February 26, 2012

This House Is Not a Home

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I have open in my lap right now The Best of American Dream Homes: The Nation’s Premier Home Magazine.  It’s a large, glossy volume that looks like it was intended to sit on the coffee tables of the upwardly mobile. As I flip through it, I see pages upon pages of bright, colorful photographs of impossibly opulent houses, paired with what I imagine is deliberately bland prose extolling the virtues of imported hardwood flooring, pseudo-antique furniture and lacy draperies. What strikes me most about this book is that it — and the magazine that content is culled from — is misnamed.  The Best of American Dream Houses would be a perfectly acceptable title, although I very rarely dream about kitchen islands. But Homes? These houses really don’t seem like homes. Where does this impression come from? Partly, it’s the conspicuous lack of people, or indeed of any living creatures, in the book’s photographs. But it goes further than that. I can’t even imagine people in these houses. They’re too clean, too orderly, too immaculate. I see them as movie sets rather than dwellings. Were I to wander around in one, I would quickly find that the kitchen drawers don’t open, there’s no water in the toilets and the tasteful potted ferns are made of plastic. The environment in these houses — of wealth, ornamentation and tidiness — is one that is utterly unsuited for the messy business of actually living. Yet people do live in these houses. The book mentions the owners and assumed occupants of each houses, who are, for the most part, middle-aged upper-class couples. But why would anyone want to live in one of these places? For all of the effort the book puts into describing where each and every lighting fixture comes from, it does a rather inadequate job convincing me that these houses are anything more than expensive facades. The book does attempt to make its subject matter seem desirable. When it can tear itself away from discussions of self-darkening windows, it occasionally tries to sell the reader on these houses, with prose that seems taken from uninspired craigslist postings. The language the book uses to promote them comes in two varieties: Either a house is a comforting retreat where one can pamper oneself or a lavish, impressive jewel. The second argument for these houses makes sense. These houses seem to have been constructed not to be lived in, but to be seen. This can be detected in the coatings of ornate and — as the book is eager to remind us — expensive ornamentation that seems to cover every surface and the way that so many of these houses appear to have been designed with “entertaining” in mind. What would the point of entertaining in one of these houses be? Why, to show everyone how nice your house is, of course!  Having a massive faux-hacienda in Arizona, then, is just another status symbol to go alongside the SUV and the private jet. Yet the first argument — that these houses are places that the weary can find comfort in — seems to be completely invalidated by the actual nature of the houses. How can you find comfort in a place that looks as if tracking mud on the floor means destroying some sort of priceless Italian art object? How can you make a turkey sandwich on a  counter top imported from Greece? How can you put your feet up on a coffee table that looks as if it’s desperately angling for family heirloom status? In short, how can you live in a place that seems like it was designed just to be looked at? My reaction to these houses may just be culture shock. After all, I might not see anything strange about going to the bathroom in one of these places had I been raised in a house with gold-plated faucets and marble toilet seats. Yet I think there may be something more fundamental about it. See, I don’t think these places actually exist. The houses themselves exist, of course. But the idea of the home put forth in the book — that you can live in one of these lavish mansions and enjoy both the comforts of a good home and the status afforded by a public display of wealth — isn’t one that can be squared with how people actually live.  Ultimately, a home isn’t someplace we show off. A home is someplace we go with the people we’re closest to and do all the things that we don’t want to subject to public scrutiny. A home is somewhere you go when you don’t want to worry about status, and to make it a status symbol is to take away what defines it.

Aidan Bonner is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He may be reached at abonner@cornellsun.com. The Weather Report appears alternate Mondays this semester.

Original Author: Aidan Bonner