Architectural Emotions in a Mid-Century Mind

Yesterday, after an email from Dwell prompted me to view photos of a restored and updated Joseph L. Eichler mid-century modern house in the San Francisco Bay area, I fell in love with the architectural style all over again. That happens every time I see a mid-century modern house, whether in the flesh or in photos. I like the original “bones” of the style, but I absolutely adore the updated, more modern interpretations of the style. Frankly, I’ve not seen any brand-new iterations of mid-century modern that even begin to compete with the original architectural expressions. But, for some reason, I regularly see original work that is improved with the addition of modern additions or modern flourishes. For example, I prefer modern kitchens and modern bathroom fixtures and designs. But attempts by architects and builders to replicate the appeal of original mid-century modern design fall flat, in my estimation.

If I were sufficiently flush with excess cash, I would find, restore, and live in a mid-century modern house. That endeavor almost certainly would require me to relocate out of Hot Springs Village, which as of this morning would not disappoint me too terribly. I am tired of intellectual and cultural provincialism. I prefer broad-minded people, people who are not only open to new ideas and new perspectives but who gravitate toward new ways of looking at the world. Ach. I’ve strayed from my screed.

There are houses in the Village that mimic the mid-century modern style. In fact, if I were sufficiently flush with excess cash, I might buy a few of them and restore them. But I might have to go to war with the Architectural Control Committee over the restorations, inasmuch as it seems to me the committee blindly follows some horribly restrictive parochial rules that seem hell-bent on preserving insipid architectural styles. Ach. Again, I’ve wandered.

I would fit in better, I think, in California. Both my architectural preferences and my political leanings would more closely mirror those of my neighbors there than here. That has been true for most of my adult life. The few years I spent in Chicago and in and around White Plains in Westchester County, New York were aberrations; those were Democratic strongholds. Otherwise, I’ve lived the life of an outlier, a political anomaly. However, I can’t say either Democratic stronghold was flush with mid-century modern housing. Nor, to be honest, can I say they weren’t flush with mid-century modern housing. However, the Chicago area was relatively flush with houses designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, including both his Usonian style homes (he only designed about sixty of them; I don’t know how many can be found around Chicago) and his Prairie Style  houses. Whether others consider Usonian related to mid-century modern I don’t know, but I do. And, for the purposes of this post, that’s all that matters. Well, not ALL that matters, but part of what matters.

Last night, as I was trying to go to sleep, I fantasized about the results of restoring a mid-century modern house in the countryside north of the San Francisco Bay area. I don’t know precisely where the place was located, but it was far enough north that it was rather isolated. The house sat high on a ridge, several hundred feet from a sheer cliff at the edge of the Pacific Ocean. The restoration was finished. The house was beautiful and the view was spectacular. Floor-to-ceiling window-walls stretched all along the west-facing side of the house. Outside the glass, a covered stone deck offered protected outside seating; the cover protected the inside of the house from the sun’s rays until a short time before sunset, when the entire living area was washed in brilliant oranges and reds from the setting sun. There was more to the fantasy, but nothing relevant to architecture and being surrounded by intellectually curious and open-minded people, so I won’t go into it. Well, some of it related to intellectually curious and open-minded people, but addressing them here would only confuse the conversation, so I’ll leave it alone.

Why would I fantasize about such things? I can only conclude that the fantasy suggests I am unhappy with where or who I am. Or both. If that weren’t the case, I would have no reason to engage in such flights of fancy. Oh, by the way, during the entire mental excursion, I saw myself as if I were an observer outside myself. And I was wearing a rather stylish grey and white and silver “speckled” sports jacket. The jacket seemed to glisten in the right light. Actually, it reflected the oranges and reds of the sunset in a way that made me appear to glow as if I were radioactive. I wonder if there’s any meaning in that, given my recent exposure to massive doses of radiation that seems to have cooked the inside of my esophagus? Another curious thing about me; I was wearing very nice casual black slacks that fit much better than any clothes I own now (or ever have). The pants legs, unlike any of my clothes, were slim and tapered. And I was wearing a pair of dark grey shoes made of woven leather. Finally, and this is important, I think, my gut seemed to be flat, as if I had remodeled my body as well as my house. I didn’t look muscular as if I were hiding a six-pack beneath my shirt and sports jacket, but I did appear to be in far better condition than I’ve been in for many years. Back to the original question when I opened this paragraph: I suppose I wish I were different. I wish I had a more attractive body. I wish I could wear more stylish clothes. In other words, I wish I looked like someone else. Or, perhaps, I wish I looked like I think I should look, rather than the way I actually look. But that’s not all. I also wish that look were true in another place. “If wishes were horses, we’d all have wings.” My wife said that once, years ago. We’ve laughed about it for years. She meant to say “If wishes were horses, beggars would ride.” But it came out a bit wrong. A bit.

It’s embarrassing to wish for material things, like a mid-century modern house on a ridge overlooking the Pacific, when so many people around the world would give everything they own for a drink of water or a scrap of food. I try not to “want,” but I just can’t seem to get it out of my system. And when I realize that I’m being horribly selfish, I want nothing more than to share everything I have with people who are less fortunate. But that’s not realistic, either. And decisions about such matters are not mine, alone, to make. Maybe that’s the key. Whether the house on the coast or the decision to give it all away, I want to be the final arbiter. That’s the epitome of selfishness, too. Some people, people who are alone, have that luxury. And it is a luxury. Well, if it’s a luxury, should they share it with the less fortunate? See? It’s absurd. A person could tie himself in knots by trying to make sense out of selfishness and luxury and the self-indulgence of opting not to share his life with someone else. Crazy stuff. Madness.

Ultimately, none of this crap matters, or will matter, if whatever is going on with my body doesn’t resolve itself. If the pain in my esophagus turns out to be one of those “rare” cases that is permanent or the pains in my chest and gut turn out to be other, more serious, maladies that the cancer doctors weren’t even considering and, thus, weren’t looking for, wishes won’t matter. A house overlooking the Pacific Ocean can’t fix terminal disease. Pleasant and intelligent neighbors can’t repair fatal afflictions. Granted, living in a wonderful place in a beautiful setting surrounded by enjoyable people could make the end a bit brighter. 😉 But those things won’t change the outcome. We’re all going to die one day. With that as a given, there’s really no strong argument, then, that we ought not to try to live our lives in attractive and comfortable surroundings, right? Philosophy is so complex and so utterly unable to provide crisp, clear, inarguable answers!

I guess I’ll continue to yearn for a mid-century modern house in a progressive enclave, surrounded by people who actually want to spend time with me and engage me in conversation about things both silly and grave. What’s to stop me?

About John Swinburn

"Love not what you are but what you may become."― Miguel de Cervantes
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