It looks like suburbia, but it still represents escape.
In my new Bloomberg View column, I criticize the trendy denigration of technological progress that doesn't solve "big problems" like going to Mars. Here's an excerpt:
In speeches, interviews and articles, [Peter] Thiel decries what he sees as the country's lack of significant innovations. "When tracked against the admittedly lofty hopes of the 1950s and 1960s, technological progress has fallen short in many domains," he wrote last year in National Review. "Consider the most literal instance of nonacceleration: We are no longer moving faster."
Such warnings serve a useful purpose. Political barriers have in fact made it harder to innovate with atoms than with bits. New technologies as diverse as hydraulic fracturing and direct-to-consumer genetic testing (neither mentioned by Thiel) attract instant and predictable opposition. As Thiel writes, "Progress is neither automatic nor mechanistic; it is rare."
But the current funk says less about economic or technological reality than it does about the power of a certain 20th-century technological glamour: all those images of space flight, elevated highways and flying cars, with their promise of escape from mundane existence into a better, more exciting place called The Future. These visions imprinted themselves so vividly on the public's consciousness that they left some of the smartest, most technologically savvy denizens of the 21st century blind to much of the progress we actually enjoy.
The column draws directly on ideas I developed in The Future and Its Enemies. But, as I was writing it, I also thought about what my forthcoming book The Power of Glamour might suggest about why some old visions of the future are more compelling than others: Why do we miss space travel and flying cars but not robot maids (or robot dogs), "telesense," meals-in-a-pill, or all those jumpsuits? Why don't we appreciate the microwave ovens, synthetic fibers, or artificial hips?
I think it has to do with the promise of escape and transformation, which is essential to all forms of glamour. Glamour always allows the audience to imagine a different, better self in different, better circumstances.
A robot maid might improve your life but it wouldn't fundamentally change it. You'd still be yourself and the world around you would seem more-or-less the same. Except in a harried housewife, the idea of a robot maid does not excite longing. Transportation, by contrast, always implies movement and transcendence, all the more when it's fast and high. That's why space travel—like cars and trains and planes and ships and horses before it—has such potential for glamour.
I've always been fascinated by the images NASA and others used to sell the idea of space colonies in the 1970s. They always remind me of the San Fernando Valley as you come over the Sepulveda Pass from West L.A. (or, to be more accurate, the first time I saw that view it reminded me of the space colony pictures). They're selling real estate, with the same promise that every house stager uses: This could be your new, better life. ("I could be happy here.") All you have to do is move...in this case, to outer space.
On a recent visit to New York, I snapped this photo with my dumb phone. (The low-res quality actually makes it look a little more glamorous than it did in real life.) It's a perfect example of why declaring something "glamorous" doesn't make it so. If you can't even manage to keep up your sign, why should we expect the building to be any better?
Here's another example, a screen shot of the website for the then-newly remodeled Peninsula Hotel in Shanghai. I was looking at the website while planning a trip to look for glamour in Shanghai. This carelessness convinced me not to look for it at the Peninsula.
Sophisticated gardeners typically view garden gnomes as kitsch. However, I do know one sophisticated gardener with a weakness for gnomes who has a few scattered in a large garden on a property of several acres. She jokes that she has heard that each gnome she displays lowers the value of her property by a thousand dollars.
In this light, it is fascinating to read the pages of comments on a Colorado’s 9News story which relates that someone stole almost 150 gnomes from the front landscape of an Arvada, Colorado home. Some readers sympathize with the home owner’s comment that, “You can’t have anything nice anymore.” Others argue that her idea of “nice” must have been amazingly tacky, and that someone did the neighborhood a service by getting rid of what had to have been a kitschy eyesore.
To raise money for breast cancer research, the Colorado Women’s Resource Center has advertised that they will place of flock of 20 plastic pink flamingos on a friend’s lawn for one day for a fee of $30. Knowing that displaying a flock of pink flamingos puts the homeowner’s taste in question, they also offer anti-flocking insurance for $10—just in case you fear that one of your “friends” might impose them on you.
