Monday, August 15, 2011

Suburban Castles

Very recently, my family and I made a big move to be much closer to where we work. For various reasons, I can't tell you exactly where we live now, but suffice it to say that it's a "leafy suburban paradise" I discovered North of a charming babbling Brook. And it's increasingly populated by what can only be described as modern-day castles, resplendent with turrets, and which seem to mushroom overnight.

The purpose behind this disclosure is to welcome you to a new place and give you a sense of what your own blogging could look like this year in American Studies. If you look at the post below (written in the Spring), notice that Mr. O'Connor, my eloquent partner, utilized his intelligent cellular telephone to snap a photograph and upload it to the Inter-Webs. We are living in the Future, truly.

Importantly, Mr. O'Connor's post demonstrates that we can find subject matter for our blogs just by looking at the world around us and recognizing distinctly American themes. In contrast to other cultures around the world, Americans are often characterized by their strident individualism. In Finland, for example, before eating lunch in a large group, the Finns will dutifully line up to wash hands. No exceptions, and no one questions this behavior. Yet in the States, note how washing one's hands is considered to be a personal choice, not so much an obligation toward society, even though we are all aware of the public health issues.

As I walked through the streets of my new town, I was struck by the examples of both conformity and individualism in the way people constructed their homes. And I don't mean "constructed" in the typical fashion evidenced by North Shore tear-downs. Instead, in our course, we often talk about constructions in the way Americans might tailor their surroundings to send a particular message, or in the way media companies, novelists, or even historians work to create a compelling narrative.

Click here to look at the images I took with my portable talking machine (all of the houses are located on the same street), and draw some conclusions of your own with regard to the two themes mentioned above. Or, if you see other uniquely American details in these photos, please add those to the comments section of this post. Welcome, and please join the conversation.

8 comments:

David said...

When you mentioned conformity, Mr. Bolos, I immediately thought of a house that recently went up near us. It looks exactly like our house, but in a different orientation. I find that these "cookie-cutter" houses can be changed on the inside to show individualism, but mainly fit in with other houses in the area. I remember when I was in 8th grade coming to the Winnetka campus to take the SAT during a school day before enrolling, and since I was from out of district, I was amazed at some of the houses I saw. We arrived early, and I asked my mom to drive us around the blocks near the school to look at the cool gardens and housing designs. I was amazed. Now, after living here for a few years, I don't find the sight of large houses something that requires ogling, but I still like seeing them.

Glenna said...

First off, congratulations on your new home! I hear the Brook is beautiful this time of year, especially when viewed from the North.

Generally speaking, people, not just Americans, tend to conform. We also tend to compete. Therefore, when one person builds a castle, those around them will a) want the same thing, and/or b) want something bigger. Like you said, David, often times houses will end up looking almost identical (a). There are two houses on my street I can think of that only differ by address. They went up during the same summer, by builders who seemed always to try and one up each other with landscape, molding, circle driveways, etc (b). It seems animalistic; always trying to be the top dog. A few houses stand out as individuals in my neighborhood, but there are certainly many McMansions.

AbbeyR said...

I disagree with one of the posts stated above. I believe that each house shows individuality. With that said, if there is a similiar house to your own, it does not show comformity it shows the style of a house which is most appealing to the house owner. Maybe, a person lives in a house not based on the looks,but because wood is cheaper than stone. Therefore, if there are all wooden houses in a town, it may show that the inhabitants are not as wealthy, or that they choose to "hide" their wealth, or they all acquire the wooden consturction style. In my neighborhood, all the houses have a simliar style but the outside of the house is painted differently which shows uniqueness.

S. Bolos said...

Thanks to the AS Alums who have posted so far! I am interested in what Abbey said about the individualism displayed. I wonder what is the responsibility we have to those (neighbors) around us?

Should we be able to construct whatever we like, even if it changes the character of the neighborhood?

Natalie S. said...

To comment on Mr. Bolos's question, I believe that this conformity that makes it seem as if we can't construct whatever style of house we would like is actually the competitive drive that fuels the North Shore area. When moving to the North Shore one is not just joining an incredible school district but also the highly competitive society that exists. It's not just shown in the McMansions, parents can be found pushing their child to be the best so that the parents can brag about their Ivy League student. It is always a competition between parents and kids to be accepted into the best colleges and to have the brightest future. This competitive drive fuels fashion, school, sports, and social life.

CRosen said...

It's true that a lot of New Trier parents take pride in appearing as if they are superior to those around them, whether it is because of their stylishly decorated mansions or their scholarly children. However, I disagree with Natalie's belief that conformity solely comes from the North Shore’s ever-present competitive drive. Instead, it also comes from our gradually increasing lack of creativity and originality. When designers and builders are deciding how to layout and decorate a new property, it’s easier to create a home almost identical to one already constructed next door than to create a novel and visually appealing blueprint themselves. Abby’s theory is important to consider as well, because certain building materials may be cheaper and more readily available at the time of construction. In response to Mr. Bolos’s question, you could hypothesize that builders are attempting to create one common style for a certain neighborhood. Unfortunately, it is more likely that builders are simply looking for the easiest and quickest way to construct a new property, and that is to mirror the designs of a nearby one. The result is neighborhoods in which each new house looks more like its predecessors.

megallas said...

In response to Claire's post, I do not think that the ever-similar home designs are a product of a lack of creativity. While I agree that certain materials and home designs are cheeper and easier to work with, it is not a cost saving tactic nor a lack of originality that drives the McMansion conformity. Instead, it is a value that is driven into the kids growing up here that a big house with fancy stone countertops and lavish furniture are your sign of success. A very large percentage of the people who live on the North Shore currently were raised here and a large percentage of the kids living here now would like to raise their own kids here one day. I do believe that the population of the North Shore is incredibly competitive but I believe that there is something more. The huge, expensive homes just like the fancy SUV's are a status symbol. These people have been raised by parents who think that a nice car and a nice house are things that you can afford when you have reached success. This leads kids to equate material objects with success and this is what they work for as adults. They go off to their nice college, get their nice job, meet a nice spouse, and they have it made. Then they return to the area and show everyone that they have accomplished something in the only way they know how: build a huge house like the nice ones they saw growing up.

Sheridan O. said...

I do agree with Meg I definitely think houses and the way they are built is part of a larger status symbol that a family may be attempting to attain. Also, I think it's interesting that (at least in Winnetka) there are tons and tons of zoning laws that every property is supposed to adhere to. Not only the kinds of zoning laws for safety either, there are many aesthetic decisions also made by the village of Winnetka including things like height of the outer wall/gate, or how far a house is supposed to be built from the other houses around it. I definitely think that houses and the way they are built is a big status symbol, but maybe its also enforced by the area you live in.