“The mystery that holds my attention is that some houses have life—are home, are dwellings—and others don’t.”
Since 1970 the American home has grown 60 percent, from an average of 1,500 square feet to about 2,400 square feet today (and people still have to rent storage sheds). The 700-square-foot Colonial house of the 18th century is about the size of the two-car garage on a suburban “Colonial.”
Americans are suffocating in clutter. “Our houses have grown stuffy with stuff,” writes Mansfield.
The American obsession with home improvement is at a fever pitch. We have HGTV, shelter magazines, reality TV shows about hoarding, organizing experts who tell us that cleaning our closets will change our lives, and a thriving self-storage industry. (“That odd name, ‘self-storage,'” writes Howard, “is revealing: people aren’t just storing excess; this stuff is a part of their identity.”)
The urge to discuss “stuff” is strong, as Mansfield discovered during several recent radio appearances. “I’ve done several call-in NPR shows and listeners ask so often about clutter that I thought a few of the shows were going to become ‘Clutter Talk’ with me as the ‘Click and Clack’ of over-stuffed houses,” Mansfield jokes.
“I do think that the cluttered house is representative of our crowded minds. Less is more, but that too can become a trap, yet another way to postpone living your life.”
“I’m averse to giving advice,” Mansfield told me via email, “but here are two short suggestions to deal with clutter:”
- If you’re happy with a mess and feel vital, go forth and be merry.
- If are feeling overwhelmed, then set a modest goal. Start with a room or a closet, and try to throw out a dozen items in each session. Any number will do. You just want to get things flowing out the door. Once you start, it does get easier.
The Most Hated House on the Block
“This is, of course, the heart of the book,” explains Mansfield, “trying to get in the vicinity of the ‘quality without a name,’ as I wrote. We seek out places that allow ‘peace, silence and dreams.’ We feel most alive in places that are ‘comfortable, ordinary and profound,’ as Christopher Alexander has said. We often find these qualities in older houses, but they exist in modern buildings as well.”
Personally, Mansfield is “a big fan of the Shingle Style,” but he also loves Frank Lloyd Wright’s architectural masterpiece Falling Water, the work of Rhode-Island based architects James Estes and Peter Twombly, and the buildings of American architect Louis Sullivan, many which were demolished in the postwar era of urban renewal. (According to Howard, readers interested in Sullivan should check out They All Fall Down: Richard Nickel’s Struggle to Save America’s Architecture, “a wonderful book about a man who was killed documenting this great loss.”)
“The best buildings are the ones we can look at every day of our lives and still see something new,” Howard says. “They keep revealing themselves and refreshing our spirit.”
One such structure is the Zimmerman House in Manchester, New Hampshire, which is now owned by the Currier Museum of Art. This Usonian house was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright for Isadore and Lucille Zimmerman in 1950.
In his book Mansfield refers to the Zimmerman House as “the most hated house on the block.” The neighbors despised the design and called it the “chicken coop” because of its low profile.
While many visitors to the home immediately fall in love with its sense of calm and quiet, and the contrast of textures, shadows, and light, plenty of other visitors find its 1700-square-foot space “small,” its shadows “dark,” and the open-concept design lacking in privacy.
“Visitors are put off by the totality of the house,” write Mansfield. “It’s complete. It’s done. You’ve arrived. And if you can’t be happy here and now, you will not be saved by the prospect of home improvement.”
“The Zimmermans lived in their home for 36 years, gardening and hosting formal evenings of live music each Tuesday for friends and guests. Such contentment is an exceptional idea today, says Mansfield:
Isadore and Lucille Zimmerman loved their house. This was home….They weren’t forever planning additions or thinking of moving. No. This was it. Their spot on earth. How many others can say that of where they live? ‘The Zimmerman house is Heaven,’ they wrote to their architect. ‘It is the most beautiful house in the world…No words can express our gratitude.’ Wright’s architecture performed as promised—it liberated them to live a rich life.
Maybe that is what people can’t accept: The Zimmermans were happy. Here lived two American who didn’t want more. They were happy with what they had. Radical.“
“Home improvement is our domestic Manifest Destiny. There’s always a project awaiting—a new bathroom, a kitchen makeover, a new deck, new carpeting, a new addition…
But what happens when your house is finished? And now you have to be happy. You have no excuses. A new floor, a new room, isn’t going to save you. (This may be what an unfinished house preserves for people—the possibility of arrival, the last push through the mountain pass to paradise. If you stop before you’re done, you can’t be disappointed.)
No home improvement, no promise of expansion—it’s un-American. Your house is defined. That means that your life is finite after all. home improvement is the domestic outpost of our restlessness.”
