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Our Buildings, Ourselves



One vigorous but largely unacknowledged local sport is Knocking Architecture. It's lots of fun. Participants don't pick on the little guy (the split-level ranch, the postwar Colonial doodad) but on, well, the target du jour is that unstoppable mushroom, the McMansion. The McMansion is less a reflection of sheer size than of sheer banality, the architectural equivalent of the Fendi knockoff or the street-corner Rolex. The troubling difference is that it still costs a pile of dough.

On second thought, Knocking Architecture does not stay fun for long. Inevitably the game turns solemn or even bitter, like when you drive past a favorite eighteenth-century farmhouse, as timeless and elegant as a Greek temple, only to see it being attacked by a giant yellow claw. The pang of loss you feel might be entirely personal, but it's also tied to our identity as a people; when the farmhouses go, it seems that something of ourselves goes as well.

The next chance to Knock Architecture comes when something rises in the farmhouse's place. If it's a McMansion, an obviously expensive structure that still manages to look prefabricated, that pang of loss is followed by little splinters of anger: Now we all have to live with this thing, this thing forever, more or less. On the other hand, because we're talking about Greenwich, Connecticut, and not Plano, Texas, there's a fairly good chance the new house will be carefully thought-out and blessed with the sort of exquisite detail, carved pediments, modillion courses, rosette friezes, that returned triumphantly in the late twentieth century after six decades of exile. Either way, whether the house turns out to be good or bad, it will almost certainly be showy because that seems to be who we are now. We are not farmers anymore.

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