We Americans are a people with profoundly changeable opinions. Our lifestyle ideals, for instance, seesaw from extravagance to asceticism in bursts of 30 years or so. This peculiar national trait affects our architecture as it does everything else, repeatedly taking us from overblown ostentation to reactionary modesty and back again.
The Victorian era, with its seemingly insatiable appetite for visual bombast, gave us an architecture of vast, splendid, yet manifestly impractical, houses. By the dawn of the 20th century, a backlash against these pompous dwellings had ushered in the Arts and Crafts movement, with its renewed appreciation for simplicity and hand craftsmanship.
This chaste aesthetic survived into the economic giddiness of the Roaring Twenties. Then, fueled by a superheated economy, architecture once again entered a period of unsurpassed opulence that abruptly ended with the wake-up call of the Great Depression.
The unmatched prosperity of the post-World War II years once again had Americans indulging in conspicuous consumption. We drove gas-guzzling behemoths with toothy chromium grilles that our British cousins dubbed “The American Dollar Grin.” We lived in stretched-out ranch houses with purposely prominent double garages and competed with the Joneses to see whose driveway held the latest tail-finned wonder.
The 1960s brought an escalating Cold War in Europe, as well as an all-too-real war in Vietnam. The decade also gave Americans their first real inkling of the world’s impending troubles: mushrooming population, environmental pollution and diminishing resources. It was enough of a reality check to bring us down to earth from the heady materialism of the Eisenhower years.
Needless to say, America is once again at the peak – at least, one hopes it’s the peak – of one of these materialistic cycles. As we preside over the dawn of the 21st century, the typical new house has bloated to more than twice the size of an average home of 1950, despite the fact that families have gotten smaller. In the last two decades alone, the average floor area of new homes has increased some 40 percent.
Along the same lines, it’s become routine to see featherweight housewives wrestling gigantic 7-foot-high SUVs on half-mile grocery runs. Alas, it doesn’t end there, either. Recently, in a shopping mall in a middle-class suburb of Portland, I came across three different boutiques selling clothing, diet supplements and confections – for dogs.
Perhaps there is a point when too much really is too much. We’ve all seen that bumper sticker beloved by the terminally empty-headed: “He Who Dies With the Most Toys Wins.” Yet few intelligent Americans would argue that having a huge house and a couple of Escalades, much less a larder stocked with dog pastries, has actually made their lives any happier. Some might even own up to the contrary. Yet we seem unable to perceive the siren song of materialism for the commercial sham that it is.
Frank Lloyd Wright once observed: “Many wealthy people are little more than janitors of their possessions.” Today, it’s not just the wealthy who are so afflicted. Rich and poor, old and young, left and right, we Americans seem poised to become a nation of janitors.
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