Little Hell on the Prairie
He briefly recounts the great ice storm of 2008 that left 55% of the state of New Hampshire without power for as long as two weeks. The lesson learned: electric power both obscures and liberates our homes. Without it, home life once again centers around the hearth.
During the outage, as we hauled buckets of water from the spring, pumped water by hand, took occasional sponge baths, and spent our days tending fires, kerosene heaters, and oil lamps, we forgot luxuries like computers, showers, refrigerators, and light switches.
“Be ready to devolve,” Mansfield writes. Well said.
In 2008 I too was one of the unlucky 55% with no running water, heat, or electricity for 12 days. I refer to that strange, life-changing experience as my “Little Hell on the Prairie” period.
There were a few unsettling discoveries, such as the mobile home someone had left in a hurry. “There was laundry hanging on the line, flapping in the breeze,” Mansfield told me via email. “It had been there for months and it had faded. The entire place, down a long driveway, was snowbound. A few abandoned cars were under mounds of snow. I had to troop in on snowshoes.”
“Americans live far apart—as far apart as we can manage,” Mansfield writes. There is an impulse “to migrate to the farther reaches of whatever precinct we inhabit,” he argues.
This is Mansfield’s “quick primer of the types of American space: 1. Cabin in the woods. 2. Car as cabin in the woods. 3. iPod on city street as cabin in the woods.”
Dwelling in Destruction
A year-and-a-half after the storm people were still lacking beds and houses and were facing the challenge of double utility bills for both FEMA trailers and the houses they were trying to repair.
“The Mississippi Gulf Coast is like the Land of Oz,” writes Mansfield. “Everyone is trying to go home again. There is no place like home. But after Hurricane” Katrina your home is like no place you have ever known.”
In the section “Dwelling in Destruction,” Mansfield examines the connection between war and home. More houses were set afire as a result of war during the 20th century than other time in history. The official policy of wartime England in 1942 was to “dehouse” Germans. And the photographs and films from the Vietnam war are rife with images of burning huts. “A burning hut is war reduced to its essential brutality,” Mansfield writes.
He may dislike suburbia, but he also understand its origins:
“The burbs were much derided as ‘ticky tacky boxes,’ home to the conformist, “Organization Man,” and his alienated teens. True enough, to a point. But for my parent’s generation who had come through the Great Depression and World War II, these little houses were the American Dream.
There are many memorials to the world war the veterans won, but to me the slim sideyards and backyards of our neighborhood, those few feet between the houses, are the largest memorial. They started out as peace parks; block after block, mile after mile of watered, weeded, fertilized, and mowed peace parks.
So there you have it: an admirable aspiration that, by the time I was in my teens, had destroyed the woods and fields that I loved. The suburbs are a landscape-eating machine. And since that time consumerism has gone into overdrive. I still go home to visit family and I don’t like it at all. I wrote a little about, too, in The Bones of the Earth, in a chapter called, The Flaneur of the Strip.”
As Mansfield so artfully describes in Dwelling in Possibility, every line on a plan represents a choice. “Sprawl is planned. Calling it sprawl lets us off the hook, as if sprawl, like a hurricane, was beyond our control. But it took thousands of hours of planning and public meetings to conjure these mistakes.”
It was in Howard’s book that I first learned about the marvelous word drosscape, a term used by author Alan Berger to describe leftover industrial wasteland. “Dross is what we produce,” writes Mansfield. There is “no economic growth without dross.” It’s failed malls, power lines, pipelines, landfills, parking lots, chemical plats, strip mines, closed factory lands, and gated communities on artificial lakes. Mansfield says it has “no spirit” and is “vast and ugly”:
Drosscape is the landscape of appetite, of getting and spending, of consuming, of trash. It’s the land we shape with our commerce, with millions of individual choices. But it’s writ so large that everyone can disown it. We are all responsible for a part of the refineries and coal-fired power plants and the highways thick with tractor-trailers. Dross is us.”
And yet Mansfield finds value in understanding what separates these soulless places from those that encourage us to daydream. The best designs and most “genuine buildings” are “like a lens,” he writes, ” focusing and defining the spirit of that place….They honor the ordinary as sacred…”
By the end of Dwelling in Possibility, Mansfield concludes that the “spirit of place” is difficult to pin down. “What persists is eternal and elusive….We can speak with allegory and example, and then bravely admit that to get ourselves out of the vicinity of this ‘quality without a name’ we need to simplify. We have to restore the ordinary—the ordinary that lives in the shadows, quiet, talk, the hearth. It lives in the spaces in between—which the Japanese call ma—not in clutter. We need to give ourselves room to be. We need less. These are old arguments, but more urgent than ever.”
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