Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Ode to a Home

If you ask me where I would want to live if the world ended, or if America dissolved into a civil war of Repubs. and Dems. with nobody winning, I think I found a place. I think it's a house the Howard Roark would find pleasing, and one that John Galt wouldn't mind living in. While I've been writing through the last two blog entries, I've had this house in mind, in that it conforms only to the needs of the people living there, and not to any standards by which the builders, whoever they were, thought about it looking like any other home on the market. I drove by new neighborhoods in Newton County a week or two ago and found that every house looked exactly the same, with no room between each of them, so you could probably walk between them, but that was about it. Why would anyone want to live in a house that looked like every single other house on the street? I'm reminded of the Monkees song, "Pleasant Valley Sunday,"

...Rows of houses that are all the same
And no one seems to care

See Mrs. Gray, she's proud today
because her roses are in bloom.
Mr. Greene he's so serene,
He's got a T.V. in every room

Another Pleasant Valley Sunday
Here in status symbol land
Mothers complain about how hard life is
And the kids just don't understand

Creature comfort goals
They only numb my soul
and make it hard for me to see
My thoughts all seem to stray,
to places far away
I need a change of scenery

If you notice the people in stanza two... their accomplishments are so small. And while roses are important, I guess, are far from raising a garden to provide sustenance for the family. The televisions are simply methods of escape from the mundane world outside, the one that "numbs my soul" in the last line. It's very obvious that the writers are nonplussed about the world of this neighborhood (which most young people in the 60's were. A shame that that energy was wasted in such a short time. But that's another blog that I'll probably never write.)

The house I'm referring to is located in Walton County, Georgia, just a little ways from Loganville. It's actually a house of a coworker, A., who has worked his whole life and has recently bought this house and is currently working on restoring it to its former splendor. I had to take him home one day, and he took me on a very detailed tour of the entire house. Turns out the architect is one who has made quite a living constructing Walmart buildings. He found this storage shed, with the land around it, and realized that it would make a great house. So he took the large barn-like structure, added a second floor and made it into a home. It's actually the reverse for what happened to Thoreau's home in Walden. After he moved out of the cabin, it was sold to a farmer to be a storage shed, and later had the roof removed, eventually to become a pig sty.

The single most impressive thing about the structure is the living room, which comprises of the storage building, built with a single raised roof, with angled ceilings and windows at odd places that would, for some, be absurd, but the light that the windows let in is amazing. Take a church sanctuary, for instance, with the giant windows and vaulted ceilings. What light should beam down upon the worshipers, letting the light from nature, the complexities that God has wrought in this universe, illuminate the hymnals and the words on the pastor's Bible. But unfortunately, churches seem to want colored glass windows, and drawn curtains, to keep the light out. A somber mood is not what a congregation should need for a Sunday church service. It would make one go to sleep, or view it as a funeral. Let it be a joyous time, and then when you get home, see again the light from the Sunday afternoons glowing through the windows, projecting off the dust in the air and affirming God's presence everywhere.

The openness of this house is what appeals to me. The center of the living room, which houses the sofas and the television, is surrounded by windows, doors opened to the kitchen and study, and above it, to one side, a balcony that is like a game room or study room that goes back to the bedrooms. It is warm and inviting, with only the bedrooms off to one side to afford privacy. As Thoreau said in Walden:

A house whose inside is as open and manifest as a bird's nest, and you cannot go in at the front door and out at the back without seeing some of its inhabitants; where to be a guest is to be presented with the freedom of the house, and not to be carefully excluded from seven eighths of it, shut up in a particular cell, and told to make yourself at home there -- in solitary confinement.

The location of the kids' bedroom is also worth noting, as it is off to the side, almost as in an alcove with large glass doors that open out to a patio, where a basketball goal should be, or where you would see girls using sidewalk chalk to make their favorite games. Then, beyond that, is constructed a large treehouse. And beyond that still are the trees and forests and the creek that lies at the bottom of the hills. What more wonderful things would children need? Paradise, I tell you. But A. told me that his children never play in the treehouse, they would much rather play on their Nintendo DS's. Children have forgotten how to create worlds of their own. They have lost the instincts built into them by God, to create realms and become lords over them. What better than the treehouse to survey your kingdom, to wield a stick as a sword and challenge all enemies lurking in the trees to overtake you? Or to travel over fields and streams to explore the world as Livingston or Louis and Clark had done in the past? Instead, they'd rather catch Pikachu and fight virtual battles in digital realms. It is a tragic loss when the outdoors remain silent because those who would seek its freedom find it rather in electronic gadgets made by corporations seeking to trap children and gain profit from it. Yet the ingenuity and imagination cultivated by romps in the outdoors would create minds sharp enough to solve the world's problems. The cerebral mind must have a physical body to go with it, lest atrophy and lethargy take over.

Yet the house is not finished, as the original designer left much undone, and it has fallen to A. to complete the task. If I had my house to redo, I would tear out so many walls and roofs. Bust through the prison walls that keep me inside. There is no greater joy than that of constructing your own home, nor any task more stressful to undertake. It is building shelter, much like the cavemen did to keep out of the rain and to protect themselves from predators and the like. Building our houses puts us in touch with one of the original motivators of man, an integral part of our subconsciousness. To quote Thoreau, again:

There is some of the same fitness in a man’s building his own house that there is in a bird’s building its own nest. Who knows but if men constructed their dwellings with their own hands, and provided food for themselves and families simply and honestly enough, the poetic faculty would be universally developed, as birds universally sing when they are so engaged? But alas! we do like cowbirds and cuckoos, which lay their eggs in nests which other birds have built, and cheer no traveler with their chattering and unmusical notes. Shall we forever resign the pleasure of construction to the carpenter? What does architecture amount to in the experience of the mass of men? I never in all my walks came across a man engaged in so simple and natural an occupation as building his house.

In The Fountainhead, Ayn Rand puts these feelings into words as Roark looks over the Monadnock Valley resort, or as he is stretched out on the ground outside the house he designed for Gail Wynand and Francon. The house on the hill, overlooking the wilderness that is material for the architect's hands to mold into works of beauty and utilitarian function. For the architect, the builder, the canvas on which he paints is the whole world. The rocks and the clay and the wood and the ground are the materials he uses to make a masterpiece. Sure, anyone can make a house out of these things. Anyone can take a cheap art class and come home with a painting of some trees and mountains. But the master can take those same materials and make stunning works of beauty. Houses are of the same mold. They can be mechanically built boxes meant for meager shelter and banality, or they can be just as organic and full of life and beauty as the people who built and live in them. The abodes mirror those who abide. Thoreau: "And when the farmer has got his house, he may not be the richer but the poorer for it, and it be the house that has got him." and "Most men appear never to have considered what a house is, and are actually though needlessly poor all their lives because they think that they must have such a one as their neighbors have."

If I must live in a house, given a choice, give me the fishing shack with one room, with as little an attempt at becoming like those houses in the Monkees' song, so that I may create the beauty out of the box in which I live. Or give me the materials to build the house, or to someone who has the foresight, like Roark, to create out of the soul of the Earth a structure I would be proud to call mine, to strive to live to the organic energy that pulses through the walls. I want a house that will make me a better person just for having lived in it. Give me a house that promotes freedom and openness, and not the imprisoned walls that provide shelter, but little else.

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