GENDER BENDING THE RULES OF ARCHITECTURE
On a typical windy winter day like today, an old wood house lets you live among the elements. To me, it is wonderfully primal to smell the snow¬¬-laced winter air as it whirls into a room from the window that just won’t shut right. The wind that snaps the delicate willows and cracks the old crabapple branches also bench-presses the attic like a lid on a box, lifting it just enough to allow the walls to heave in and out with the lung-shuddering force of a chronic smoker. One good storm clears out the house from top to bottom like a productive cough. Homes like this let you know that even though you are sitting inside, you are still part of nature. It is close at hand.
Not long ago we performed a nearly unimaginable feat in the recently tight real estate world. We decided to sell our house in Colorado and move back to Illinois. It was clearly a cosmically approved decision because we did it all in two months, from the day we decided to leave, to the day we stepped into our new home. Just eight weeks was all it took to put it on the market, get it sold, move across the country, buy a new house and settle in. The universe pushed that decision through admin with quantum speed.
At that time there were more houses in foreclosure than were on the market , but we didn’t have months to wait. So instead of finding a deal on a foreclosure, I chose a relatively new house from the mid-1980s that we found online. It was not the classic 50s rambling ranch I was looking for. It has two stories, more garages than we have cars, and modern siding that feels like plastic. It moves when pushed with my index finger. It’s the siding that scared me, knowing how the mountain winds pushed so hard against the wood slats of our house in Colorado I always felt the house leaned a bit to the east in a storm. I wondered how much the new house would sway in the wind the following spring, or if it would rattle apart in a green-black summer storm?
It is now more than a year later in the new house. It is still standing. Through heat waves and winter storm gales, this house has held together well. No swaying in the wind. No loss of siding. And when I drive through the neighborhood I realize that this is basically a good house. Its major fault is that it is architecturally confusing. It has an unidentifiable style, questionable construction and tract house tendencies. It is the Leisure Suit of homes. In fact, all the houses in my neighborhood have these same features. Surprise!
Our house is the type of construction that is often the bane of every architect’s standards and the butt of industry jokes about building in the 1980s. Not only is it too big and unwieldy, it is a combination of multiple styles all thrown together: Gable Front, Queen Anne and Cottage, to mention three. And although no two homes in the neighborhood are alike, you can tell they all came from the same parents.
While working on a volunteer architectural project last year that documented each home in town with pictures and building information, I learned about all types of home designs, starting in the 1860s. At first I thought that if a home was called a Queen Anne it would have the same attributes as another Queen Anne. But I soon saw that architects often disagreed on the attributes of some very basic types and styles of homes. What was a bungalow to one architect, was an Art and Crafts bungalow to another. What was Folk Victorian to one, was a Gable Front to another.
As I think about our new neighborhood and its mélange of styles, I see it is no more guilty of gender- bending the architectural rules than any other era has been. Aren’t we used to mixing and matching everything these days, so much so that the lineage of anything is up for grabs? Who really cares if this entire neighborhood is full of architectural mutts? I admit that at first I did care, but now I see it is really OK. We have a whole neighborhood of people who really like their homes and that is the most important aspect, not adhering to prescribed rules. And, due to our aging vinyl windows, I have access to the sweet aroma of the elements on a winter day, reminding me that I am just inches away from nature.