Saturday, July 14, 2012

How to Waste Space

Architecture is the art of how to waste space.
                                                                –Philip Johnson, architect

Fairbanks House, the oldest timber-frame house in the United States, is thought to have been built between 1637 and 1641 by the Fairbanks family: husband, wife and six children, 8 people in all.  The original structure had 1,297 square feet when new and was considered a grand home for its time.     

1,297 square feet for 8 people.  Contrast that with our time.  The average size of new-home constructions in the US in 2010 was 2,392 feet according to Smithsonian, May, 2012.  The average houshold size in the US in 2010 was 2.59 people.  Census

The significant increase in the sizes of houses is a new phenomena in the US: since 1973, the average size of a new home has grown by 49%!  MSN

No doubt, Philip Johnson had something else entirely in mind when he spoke of architecture as the art of wasting space, but in a time when the world’s population explosion and its attendant consumption of world resources is at a heretofore unknown pace, one has to wonder at the wisdom, or lack, in a culture that insists on using more and more for less and less – more and more land and other resources for less and less people.

Given that the cause of such increased consumption is generally attributed to wealth, it seems clear that a lesson to be derived is that wealth does not bring wisdom nor does wealth fall to the wise, for only as fools could we insist on the continued use of more than our fair share without regard to the future.

Here’s my own commitment, for whatever it might be worth: to refuse to buy or occupy any building that is newly constructed.  I know folks make their living off of building new homes.  And I’ve no quarrel with that in general.  Nor am I urging an entirely utilitarian or dystopian worldview.

But as with all things, somewhere there is a line, the crossing of which is recognized only in hindsight as the point of no return.  The continued building of more and more for the less and less will, I suspect, be revealed as such a line for the generations yet to come, who may only know of mahogany and teak, even perhaps of trees themselves, from books.


  1. I hate seeing the old houses in the county sag into their foundations, especially when a new one is constructed right in front of them. Well said.

    1. Ginny, They always make me sad, those houses so far past their own glory days. I often wonder about the lives lived within their walls. Thanks for the visual. Beth