In her delightful memoir, Life Would Be Perfect If I Lived in That House (which I reviewed here), Meghan Daum pokes loving fun at herself, her mother, and everyone else smitten with house glamour and the redecorating and relocation it inspires. Among her insights is that:
In home ownership there are two realms: the visible and the invisible, the fun and the unfun, the parts for which there are paint chips and plant nurseries and catalogs filled with doorknobs and drawer pulls and reproductions of Art Deco light fixtures and the parts for which the only gratification is that your water is running and your lights are on.
Even if you find the perfect house, you eventually have no more space for new furniture or no more money (or time) for redecorating. The fun part is over and you're just fighting entropy.
Are there 12 step programs for people addicted to design magazines? My heart races when I rush to my mail box just looking for the bright catalogues from which I will buy nothing. I love to dream about redecorating my kitchen (not that I am much of a cook.) Or even just arranging my dishes (and in my imagination they are always clean and matching) just so in their perfectly nestled cupboards. Currently we have a serious pot problem (not that kind) in our kitchen. The pots are lurking in a dark corner cabinet, piled incorrectly and ready to snap at an unsuspecting hand should you want to umm…boil an egg.
But in my dream dollhouse I can have glorious dishes and pottery and pots that won’t bite. In playing digital dollhouse I can arrange and re-arrange to my little hearts content. I don’t think about things like general contractors or the fact that our plumbing doesn’t allow for more than an intermittent drip in our kitchen should the sprinklers start going. In my dream kitchen, dishes are always new and glasses are always clean.
Digital Dollhouse, which has 289,000 members, is child-friendly--it hit big last October, when Mattel added it to Barbie.com's online game network--but its most adept and obsessed designers are adults.
Below is a room called "Glamorous", by Debbie McLaney, one of my favorite DDH designers. Those valances are made of pillows, illustrating one of the common themes of the best rooms: repurposing the rather limited elements available in DDH space to create the effects you want. (Here's an article about the technology behind the site.)
Here's another room, by designer nounoir, that not only uses the pillows-as-valance trick but also turns plates into recessed lighting and another pillow, on the bureau, into what I take to be a mirror or picture frame.
The physical laws governing DDH are different from those in the real world. Objects can only rotate on their vertical axes. Some can levitate while others stick to the walls or floor. You can hang a mirror on a window, for instance, but you can't put it on the ceiling. In this room, I used the levitation option to suggest wire plant holders.
Despite the site's name, there are very few dolls in the Digital Dollhouse world and none in the beach house. (The site also has a Victorian.) For adults, at least, that's good. Without people, the rooms have an expectant quality, inviting viewers to project themselves into these idealized spaces or to imagine their owners' stories. The sense of mystery tends to make any well-designed room, regardless of palette or style, feel glamorous. And, of course, there are no cords on the lamps.
John Hendricks, founder of the Discovery Channel, was already captivated by automobiles by age five. He knew the names and model years of all the cars on the road. He would sit behind the wheel of his father’s parked 1952 Plymouth Cranbrook, and instead of being in the mountains of West Virginia, he would look at his father’s maps of Colorado and Utah and imagine himself driving in the wild West.
As an adult, John loved to watch documentaries and didn't think enough were available on TV, so in 1982 he founded the Cable Educational Network and, three years later, the Discovery Channel. Over time, while doing work that he loves as chairman of Discovery Communications, he and his wife Maureen have become wealthy.
Keep in mind that most entrepreneurial ventures fail, but imagine success. Imagine yourself with a multi-million dollar net worth. Would you imagine continuing to work, starting new ventures, and spending some of your earnings on your personal interests? Or do you see yourself leading a life of leisure, perhaps traveling the world on some fashionable circuit?
John and Maureen Hendricks have realized the first fantasy: Their interests and personalities haven't changed. They aren't flashy, and the luxuries they spend their money on aren't designed to impress the world. John, like many entrepreneurs, continues to work hard at various ventures, and both he and Maureen are involved in charitable activities, including establishing two foundations. But their wealth lets them live the dream of indulging their lifelong passions.
With extra money to spend, John Hendricks began to collect autos in earnest. And to share his love of automobiles, he created the Gateway Colorado Auto Museum to exhibit his growing collection of more than 40 vehicles. This beautifully designed museum provides both an educational and aesthetic experience. John’s statement about the museum reveals his intense passion for automotive design.
