The garish glass monstrosity directly above the front door of a typical McMansion—its distinguishing feature—is called a Palladian window.Although in the real estate patois McMansions are known as Colonials, the Palladian window is a more recent innovation, with roots in the so-called Adam style of the Victorian period.
I know this because my son, Dominick, is interested in architecture, and we often read a dense tome called A Field Guide to American Houses.When we come to the Adam houses (named, incidentally, for the brother architects who popularized them, and not the orchard thief of Biblical renown), I tell my son that I abhor the style, because of the distinctive Palladian window.
“Why?” he asks, as five-year-olds will.
I find this a difficult question to answer.I could respond that I find Palladian windows aesthetically ugly, but, while true, that isn’t really why I detest them.Or I could blame my aversion on their lack of utility; vestiges of French doors, Palladian windows have lost their function with their balcony, and are, in modern houses, giant panes of glass illuminating unused upstairs alcoves.But there are plenty of not-very-useful features in other kinds of houses that I do like—the exaggerated roof of the French Eclectics, say.So that isn’t it, either.
I decide to cop out, as fathers will.“I just don’t,” I tell him.
But Dominick’s question gnaws at me.
“If you’re fifteen,” he said, “you’ve probably never heard a shitty drum performance.”
While there is certainly less-than-stellar percussion work on the airwaves, he makes a good point.
Back in the day, when Roy Orbison or Johnny Cash or Elvis Presley went into a studio, engineers recorded their respective bands playing the songs together, live.Whole albums were laid down over long weekends.Drummers did not even wear click-track headphones.There was very little post-production.If someone sucked, they sucked—there was no place to hide.
This is no longer the case.Skipped beats can be repaired.Tempos can be shifted.Flubbed notes can be erased.Wavering vocals can be corrected.And in an increasingly intricate mastering process, recordings are compressed to be as loud as possible without losing integrity (which is why when you play an Elton John CD after an Amy Winehouse CD , you have to jack up the volume).
The result, as Lars astutely pointed out, is this: every piece of music we hear is technically perfect.
A human being, it’s said, cannot draw a perfect circle freehand.We all know intuitively what a circle is, but without the aid of a compass—and even with a compass, is a penciled-in figure really 100% accurate?—we cannot replicate one.
But with Photoshop, I can render a perfect circle at will.
A century and a half ago—the year the Civil War began—most of the technology we take for granted did not exist.Cameras were rudimentary and expensive.The railroad had just begun its ascendancy.Medicine was a joke.There were no “moving pictures,” no color photographs, no glossy magazines, no television, no radio, no automobiles or highways on which to drive them; no airplanes, telephones, or Internet.There was not much appreciable difference between life in 1860 and life in 1760, or 1660, or even 1560.
How long would it take for a boy entering puberty in 1860 to see the undressed body of an attractive woman?There were more paintings of nudes than photographs, and those paintings hung in museums far, far away, so our boy would have to catch a glimpse of an actual flesh-and-blood female.If he didn’t spy on girls at a swimming hole, or visit a brothel, he might not feast his eyes on the feminine form in all its glory until the day he got married (or the day he knocked up the girl he would be forced at gunpoint to marry).
And if he did get lucky and beheld a bathing beauty, what would she look like?What are the chances that she would be pretty, even by 1860 standards?And in what scenario could he drink in that image at his leisure, unconcerned about being caught in flagrante delicto, like that mythological deer in the headlights, Actaeon?Chances are, our pubescent boy will live his entire life and witness precious few ladies en déshabillé.
I just typed in “naked celebrities” on Google, and was led to a site called Celebrity Pink, on which splash page are images of Kim Kardashian fornicating with Ray J; the beautiful bare bosoms of Charlize Theron, Rhianna, and Megan Fox; and Paris Hilton, Britney Spears, and Lindsay Lohan with mouths full of metonymical manhood.
Not only do I have unfettered access to images of female nudes; the female nudes I have access to are doing things that would have made our Civil War-era lad blush.And they are all drop-dead gorgeous.
Perfect women at my DSL’d fingertips.
McMansions are, objectively speaking, nice places to live.They offer plenty of square footage, a flowing floor plan, ample storage space, and every amenity a fairly-well-off American could ask for: walk-in closets, three-car garages, Jacuzzi tubs, lofted ceilings, fireplaces, central air conditioning.All the corners are square; all the walls are level; all the doors open squeaklessly.
These houses are a sort of “Greatest Hits” architecture, appropriating the best that each style has to offer: Great room.Open entryway with circular staircase.Bonus room.Palladian window.
Our Civil War young man, one imagines, would have loved to live in such a luxurious place.
These are not just better homes; they are perfect ones.
A staple of the Mimi Ferocious live set is their rousing cover of “I Feel Love.”My wife belts out these high notes, clear and loud and perfectly in tune, the drums pound out a hot beat, and the bassist, David Wilson, cranks out a line that, in the original Donna Summer version, is synthesized, because it’s so hard to play.
