and MA in art history and studied a lot of architecture. I have always been in awe of FLW, his ego and his wonderful house architecture (Woe is to the person who mentions architecture and has to listen to me drone on).

Currently I live in a minuscle town that was a haven for bungalo builders in the 20s and have owned two. Despite the charm of the early architecture of our downtown, the outlining areas are innundated with developments of beige houses with lots of closet space, no yard and no character.

But we also have an area in which many new high-end homes are being built, many of which are obviously influences by FLW ... but still there's something about them ... a dryness or perhaps a kind of canned coolness that just doesn't seem right — but that doesn't mean, given the cash, I would forgo my tiny cottage for one.

Reach Upward said...

Daylight saving time should be abolished. But instead, we're extending it next year again. Another grand accomplishment of the 109th Congress. Gee, at this rate, in three decades DST will be abolished simply because it will be daylight saving time year round.

18 years ago, my lovely bride and I bought a lot in a lovely subdivision and contracted my architect brother to design us a house. He is mostly a commercial guy, so the residence he designed looks rather unusual. It's not exactly a FLW home, but it is very unique. When I tell people how to get to my house, I simply tell them that once they are on the road to look for the most unusual home on the north side of the road, and bingo, they find it, no problem.

Five kids later, the original floor plan doesn't fit our family's needs as well as another plan might, but we have stayed. Last year we completed an addition to the back side home. It sort of keeps with my brother's original style, but it freshens it as well. I think he's a little disappointed to see his creation altered, but, you know, progress. And it works much better for our needs.

Our home is truly a one-of-a-kind, but there are a couple others in our neighborhood that also have unique designs. I have always liked the individuality of our home.

That One Guy said...

Riviter: you're preaching to the choir with regard to architecture in general and Wright specifically. Besides the cantilevered stuff of his later years, I also LOVE the priarie style!! Like you, don't get me started!! I love the French Curve! There are MANY prairie replicas here in Salt Lake, but they're all as if you turned the volume pot down on yur guitar - you can hear it, and you can tell it's an electric guitar, but it doesn't PLAY like one!! It's ALMOST a good job, know what I mean?

Reach: HOORAY for you!! - I love that you had a house done... I love that it's unique... we need MANY more people with the foresight and courage to go for that... too often we settle for a choice of stucco color, and think we've done some creative thinking.

Lowest common denominator/what can we (the builder) get away with....