McMansions and Italian Villas

I read a lot. Usually in the realm of very light science fiction or fantasy written since 1900, or indiscriminately in the less morbid of the world’s Great Literature written prior to about 1970 or foreign authors — again weeding out the depressing. Much to my shame, I have very little interest in my countrymen’s literary interpretations of the modern era — I live in the modern era already, thanks. And not to put too fine a point on it — you probably suck. (I invite all of my modern novel consuming friends to un-bore me. I’ll gladly take a reading list, but I won’t mine this genre unassisted. It’s too big and theres too much crap.)

So, when I read things to do with the modern America, then, they’re usually either essays or straight instruction. I am one of those freaks who actually buys (and more bizarrely — actually reads) the collected essays of great gardeners, language mavens, management theorists and other tempests in teapots. Which leads me the long way round to how I came to today’s blog entry.

It’s spring, and I am as always at this time of year, the ecstatic mad gardener watching the garden explode, perched on the edge of my seat, plotting runs on the local nursury, and reading everything to do with making things grow that I can get my hands on. Among this season’s readings has been a fellow named John Hanson Mitchell. (No home page I could find, sorry.)

So, lack of bio aside, he’s a nature writer and eclectic freak of the first order whose book The Wildest Place On Earth is nominally subtitled ” — Italian Gardens and the Invention of Wilderness” but is really just as much a discussion of his personal reaction to the suburbanization of America as it is about 17th century Italians creating the concept of wilderness — the fine line between controlled nature and uncontrolled nature, edging outwards slowly towards chaos.

Reading his decisions about how to live with his own ecosystem’s erosion, his control of chaos and his search for mystery, I find myself realizing that when I look at beauty of other eras, of gardens gone by, and architecture from other ages, I am looking at the expression of the McMansion impulse of other eras. Connecting 17th century Italian control freaks who want to flaunt their wealth and dominance over nature with the modern American upper middle class buyers of tiny tracts of land covered by giant houses that are all inward looking space is hard for me. And yet, it’s a fair connection.

The difference is that in the 17th century labor was cheaper, science was less mature and comfort depended upon living at least *somewhat* in connection with the exterior world. If the great Italian villa builders had had good climate control and the ability to deify the mysteries of electronics instead of being limited to their ability to spend endless pains in the manipulation of their environment via growing things, would they have turned inward and built houses that had no structured exterior views? Maybe.

Fundamentally, the great old gardens of other eras were built on a purchased combination of horticultural wisdom, taste, cleverness and the taking of pains. The McMansion has always seemed to me a largely purchased phenomenon lacking wisdom, cleverness, taste or pains, but thats unfair. Those things, should they exist, would all be invested in the interior — where no one but the initiated, those invited inside, would ever see it.

It goes without saying, that I will almost certainly never own an Italian villa. (Never say never.) And that I don’t want a McMansion. How can one find the wilderness or the mystery — or the temple to the ego if you must put the quest for beauty squarely into the language of pretention — without the luxury of either loads of interior or loads of exterior space?

Mystery and wilderness were never, in my mind, actually predicated on space — or even expense. They live where they always did, in the striking beauty of execution, of form and function balanced to an exact degree. They live in places where there is a sense of wonder and of retreat.

As I sat this afternoon on my front porch in a porch swing, smelling the daphne a single shrub of which perfumes my entire front yard, listening to the rain pour and feeling the mist on my face, I had retreat, comfort, luxury and a multisensory assault of fine mysteries to contemplate. Nature reached out and my perceived control of it surrounded me. The balance was fine. My wilderness, small though it be, is here.

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