Monday, June 13, 2011

Curb Appeal

According to an article on MSN last week, homebuyers form an opinion about a house in 15 seconds - from the street. Included in the article are pictures of 14 homes that pass this "curb appeal" test. Here's one:

And another:

Anyone who has followed the design and construction of my house for any length of time, or even just read the last post, could guess that curb appeal isn't one of my priorities. Hey, my neighborhood doesn't even have curbs. (Sorry.) So it is not surprising (nor even a little bit disappointing... okay, so I'm a little proud) that my house would fail this 15-second test miserably.

First of all it seems clear that you can't leave a forest in front of the house, concealing most of it from the street, like I did with mine. How about a well-manicured lawn? I don't plan to have any grass (did I mention the forest?) Also it looks like the house has to have at least four prominent gables. Mine has zero.

When you set out to give a house curb appeal, or more curb appeal, the question is begged: "Appealing to whom?" The above houses are not appealing to me (that's an understatement). I think I can safely speak for the vast majority of architects here. And from the art and architecture scholars and historians I've known, they also would not be impressed (another understatement). So if this architecture is not designed to appeal to, uh, experts in architecture and design, who then? The answer of course is the populace, the majority of people - who happen to not be architects. These houses are not designed to be great architecture but rather to sell to the widest possible market.

Now before you shout "Elitist!" and say I'm just advocating for buildings that are ugly to most people but pretty to me and my architect friends, consider: I don't want buildings to be designed to appeal to you OR me. I didn't even design my house to appeal to me. Looking at it now there are some parts of it I think are attractive and some parts I think are not. I didn't try to make it attractive; I tried to make it true - true to nature, true to the human condition, true to God.

The Bible and nature are true to God, the one in words, the other in form. Does all of nature or Scripture appeal to you? In 15 seconds or less? Some indeed will; some is breathtakingly beautiful. But other parts are disgusting; some parts are terrifying.

The design process out of which my house was born - praying, sketching, devouring Scripture - has resulted, I think, in a kind of architectural equivalent to nature and the Bible. This house might not be appealing to you from the street. It might not even be appealing to me from the street. But then it would be like Jesus: "There was nothing attractive about him, nothing to cause us to take a second look." (Isaiah 53:2) And as we move around and into this place some parts will strike us as beautiful, others discordant, some mysterious, others baffling - but all, I hope, in tune with this universe and its Maker.

Fittingness with creation and Creator is something that is lost when the design is about selling to the mass market. A few gables, some window muntins and shutters, and you're done. But then you have a building that seems to know nothing of the splendor passing overhead. Is your house worthy to sit beneath the clouds? To face the sea? To nestle close to oaks and jasmine? Is it aware of this sea of brilliance in which we find ourselves?

This is a good question for all works of art. Renaissance choral music often strikes me as being in tune with nature. It incites visions of nature in my mind as I listen - a sunrise over the ocean, clouds morphing, galaxies spinning. The complexity of harmonies and discords in the music, the vastness and majesty, is like nature, seems profoundly fitting in this creation. The music seems to come from nature and speak back to it.

Buildings also can be mirrors to nature, taking on the characteristics of the earth and heavens, the infinite and the tiny, the long-lasting and the corrosive, the rhythms, the swells, the music of it all.

I didn't design my house to fit in with the popular idea of "curb appeal," but I also didn't design it not to. I designed it to fit in with the universe. It just so happens that, these days, the resulting house doesn't fit in with the neighborhood, or fulfill the recommendations of most real estate agents.

It's fine with me if you form an opinion of my house in 15 seconds from the street - as long as you let that opinion change and grow as you move from the outward appearance to the heart.

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