The American Dream (as Inspired by the English)

The American Dream—god save us from our fantasies—sprang from an English reality.  Not British, but English.  Because it was in England, not Wales or Scotland or Ireland or, for that matter, anywhere else, that the notion that “a man’s home is his castle” first arose, at the same time as a large and flourishing middle class (=bourgeoisie?), giving rise to a whole new kind of housing that soon came to be, in fact, the predominant form of housing throughout the country.  Namely, the comfortable and genteel, if modest, kind of single-family house or cottage that still can be found almost anywhere you look in England, lining village streets and country lanes, and adding to, not detracting from, the ordered and welcoming picturesqueness of the place, framed by their gardens, hedges, and old trees.  This sort of housing ideally suited the needs and means of the (then) new middle-class majority, something between the huge baronical manor-house on its great estate overlooking the town, and the miserable hovels of the low-class poor.

I think it was this mental picture of the just-right kind of home that English (and other?) immigrants brought with them to North America as one of their principal goals to strive toward—the comfortable single-family detached house in a pleasant setting neither too urban nor too rural.  And this became the basic “American dream” that we are all presumed to share.  Not such a bad thing as far as it goes.  What we have done in pursuit of this goal, however, is another matter.  Few would disagree that most of our typical suburban tract housing falls a bit wide of the mark if our standard of taste is the English model.

Unfortunately, we now seem to be aspiring to something more like the great landlord’s manor house than the cozy villager’s cottage, the only difference being that we are doing it without either the taste or the elbow room, cramming our neo-consumer castles as closely together as the previous generation of more modest suburban tract-houses, consequently reducing the space available per lot for gardening.  (This seems symbolic of a general shift in attitude away from an increasingly unpleasant outdoors and toward an increasingly alluring panoply of screens—TV, VCR, computer, internet—but this is a whole ‘nother story as they say.)

[Also talk about the older (oldest?) “American dream” (actually world dream) of a real community living together in a pleasant setting neither too open nor too forested (our heritage of 2 million years on the savannah).]

Materials—wood has always been the cheapest, most readily available building material throughout most of North America as well as Europe.

Until recently, the cost of transporting heavy building materials has enforced a kind of good taste on most construction: i.e. the use of local materials: wood in regions with timber, brick or adobe in regions with the right kind of clay, sandstone or granite or slate in regions with sandstone or granite or slate.  This simple fact of life gives a great charm to nearly all ancient towns and villages, an “organic” appearance of having grown directly from the landscape, and a comforting, restful kind of harmony to the place, a kind of uniformity without monotony.  Look at any ancient village: a Greek hillside town all in white stucco, a Cotswold village all in the local gray stone, a hamlet in Normandy, with houses half-timbered and thatched, or a Spanish village all roofed in red tiles.

The closest thing we have to this is in our built-in-a-day California is probably Santa Barbara with its unifying Spanish-style architecture, and that had to be accomplished by edict.  Still, I would venture to guess that most of the residents would agree that “heavy-handed” governmental control over such a private, personal matter as taste in architecture has been well worth any minor sacrifice of options on their part.

The other great departure of neo-suburban housing from the ancient model is the “sprawl”.  All ancient towns, villages, even cities grow up organically, over centuries, but until quite recently managed to remain compact, remarkably small for the number of inhabitants they contain, and surrounded by farms and countryside free of ugly clutter.  Most California towns grew up since the ascendancy of the automobile, however, and are consequently built to its scale, not the human/pedestrian scale.  

Old European towns attractively punctuate an equally attractive countryside; our towns are a blight racing to devour a blighted countryside.  We seem to take ugliness for granted, even welcome it.

The only cause for hope is that all this can (and will) change.  Earthquakes, age, and decay recycle all that we build.  The ground is still there underneath all that gratuitous pavement, ready to resume its proper function as soon as it is freed to.  The way we rebuild, where we rebuild, and what we rebuild are all matters of economics and taste, and those things change by the minute.  There is always that chance that we will do it better the next time.

In general, though, we have regressed in most matters of taste, not progressed.

“In Pittville, a suburb of Cheltenham (in England of course), the charming regency villas stand in their own grounds overlooking the public gardens.  They were built for the successful middle classes at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution.  Pittville was one of the first suburban developments, and it is still one of the most delightful.”

This was built with the help of canals, which brought slate from Wales.  “The canals, however, were soon to give way to a new and much faster transport system . . .”  “The railways and the full force of the Industrial Revolution which depended on them together brought increasing chaos and ugliness to the English house . . .  and this was hastened by the mechanization of the brick industry.  The soft coloring of the old handmade bricks was replaced by precise and identical bricks produced in a variety of hot colors; cheap bricks that could be delivered cheaply . . .”

“The new railway system gave birth to railway towns like Swindon, which was begun at the very time when the great period of English classical architecture was drawing to a close.  By the 1840s when these railway workers’ [attached row] cottages were built, only the last vestiges of order, and perhaps a little charm, remained.”

“In mining areas, thousands upon thousands of cheap, similar, terraced houses were built for the workforce.  No longer would it be possible to know in which part of England you were by singly looking at the houses.”  (Sound familiar?)  and as the ugly sprawl ate farther up the valleys, the rich industrialists moved far away from the mess they had helped to create and built their vast new houses far from the mills and mines . . .

Ironically? those very people in building their new estates looked back to a bucolic old rural England of former times, Elizabethan/Tudor, or gothic, or . . .  (Just like we call our dreary new suburbs names like “The Villages” or “the Cherry Orchard” or “Country Oaks Estates”)

“The reaction, when it came, also looked to the past, but not to the great palaces of an earlier age, but to the small manors and farmhouses that had been built of local materials.  Buildings like this were a model for the small houses of the 20th Century, and it represented an ideal escape from the gloomy Victorian houses of the industrial towns and suburbs of industrial England.  Th garden cities too, like Welwyn, were another escape, into surroundings that, however self-consciously planned, were a successful attempt to bring a village atmosphere into suburbia at the beginning of this [20th] Century.  The detached and semi-detached houses, arranged along tree-lined streets and crescents, or facing each other across a circle of grass, were infinitely more pleasant to live in than the houses that faced only a stream of motorcars.”

The scenes shown of this quite large housing development, all roofed in red tile! are a vague approximation of the sort of “ideal” suburb I came up with myself a few years ago! With houses arranged in (semi)circles surrounding a safe, kid-friendly “garden common” and with private gardens in back of the house as well, to create mini-neighborhoods.  This version had car access inside the central common.

“During the 1920s and 30s the ribbon developments of speculative builders . . . stretched rows of houses along the new motorways out from the towns.  Then after World War II (1950s and 1960s) came the “tower blocks” which failed as an experiment (re. tenements)”

“However, these brand new Tudor-style houses, complete with leaded windows and exposed beams, have for many people provided a better answer, a very English answer to a seemingly eternal dream [there’s that word again], the dream of the perfect English house.”

[But the picture shows a bunch of really cheap-looking, two-story, phony-Tudor houses that have some of the symbols and trappings of the style—ersatz half-timbering etc.—but in bleak surroundings and with none of the character of the real thing, in fact no better than 1970s-ish U.S. tract houses.  Next picture shows a real Tudor house with gatehouse and surrounding gardens and stream, infinitely inviting and charming and real.

Looks like the American dream has gone back to Englnd, mutatis mutandi.

First paved (i.e. asphalt or “macadam”) in London in 1817.

“Tower blocks are only for the rich, those who want to live in cities.  Most of us would prefer to live in a house, and an English one at that.”