The conversation with my fellow traveler was breezing along as two frequent fliers compared notes on the American home. Here we were, separated by geography (north/south), work (public versus private sector), yet experiences with our own houses bore striking similarities, including the removal of trees recently downed in harsh weather. Where, we speculated, did nature present only a constant, benign face? The answer: England! Then with one sentence, the universe shifted. “Of course, I would never live there,” he observed. “They don’t allow handguns, and I couldn’t protect my home.”
Like a lightning strike, his observation divided us: We clearly saw the world in distinctly different ways. He sallied into the need for protection of hearth and family in a troubled world, describing how his own house lay nestled in four defensible acres of trees; I, by contrast, lived in Jane Jacobs land writ large, an urban oasis of brownstones and pruned street trees rendered defensible by congregate living. What particularly struck me, on reflection, was how I had managed to proceed through a lifetime of architectural involvement so far removed from the worldview articulated by the armed homeowner.
Architects often accept the pieties we have been taught, the lessons that we absorb and discuss, as larger truth. If only the rest of the country would simply wake up and stop sprawl. Plan better cities. Preserve open spaces. Build more environmentally responsible structures. Any fool (read, the public) can see how self-interest is despoiling the land; developers, greed, and blithe unconcern of homeowners form an unholy trinity, from this shared perspective, fed by low interest rates and tax laws that encourage the building of the single-family home. While we architects are quick to know the better answer, we might take time to understand the motivation of the people we hope to convince. How well do we actually understand, for instance, the American need for autonomy? Clearly, the homebuilding boom of recent years reflects deep-seated desires. Better understanding of the motives leading to the suburbanization of America can allow us to acknowledge and address, if not agree with, the results. An informed architecture, and planning, can only improve our design.
The need forcefully articulated by my fellow traveler was for security. His position, while extreme to these New York ears and smacking of a Michael Moore parody, historically extends to the founding of the United States, when individual settlers faced the perils of an expansive wilderness and ultimately forged the democratic system we currently enjoy. The philosophical underpinnings that place the citizen at the helm of his or her own destiny stretched throughout the nineteenth century to include a litany of virtues encapsulated in the title of Emerson’s well-known essay “Self-Reliance.” Wright and other architects mixed morality with design, with repercussions that extend into this new century.
Today, the currents of global change and the challenges to domestic order are creating undercurrents of fear that erupt in unexpected places. Movies such as Safe Room and Hostage, which serve as a sort of dreamlike id to our more rational daytime lives, portray the American house as a fortress, assaulted by crime, powerless in the face of inept authorities. In the case of those imaginary tales, neither the architect-designed houses out in the landscape nor those in the city, protected by electronic systems, fortified by vaults and television cameras, could save the protagonist. The individual homeowner, and heroic strangers, are the best defense.
Architects are sometimes accused of being out of touch with widespread needs, including security. In this issue, Record Houses again reflects the deep-seated desire for dwellings with a symbiotic relationship to the out of doors that is transparent and in harmony with nature. At the same time, the eight residences presented in these pages and on the Web will never address all of the fundamental questions accompanying our overarching desire to live within the countryside. The traveler might ask, can these remote, leafy bowers offer a sense of security on dark New England nights? What neighbor might you call if the lights went out? Architects are rarely motivated by fear. Ensconced as we are in lofts, or within the hum of the urban village, an unexpected conversation with a stranger suggests that we ponder the qualities of the ideal home and whether we architects are in touch with our clients. While I’ll not soon change my own position on the role of firearms as the best source of security, nevertheless I wonder, how well do we know what clients really want?