Living Modern

I just completed a long project — chairing my neighborhood’s house and garden tour committee. My motivation was both civic and philosophical. That latter being my keen interest in mid-century modernism and how my neighborhood, Hollin HIlls, about eight miles south of D.C., is one of the exemplars of modernism. Of course the walls of windows spring leaks, as do the flat roofs. But oh my are these houses for living. To get a sense, see Modern Capital’s wrap-up of the tour. Also see Juliana Sohn’s photos or the story in last year’s March issue of Wallpaper Magazine.

architecture and happiness

I have just begun reading a book that helps me bring together the two blogs I write. Yes, I have another blog. Even if you’ve been reading me here at this one for nearly a year, you many have never known about the other. I’ve not mentioned it because it didn’t seem to be obviously philosophical. Also, it has been so tempestuous, creating so much heat in the neighborhood about issues that we care deeply about and also disagree — that I had to all but close it down. I barely write there any more. It’s just too fraught.

The book I’m reading is Alain de Botton’s The Architecture of Happiness.

The other blog is Hollin Hills Talks, about the midcentury modern neighborhood I live in just south of Washington, DC. I try to explain to friends who don’t live here what it means, and the best I can do is say, if there were a god, this is the kind of neighborhood he would create. The buildings are simple and in harmony with nature; they sit in the land, not on the land; they are sited to the topography, not the street; the aesthetics and design guidelines respect the “borrowed vistas” that we see when looking across and through the land. It’s like living in a park, and in fact we even have park lands we preserve and open to the public.

But mostly, within the houses, there is just sheer simple beauty. Reading in my living room makes me infinitely happier than reading at my desk on campus. There are few walls; there are mostly windows that look out on to overgrowths of trees and azaleas. The walls are white, the materials organic and curved just so. The balance of objects, books, and furniture strikes a good chord within. It is hard to distinguish inside from outside because the outside pours in through all the windows, yet the outside is always framed, not raw, through the rhythmic placing of juxtaposed, floor-to-ceiling window frames.

Our houses are in the suburbs, but drastically different from the other suburbs just over the neighborhood line. They have manicured lawns with shrubs surrounding their houses; we have legions of ivy and canopies of trees.

To get a sense of all this, look at Juliana Sohn’s photos that she took for Wallpaper magazine last March. Notice that the houses are simple, not out of reach, but somehow deeply pleasing. At least to me with my modernist sensibility. I know others are deeply moved by other styles: art deco, victorian, classical, kitsch, arts & crafts. All have their beauty. Each of us may find that one style speaks to us more than others.

So read Alain de Botton’s book. (And notice how beautiful the book itself is — the paper, the size, the art.) Think about your environment as something that meaningfully extends and speaks to who you are.

But beware that in going there you may start to find that your built environment becomes as fraught as mine, because the more connected we become the more important it is, the more at stake we have there, and the more likely we are to get in heated discussions with our neighbors. All because we suddenly find that our deep concerns extend to the houses we live in.