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Country Living

August 19, 2010

I count myself among the fortunate inhabitants of Earth, not so much for what I own as for the diverse experiences I have.  Most often, these are thanks to the generosity and creativity of others, friends and family especially.  I like to think I return the generosity as much as I can, offering an experience of my world to those who share their world with me.

I am writing now from the heart of the Berkshire forest where my family and I are guests at the home of my cousin in the hills of West Cummington, Massachusetts.  If my own world is in Rome is urban, chaotic, compact, compressed, this world is rural, expansive and peaceful. My uncle purchased land here half a century ago and, in addition to putting a large portion into preservation trust, he left parcels for each of his children, three of whom designed and built their own homes.  We are at the home of Hal and Barbara which stands as a testament to self-design, to the extraneous nature of the Architect in the creation of personal dwelling.

At risk of diverging from my intended theme for this post, I have to sing my praise for this house to which, to my knowledge, no professional architect laid hand.  Like Shaker design (which we saw in nearby Hancock Village) or a boat or a well-written computer application, this house has everything but wastes nothing.  It just seems right. It sits in the forest like it fits, a tall box with a steep roof against the snow and thick insulated wood walls and thermal windows against the cold.  The views from inside out are controlled with the eye of someone who was willing to spend time on the site before designing and make changes along the way, something architects rarely have the luxury of doing.  The spatial and visual connections within, from the upper floor corridor down to the double height kitchen, from the upper deck to the lower deck which wrap around an existing apple tree, provide variety without excess.  As on a sailboat, everything as a space and every space has a function.  The house fits the land and the lifestyle of the inhabitants like a glove.  I truly believe that the only way to really achieve this is for the designer to be his/her own client and camp out on the site for a while before making the first decisions.  Where does this leave professional designers?  I think there is a huge unmet potential for designers to make building systems and products, to come up with solutions that can be adopted by lay-people and applied creatively to unique conditions.  Prefabricated building systems offer a challenge for architects to extend their reach from the single client to whole communities without increasing their workload.  Just as my cousin buys efficient windows and excellent appliances (he doesn’t try to build his own coffee-maker), others might be able to buy quality building components to customize and assemble into homes that fit.

Returning to the concept of rural living, though, I’ve decided it’s not for me and shouldn’t be for most people; if it were, Earth could not support the population it holds with difficulty now and I don’t see an ethical way to reduce this.  No, I think this kind of rural living, even when treading as lightly as Hal and Barbara do, can only be sustained when it is a rare event, a marginal phenomenon.  While I’ve seen no better example of what Melvin Webber called “community without propinquity” –I am connected to the web, watching films downloaded from Netflix, and can drive up the road to the hip, eco-friendly Creamery for organic eggs and herbal tea and conversation, we are still looking at a vast amount of land supporting a small community of humans.  Looked at differently, as a small group of humans tending a large area of land helps justify the situation, but the bottom line is that in a post-petroleum world it will be very difficult to support such dispersion.

Between the extremes of the urban life which is my normal reality and the bucolic dream I am experiencing now lies the reality of most people dwelling in a world which is urbanized but not urban or which is green but not rural.  That is what the planet truly cannot afford.

It would be great if most people lived in sustainable cities, places which may not even exist at present but which people around the world are working hard to envision and create (myself included) but had an opportunity now and then to experience true country living, to decompress and walk in the forest.  And, vice-versa, for those rural residents to come to the cities for a while, discover the joy of walking out ones door into the chaotic whirlwind of human culture. Thanks, Hal and Barbara, for an eye-opening rural experience. Our Terracina tower  is awaiting you whenever you can get away from the forest.

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