I’ve watched them do that song hundreds of times, and David never messes up.Once, he broke a string—no small feat on a bass—and still managed to play the song flawlessly, transposing on the fly.An incredible performance.
On the Mimi Ferocious recording, though, strong as the track is, something gets lost in translation.David is doing the same thing, the notes are the same, the playing is still top-notch.
So what’s changed? My ears.Because it’s a CD, I don’t pay any attention to the degree of difficulty.When I listen to an album, I expect—I demand—perfection.Like baseball umpires, it’s only when something goes awry that I notice.
The amount of skill that is required of a symphony orchestra’s first violinist to tackle a challenging piece of music, the years of rigorous training to get the instrument to sound just so—nothing on Earth grates on the ears as hideously as a violin in the hands of someone who does not know how to play—the dedication and devotion and discipline, are staggering to contemplate.
And where do most of us hear the aural fruit of all that labor?In elevators.In dentists’ lobbies.In telephones, as we wait for customer service.
Even our background noise is perfect.
The artist Margaret Kilgallen (1967-2001) had a thing for hand-painted signs.She would scour ramshackle storefronts in the poorer sections of cities—establishments that could not afford slick, professional print jobs and instead produced their own.These signs she incorporated into her work.
As the stone the builders rejected became the cornerstone for the Church, so Kilgallen found beauty in flaws.
“[I]n my own work,” Kilgallen said, in an interview with PBS, “I do everything by hand. I don’t project or use anything mechanical, because even though I do spend a lot of time trying to perfect my line work and my hand, my hand will always be imperfect because it’s human.
“And I think it’s the part that’s…interesting, that even if I’m doing really big letters and I spend a lot of time going over the line and over the line and trying to make it straight, I’ll never be able to make it straight. From a distance it might look straight, but when you get close up, you can always see the line waver. And I think that’s where the beauty is.”
Her art is about rejection of perfection.
She was on to something.
Heidi Pratt née Montag, the villainess a few seasons removed from MTV’s reality show The Hills, might not have a good head on her shoulders, but she’s always had a good-looking one.
Whatever you can say for her other talents—and the less said, the better—Heidi is hot.Heidi in high school was about as pretty as pretty gets.This has not stopped her from getting plastic surgery a whopping ten times, which seems excessive for anyone, particularly a naturally-stunning beauty of 23.
Pulchritude is not enough; Pratt wants perfection.
What she does not realize is that our attitude toward perfection is in flux.
Artists traditionally took to the country for inspiration.Van Gogh at Arles, Monet at Giverny, Gauguin in Tahiti, Pollock in Montauk.
Kilgallen lived on the Lower East Side of New York in the early 90s, when the Lower East Side was sketchy, if not outright dangerous.Before that, she lived in San Francisco.
Today, artists are associated not with bucolic countrysides, but with revitalization of blighted cities.Case in point: Beacon, N.Y.Once an industrial city known for manufacturing hats, Beacon went south when men stopped wearing them.Economic freefall and urban decay ceased only when the artists came.Dia: Beacon, its modern art museum that features installations too large for most exhibit spaces, is located in what used to be a Nabisco factory.
Artists are the Cassandras of real estate.They are visionaries, able to find beauty in ugliness.
Time was, clean, crisp dungarees smacked of money and style.Only men who did not work the fields could keep their jeans looking perfect.
Now Heidi Pratt and the rest of the fashionable set pay big money for jeans that are discolored, faded, torn.
Furniture, too, comes “distressed.”New tables and chairs and chests of drawers are manufactured to look like odd pieces found at antique shops in Hudson, N.Y. (another formerly fallen city revitalized by artists).
The stuff that is the shiniest—the stuff our Civil War child would pick for his McMansion—is usually shit.
Architecture mirrors culture.The houses we choose to build speak to our hopes, our aspirations, our desires.Their windows (Palladian or otherwise) are looking-glasses, in which are reflected our societal values.
McMansions project flawlessness: the triumph of mechanical construction over the shaky human hand, the luxury of precision.Monuments to success and achievement, to the conquest of mistakes, they are intended to wow.But the wow they now elicit carries a different connotation than what their builders intended.
Somewhere along the line, we have shifted paradigms.We have adopted Kilgallen’s aesthetic.We have begun to reject the perfect.We now find beauty in wavering lines.In human fallibility.In flaws.
Consequently, McMansions have become a symbol of decadence, of surfeit, of the tyranny of homogeneity.One can imagine Ozymandias staring out a Palladian window with his sneer of cold command, lording it over the poor suckers in their split-levels and raised ranches and Cape Cods.Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair! Nothing beside remains but foreclosure notices and unpaid heating bills.
And this, my son, is the answer to your question: it’s not the Palladian window itself that I find an abomination, but what it represents: soulless, cold, inhuman perfection.