Roll up your sleeves and take out your digital cameras, I've got an assignment for you. I want you to proceed to your nearest subdivision of new homes, find the ugliest house you can, and photograph it. Then I want you to do a little write-up explaining why it's ugly. Use plain, straightforward language. E-mail me the photo and your short write-up by August 15. Let's see if we can explain to each other and the public why we think mass-market housing needs improvement. We've got a problem, and I think show and tell is the best way to explain what's wrong.
An architectural photographer once called me up and asked me to help her out with a client. She had taken some scouting shots of a house for a spec builder of luxury homes. She's a pro, accustomed to shooting some of the best design work in her area, so she knew something was amiss with the design of this house--yet she couldn't articulate what was wrong. Her builder/client wanted her honest opinion about whether the house was publishable. He was very proud of it and wanted to see it in a magazine. She didn't want to disappoint him, but she knew it didn't stand a chance with the better house publications. She sent me the photos and asked me to explain why we would reject it.
The builder had certainly spent some money pushing all the hot buttons he thought his prospective buyer would want. The house had a big open family room/kitchen/eating area, the latest greatest appliances, soaring ceilings, a grand staircase, Palladian windows aplenty. It would not look out of place in any luxury subdivision in America. So, what was wrong with it? Why was it not deserving of media coverage? Because it was just so darn homely. Not one proportion was pleasing. Seeking to impress, every element was overblown. It was like trying to read an e-mail typed in all caps. A silent scream ringing in the ears.
Beauty is not the only quality that is subject to the vagaries of a beholder. What we perceive as ugly is subjective too. The spec builder thought he'd designed a beautiful house; he had certainly lavished lots of care and money on it. He saw its like all around him; it fit the current fashion. It probably sold quickly to someone who wanted that many bedrooms in that neighborhood. When we're surrounded by mediocre design, we become inured to it. Eventually, it doesn't look so bad to us anymore. Our tolerance for pain grows over time. For instance, everyone in my neighborhood has the same blandly ugly Rubbermaid garbage can from The Home Depot. It holds a lot of trash, it has wheels so it's easy to move, and it stands up to the abuse of our garbage collectors. Lots of problems solved, but the whole neighborhood is homelier on trash day. Why do we put up with this?
Send me your ugly houses. Show me and tell me what you think is wrong with them. Let's explain why the emperor has no clothes.
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