I've just returned from a stretch in Maine, where I stayed in a bare-bones summer cottage overlooking a peaceful bay. The cottage is in Brooklin—with an "i"—near where E.B. White wrote the trio of children's books that includes Charlotte's Web. His crisp white Greek Revival house still stands at a curve in the main road, momentarily blocking the bay view as you drive past. It's a handsome house carefully attended by a mindful gardener who simply underscores its unfussy character.
Although not a humble house by any means, it's far quieter and more modest than the brand-new summer places I saw still swathed in scaffolding. It seems McMansion syndrome is hitting the summer-home market, too. The worst offenders were the overblown Shingle Style behemoths hard by the bay, larding up the most precious land. They're festooned with gables and dormers in a futile attempt to hack them down to size. Such a shame to stumble in with more wealth than taste and sully those gorgeous views.
Earlier houses in the area were much more sensitive to their surroundings. They weren't about making a private land-and-view grab. And they accommodated extended family and friends by adding other cottages on the property (like the one I used) rather than sprawling across their acreage. Because they were summer houses, no one expected every guest quarter to wedge under one roof. The aesthetic was simple and camplike. The only houses that looked large were the ones that, over time, embraced their great slouching barns with ells.
Those old barns are among the best buildings up there. And even the new "barn" garages going up next to the McMansions aren't so bad. If only the new houses were so economically detailed. Oddly enough, many Americans have an affection for vernacular agricultural buildings—even if they grew up in the city—and some can appreciate a broader range of industrial structures. Architects, of course, rediscovered those buildings a number of years ago. They've since appropriated and adapted them to achieve a simpler, cleaner-looking contemporary house, one that looks like it belongs where it is.
This vernacular regionalism is where Modernism has gone to roost. Instead of "machines for living" we now have "industrial sheds for living." Think Miller/Hull, Lake/Flato, and, in Australia, Glenn Murcutt. Metal roofs, concrete floors, exposed structure. Somehow the public is more accepting of this kind of Modernism and these "new" materials than they are of Bauhaus' more obvious descendants. Perhaps it's because the materials are familiar, they have fond associations, they are edgy without being cold. There is romance, charm, and even a little sexiness to these houses.
Vernacular Modernism suits our technological age well, in much the same way Modernism fit the last stages of the Industrial Revolution. Maybe the further away we get from working outside with our hands, the more we romanticize the materials that symbolize such labor. Nonetheless, it is the kinder, gentler homegrown Modernism we've been looking for. It shares the tasteful understatement of those New England Greek Revival houses. And, I think, a hundred years in the future, these new Millennium Modern houses will be delightful finds at the bends in the road.
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