To live in a young nation carries with it an absence of history. You may have a personal-family heritage that means something to you but the nation as a whole has not yet existed long enough to truly have much of a passed-on history. We find that both in intellectional/emotional ways as well as in physical / architectural / institutional manifestations.
I find it interesting that we Americans are so enamored of the building styles of other nations. (What I mean, of course is U.S. citizens — there are a lot of Americans that do not live in the U.S and to presume the word American means U.S. Citizen is arrogance and ego.) Part of the reason is that we have not time-tested, culturally passed down architectural heritage. Oh, there are a few styles that are ‘typically american’ — There is the traditional Cape Cod home. Yes, that IS unique to our nation. There are other forms, too that are unique. There is the Western ranch home with on side steeper and narrower than the other, and the opposite side more sloping and overhanging a porch. There are numerous others as well. But in general we don’t have a lot of uniquely U.S. architecture to fall back on. So we copy what others have done to live in very different physical surroundings. The Cape Cod is what it is for real reasons. So is the Western Ranch home. So are European stone cottages and Pacific Island huts. The environment in many cases has determined the materials, and the building styles to make life more pleasant and sustainable.
That said, we Americans seem to love copying other styles as if we were living there. The family vacation that taught everyone to love the stone walls (but that no one had to chisel through to run electric lines) becomes the inspiration for a new family home that we don’t build out of stone; that would be too expensive. Instead we build it out of 2×6’s and gypsum board and then we cover over the exterior with a faux stone and pay an artisan to come in and replicate the look of ancient plaster on the interior walls — all the time making sure we have cabling for our entertainment and information systems to keep us in the 21st Century.
Most of us can’t afford real European antiques — the cost of shipping alone is prohibitive for many of us — so instead we buy something new and we whack it with hammer and scatch it with awls and apply finishes to make it look shabby chic. We want a sense of history but we have none of our own.
And even those of us who have something of age, how often do we find that our renovations and repairs fail to retain the original look or feel of the architecture. That large sweeping victorian porch gets replaced by a pressure treated lumber deck that looks nothing like the Grand Old Lady it’s attached to. We want to have a history but being Americans we don’t want to pay the price to actually maintain that look — so we satisfy ourselves with something less than original and pretend we are living in a grand old victorian home.
I don’t know why we do this. Here in Milwaukee we have a road that follows the edge of Lake Michigan. On the North side of town the homes there were all mansions along that street. They were built for rich people with good sized families and full servants quarters. Nowadays those homes aren’t affordable to operate as originally designed so the buildings are sub-divided and converted into condos so that people with a lot less money can pretend they are rich and live where those who once were super-rich formerly lived. It’s all an illusion. It faux culture for a faux society.
I have to admit that it’s always fun to drive past those grand old homes but I’ll never understand why people live in them. Even when we had the old school that was residence, work, and storage facility I had a hard time justifying the size of what we had and most of that was devoted to making an income. But, hey, if someone has the money to to spend and they want to do that, I’m fine with it.
What perplexes me though is why so much of what we seem to value as a society is all about imitation. Historically in the U.S., or at least here in Milwaukee, the restaurants that get the most attention seem to be the ones that borrow from other cuisines: German, French, Italian. American cuisine is gradually finding more of a home among the hard-to-get-a-table-at restaurant but that has been a long time coming.
In times past we went to them all. I was quite the foodie in my time. But I have to admit that as I age I’m less impressed by fancy presentations of premium grade product and more impressed by exceptional preparation of everyday product. I find myself returning to the foods and the likes of generations now nearly lost.
There was a time that I wanted very much to retire to the South of France. I loved the age of everything over there. Villages that had been in existance over a 1000 years and which knew who and what they were appealed to me. I liked that continuity with history. Over time I have come to appreciate that we have something else that is just as unique — but it is different. It’s something to be honored and appreciated in similar ways, but it is different.
I no longer find myself itching to travel to old places. Oh, it might be nice to take a few more trips while we’re still alive and can travel. But I admit that my impetous is different now than it was before. Before I wanted to experience the difference. It was kind of a shotgun manner of travel. Now, when I look for places to travel I find myself looking at very specific differences or similarities and wanting to compare them with what we have at home. I want to aim at one or two specifics and understand how they make me different from the people who live there, or how it makes them different from us who live here.
I wonder how much the average “American” really appreciates his/her own culture. I don’t mean are we proud of it. That is one aspect of the U.S. that seems pretty pronounced: people here have this idea of themselves as an exceptional people — that exceptionalism is responsible in large part for our plundering the globe for resources and the way we stick our nose into every other country’s business as if it were our God-given right. — and in fact many beleive it is. But on a more fundamental level, our habit of copying other cultures belies the fact that we aren’t sure what we have to celebrate here; and so we choose something else to imitate. I’m not sure what that says about the state of our national culture – or even if we have one. That Republicans are so scared of becoming like the people who are immigrating into the country says we are very split about who we think we are.
I hope we figure it out (collectively).