home maintenance is soul maintenance
Let’s imagine that you go to a nice restaurant and discover that the flowers on your table are plastic. Are you disappointed? Probably, but why, exactly?
Since I grew up in a house filled with dusty plastic houseplants, I’ve had more than enough time to think about this. For me, it’s not just that they’re fake, or cheap, but they do away with the delicacy, care, and life that actual plants represent. It has nothing to do with aesthetics because plastic flowers — when dusted every quarter — can appear realistic. We (yes you too) are disappointed because somebody doesn’t care enough to maintain the real thing.
Since I’m a residential architect you can probably see where this is headed. If I start to loose you, just remember the forgotten, dusty, plastic flowers.
I won’t try to convince you that past generations used to revel in home maintenance and that’s why older homes have more character than newer ones. If presented with the options we have now, past generations would likely make the same decisions we do today, especially if they had to make them in today’s world where time feels exceedingly scarce. However, I do feel that they benefited from a lack of choices that we today see as practical. Yes you read that correctly. Let me give a few examples before you stop reading.
Authentic brick and stone were once a part of the earth and that’s why we tend to respect them more than their synthetic counterparts when they’re placed on a building. It represents a higher level of craftsmanship and mastery of building in general. We have tamed a wild material rather than creating one in the lab. Is heavy, authentic masonry practical in the Northwest, where we share the same seismic zone as California? Absolutely not. Do we appreciate the character of real masonry chimneys on Seattle’s older homes, and is it more than simple nostalgia that calls out to us when we see them?
How about siding. Do modern products exist that imitate wood, have a longer warranty and require less repainting? Yes. Does anything duplicate the warmth of natural wood siding? You get it, so I’ll stop.
Practicality and character of this type are often described as enemies. Take this passage written in 1848 by John Ruskin, one of the most celebrated art and architecture writers to have ever lived:
“All the stamped metals, and artificial stones, and imitation woods and bronzes, over the invention of which we hear daily exultation — all the short, and cheap, and easy ways of doing that whose difficulty is its honor — are just so many new obstacles in our already encumbered road. They will not make one of us happier or wiser — they will extend neither the pride of judgment nor the privilege of enjoyment. They will only make us shallower in our understandings, colder in our hearts, and feebler in our wits.”
When we commit to the care and upkeep of something authentic, we not only deepen the emotional connection we share with that one thing, but we allow our spirit to reach out in all directions in search for that which quietly supports us all.