The video above shows the prototype of legendary auto designer Harley Earl’s 1954 Oldsmobile F-88 on display at the museum. General Motors decided against producing the F-88 car partly because they were concerned it would compete with the Corvette. Only four prototypes were built and only this one survives. Hendricks purchased it at auction in 2005 for $3.24 million.
The Hendricks's shared love for the American Southwest led to their latest business venture, Gateway Canyons, a luxurious resort in a remote, spectacularly beautiful location in Western Colorado. The resort is now open after Phase I development, and includes the Experius Academy, a retreat for “introducing the most curious learners to the most passionate experts.”
Maureen Hendricks is avid quilter and art-quilt collector, and the Gateway Canyons facilities display numerous large art quilts, many of them by Katie Pasquini Masopust. Katie used to hold an annual quilt symposium Alegre Retreat in Santa Fe, which Maureen attended each year until rising venue expenses made it too difficult for Katie continue the symposium. The Gateway Canyon resort has given Maureen a way both to enjoy herself and to support other enthusiasts. With the resort’s support, Alegre Retreat now holds its workshops there. Staying at a luxurious resort to study and interact with some of the world’s best-known art quilters remains an expensive retreat for the participants, but Maureen’s passion for quilting is so strong that whether or not the quilting retreat becomes profitable is not her primary concern. She wants the aesthetic rewards of the Alegre Retreat to continue to be a part of her life.
Meeting them when my wife taught at Alegre, I was impressed at how inner-directed John and Maureen Hendricks are. If we fantasize about how we might spend multi-millions if we had them, would our choices likewise remain true to our preexisting passions? (Reflecting on this makes me consider my own passions.) Or do our fantasies revolve about living a life of luxurious leisure dictated by the images we see in fashion and travel magazines? (Such images definitely have appeal for me.) What about you? Imagining that you had some extra millions to spend, DG invites you to comment on how you might spend them.
Meghan Daum’s new book Life Would Be Perfect If I Lived in That House breaks from a long-standing trend in nonfiction publishing. Instead of a clever title followed by a long explanatory subtitle, it has no subtitle at all. It doesn’t need one, because the title itself so perfectly encapsulates a common, but rarely articulated longing. The book is all about the intense glamour of houses you don't have. I review it in Tuesday's Wall Street Journal. Here's the beginning of the review.
For all the esoteric talk of tranches and credit-default swaps, the recent financial meltdown began with something far more primal: house lust and its accompanying dreams and delusions. "There is no object of desire quite like a house," writes Meghan Daum, a columnist for the Los Angeles Times. "Few things in this world are capable of eliciting such urgent, even painful, yearning. Few sentiments are at once as honest and as absurd as the one that moves us to declare: 'Life would be perfect if I lived in that house.' "
The fantasy of a life transformed is what makes the ads and features in interiors magazines so enticing—no fashion or celebrity magazine glamorizes its subjects as thoroughly as Architectural Digest or Elle Decor—and what gives HGTV's low-budget shows their addictive appeal. The longing for the perfect life in the perfect environment can make real-estate listings and "For Sale" signs as evocative as novels. This domestic ideal gives today's neighborhoods of foreclosed or abandoned houses their particular emotional punch. A stock-market bubble may create financial hardship, but a housing bust breaks hearts.
Although Ms. Daum did buy a house in 2004 and watched its value rise and then fall, her self-deprecatingly funny memoir isn't a tale of real-estate speculation. Rather she uses her lifelong obsession with finding the ideal living space to probe domestic desire, a deeper restlessness than the search for quick profits.
Read the rest here. You can buy the book (and read a good author interview) here.
Glamour is fragile. It tends to vanish with too much time or scrutiny. In response, people are always promising to “bring glamour back” (or declaring that “glamour is back”). Such promises are particularly common in three industries: fashion, airlines, and hotels. In airlines, they’re never fulfilled. In fashion, they often are. In hotels, there are more misses than hits.
Take the subject of this 2005 ad, the Century Plaza Hotel in Los Angeles. Designed by Minoru Yamasaki, the architect of the World Trade Center, the curved façade takes a good photo. But as a lived experience, the hotel offers little more than any other nice Hyatt. It does not inspire longing. Remodeling and a new spa did not change the hotel’s cultural resonance.
