As I drove through an upscale suburban Birmingham neighborhood Thursday afternoon, I couldn’t help thinking how much I hated the houses — and how stifling I found the oppressive designs.
I laughed at myself, though, because I knew I was one of the very few people in town who would think such a thing. This neighborhood is popular and desirable. The irony was that I was driving to a $250,000 home which my own realty clients were buying in just a few minutes.
The house is exactly what the couple wanted, particularly the wife. She loves a stately home that’s very traditional two-story in red brick — and this neighborhood has variations of that in abundance. And I was about to be paid a commission for helping them to find and buy a house which they loved — and which I would have considered oppressive and stifling.
Design matters to me. Beauty matters to me. Graceful use of space and light and angles makes my heart soar and gives me peace. (The picture above is a random example of such an interior.) But to the people who love these traditional brick homes — which look as though they’re cold copies of copies of copies to me — my beautiful design represents something frightening.
I can usually tell how well my intellectual and emotional spirit would mesh with a place based on the sort of design which dominates the area. One of the ways I’ve known for years that Birmingham will probably always be too conservative for me — speaking in the intellectual sense, not the political sense — is the dominant feel of its most popular neighborhoods.
It’s very rare to find a local neighborhood where I would feel truly at home. (Mount Laurel is the only one that comes to mind — and that seems to attract oddballs like me who happen to have money.) The neighborhoods that are truly popular — the ones where I show clients and am happy to collect commissions — are filled with bad copies of houses that have been built over and over again.
Don’t misunderstand. I don’t try to steer real estate clients to houses that fit my own intellectual and emotional understanding. I help them buy what they want. But I don’t envy the homes they are proud to call their own when we’re finished.
I know it sounds a bit odd, but cities can have personalities. It’s almost as though the collective spirits of the people who live there form an organism that has a spirit and mind of its own. The people whose spirits collectively form Birmingham don’t reflect who I am, even though I’ll always feel a connection to the place. Unless I go to “weird and artsy” parts of town, the overall spirit is far from who I am.
But I walk a fine line between conservative in lifestyle and liberal in intellect and emotional orientation. It’s hard to find where I fit. It’s hard to find someone who’s more conservative in orientation and values than I am, but something in my mind rejected a conservative intellectual orientation decades ago — and nothing represented my change in that respect as much as my preferences in architecture.
At one time, the houses of these very traditional neighborhoods would have been my preference, too. That’s what I grew up liking. It wasn’t until I was about 30 years old that some switch flipped in my mind. I started changing. I suddenly “got” a lot of incredible modern design that had never clicked for me. Ever since then, I have been like a fish out of water — eager to find a place for myself to fit.
Our homes and neighborhoods don’t just reflect who we are. They also shape who we are. In ways which I can’t understand — but which I’ve seen over and over again — our built environments shape what we value and what we become. If we’re living and working in poorly designed places — places which don’t feed something in our hearts and minds — we end up adopting the values that created those designs. (I’m not going to get into this deeply at the moment, but if you doubt this, think about the correlation between different types of theology and different design philosophies that come with them. The spartan Calvinist mindset creates very different church spaces than the very different traditional Catholic churches, for instance.)
Living in beautiful organic design (such as that represented by the best work of the late architect Frank Lloyd Wright) leads to a very different mindset than the one produced by living in cookie-cutter houses that might as well be made out of Legos.
I couldn’t make a living selling houses in Birmingham of the sort I prefer. This is a very traditional city that likes its architecture to look a certain way. (Even the neighborhood covenants for the place where I sold a house today requires nothing but traditional design.) It’s not what I want. It’s not what I need. But I don’t know where I need to be.
I appreciate my real estate clients. They’re how I hope to make my living, at least for awhile. But I feel a bit like a veggie-hating, steak-loving guy who’s working in a very popular vegetarian restaurant. I know what everybody else likes — but I need to eat elsewhere.
I love beautiful organic design and I hope to build something amazing for my own family one day. (I actually found the perfect architect for me years ago who was with a firm in Minneapolis, and he said he could build anywhere in the country.)
I’m eager to have a home that would be an intellectual, spiritual and emotional refuge for a happy and loving family. The kind of home you choose for such a family can go a long way toward laying the foundation for what kind of group they’re going to become. I hope I find the right woman to understand this in the way that I do — because I just can’t take a permanent life in one of the cookie-cutter homes which are so popular in modern American suburbia.
But in the meantime, I’ll be happy to sell you one of those if you want it in Birmingham.