Not long after writing a post on Rio de Janeiro last week, I read this article about how to remodel your home in order to maximize its economic value. And that’s when it hit me: a lot of home construction in the U.S. and Brazil is separated by a wide philosophical gap.
Consider: The Nation article I previously cited discusses a man who built his home slowly over many years while responding to various needs and wants. That’s not really the thesis of the article, but in any case it points out that literally every element in the home bears “the marks of toil and love.”
That squares with my experience in Brazil. Though Brazil is an extremely diverse place, I’ve met many people who also personally constructed some or all of their homes. In fact, most non-high rise residential structures I’ve visited — in various cities and over multiple visits — were unique physical manifestations of experiences in the occupants’ lives. That includes haphazard room additions for new children or spouses, stages for performances, and holes cut in walls to sell things. In other words, many changes to the physical environment are based on usage, rather than on resale value.
By contrast, as I look at the housing surrounding me in the U.S. I primarily see professional and large scale production designed to be profitable. Tract homes epitomize this phenomenon by responding to perceptions of demographics rather than individuals. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that and of course the structures must meet needs if they’re going to sell. But ultimately, the reason someone built all of our subdivisions was to make money, not necessarily because the homes were wanted in the first place. Hence, the housing bubble.
I know I’m speaking broadly here and side-stepping a rigorous economic analysis — related to labor mobility, housing demand, income levels, etc. — but my point is merely that most homes I’ve seen in the American West were built as “products” while most homes I’ve seen in Brazil were not.
I’ve come to think of this philosophical difference as “usage-based” construction in Brazil verses “profit-based” construction in the U.S.
The discussion recalls somewhat Steve Mouzon’s explanation of “living tradition” buildings verses contemporary “cartoon” versions of those traditions. Mouzon explains that building techniques historically began
with a great idea by one person about how to build something better. If the person builds it and it resonates with others, the others repeat it in the locality where it originated. If it is good enough, others throughout the region will notice and will say “we love this, and want to adopt this into our family of regional traditions.”
Mouzon doesn’t phrase it the same way I have, but that sounds a lot like usage-based construction to me; people see a need, develop a way to meet that need in their buildings, and ultimately that innovation catches on.
By contrast, Mouzon uses pictures of several generic McMansions to illustrate “cartoon” dwellings and argues that living traditions are killed by specialization and licensing. Those happen to be some of the very things I lamented in my original post on Rio.
Mouzon’s point in those two posts deals with “architecture in the age of austerity” and suggests that we treat structures like disposable consumer goods.
My point is that one way to solve some of our problems with the built environment is, on an individual level at least, to somehow temper the profit-based philosophy driving much of our building. In other words, we should stop building cartoon structures and replace them with spaces that actually meet our needs.