In fact, preservationists are now fightingplans to demolish the Century Plaza to make way for a complex that would include two mixed-use towers and make Century City more pedestrian-friendly. The arguments for preservation implicitly acknowledge that the hotel has little emotional or aesthetic importance today. “It is among the purest representations of 1960s Los Angeles planning and architectural philosophy we have left,” writes the LAT's Christopher Hawthorne--a back-handed compliment. The WaPost's Philip Kennicott called it “a hard building to love.”
Hotel glamour isn’t about what celebrities or presidents have frequented the building. It’s about the yearnings the hotel conjures in its audience, the escape and transformation a visit promises to provide. No one understood that better than Morris Lapidus, the architect best known for designing the Fountainebleu and Eden Roc hotels in Miami Beach. He wrote:
I was convinced that just as a store had to be designed to make people want to buy what the merchant had to sell, so a hotel had something to sell also. What was that something? A home away from home? Absolutely not! Who wants a homey feeling on a vacation? The guests want to find a new experience—forget the office, the house, the kids, the bills. Anything but that good old homey feeling that the old hotels used to see with a comfortable bed, a nice rocker on the veranda, a good solid nourishing meal. Not on your life! We were coming out of the war and the postwar period. People wanted fun, excitement, and all of it against a background that was colorful, unexpected; in short, the visual excitement that made people want to buy—in this case, to buy the tropic luxury of a wonderful vacation of fun in the sun. A sense of freedom from the humdrum lives the guests had. A feeling of getting away from it all.
Lapidus was famous for features like the “stairway to nowhere,” designed to give guests a platform from which to show off their finery. He made guests feel like stars. “Lapidus understood that a hotel lobby is a theater for amateur narcissists,” writes Tom Austin in Travel & Leisure. Though critics denounced them as tacky, to their intended audience, Lapidus’s hotels epitomized glamour. (For an excellent analysis of glamour in mid-century Miami Beach, see architectural historian Alice T. Friedman’s 2000 Harvard Design Magazine article, “Glamour, Class, and Architecture in Miami Beach”.)
In succeeding decades, that glamour dissipated. (The Fountainebleu’s builder went bankrupt in 1977.) The nouveau riche for whom the hotels were designed got old. Younger generations had different aspirations and ideals of luxury. But, after a $1 billion renovation, the Fountainebleu reopened last November. “The glamour is back at the Fontainebleau,” declared the announcer at the hotel's opening celebration, which doubled as last year’s Victoria's Secret Fashion Show.
Is the glamour really back? Unfortunately, I haven’t persuaded any editors to fund a reporting trip to decide for myself. Matt Rudd of the London Timesmakes a good case that the hotel is just too big for glamour: “In order to fill anything like 1,500 rooms, you need thousands of people, and they can’t all be Frank Sinatra.” Glamour requires mystery and exclusivity--and a lot fewer truck-parts conventions.
It is possible to bring glamour back to a hotel that has lost it, but “glamour” can’t just mean luxury or a history of association with dead celebrities. I thought the Palmer House in Chicago might have made it work, by playing up its architectural appeal, but complaints about small rooms and mini-beds suggest that modern standards may conflict with historic floor plans. (I have no first-hand experience.)
Each ad offers multi-layered glamour. Glimpsing only their partial profiles, we project ourselves into the role of the young condo dwellers. They invite us to imagine sharing their new life, being them or being with them. And they in turn contemplate the scene beyond their windows and feel its transformative glamour—the promise of a skyline's mysteriously glistening windows or a river's passage toward unknown destinations. Although the two ads are almost identical in composition, they are in fact selling two different ideals. The Metropolitan promises "the future of the city," a bustling alternative to the suburban life typical of Dallas. Rector Square, by contrast, offers tranquility, an escape from the noise, garbage cans, and graffiti of other Manhattan neighborhoods. "What’s outside your window?" the ad asks, and the project's website depicts the unappealing alternatives. As aesthetically formulaic as these two ads appear, they work by evoking the different yearnings of different audiences. Glamour's real power comes not from the formal composition but from the responsive audience’s imagination.
[As always, click the photos to see larger versions. Thanks to Laura Thomas at SHVO for obtaining a copy of the Rector Square ad and to its creators at Agency Saks for permission to reproduce it, here and in the book. And thanks to my friends at D Magazine for finding a Metropolitan ad in their files and to Keith Walker at DTZ Rockwood for reprint permission.]