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Finished The Geography of Nowhere: The Rise and Decline of America's Man-Made Landscape by James Howard Kunstler. Part history, part analysis, and part plain old rant, The Geography of Nowhere discusses the evolution of the cities and houses in the U.S. in the city, the country, and the suburbs.

Kunstler starts with a historical overview of housing and community development in the U.S., starting with colonial towns and ending with the soulless suburban sprawl of today. Although much of the content was familiar, the historical overview had a number of surprises.

If you grew up in the U.S., when you think of an agricultural community you think of isolated farm houses surrounded by fields. Historically, agricultural communities have had a rather different setup. Homes were clustered together, and these town centers were surrounded by the farm lands. Your farmland was not necessarily adjacent to your property, but it was within a manageable distance. This layout provided safety and was more efficient for people without cars. The country sprawl that we think of as typical today is actually a result of the vast amounts of lands in the American west and the governments policies for settling them.

The history of the suburb is also surprising. Again in the U.S., you generally think of suburbs as the result of car induced sprawl. However, the first suburbs were built in the 1800s as communities along rail lines. They shared many features with modern suburbs (people lived there but did not work there, they were often planned communities of similar homes). However, they differed in one key respect. The original suburbs were built to human scale. Because they were rail suburbs, the residents still had to be able to walk within the community. Furthermore, the railroad station provided a natural center to the community, something which modern suburbs lack.

The next part of the book discusses the changes in house styles in the U.S. This part contains a fair bit of ranting about modern architecture. Home: A Short History of an Idea by Witold Rybczynski does a better job of presenting similar information. (my review).

Kunstler presents case studies of 6 cities, pointing out what is right about them and what is wrong, and closes with a discussion of what is being done to make better places and stronger communities. Overall, I enjoyed The Geography of Nowhere. Kunstler ranted enough to be amusing without being distracting. The historical perspective and the case studies were valuable resources. Even though this book was published in 1993, it is still relevant. In fact, it may be increasingly relevant as the crash of the housing bubble lends energy to community rebuilding efforts.
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Finished Living In Style Without Losing Your Mind )

Now I just need to get around to applying all these ideas to my own home.
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One more book summary and then you will be safe from them for at least a week!

Home: A short history of an idea )
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Finished The Power of Place: How our surroundings shape our thoughts, emotions, and actions by Winifred Gallagher (also author of the previously read by me House Thinking). The Power of Place looks at the effect of different environmental factors on our well being and actions. Part one looks looks at effect of the external environment including how heat, light, and various electrical forces affect our wellbeing. Part two looks at our human environment by looking at how relationships provide a particular physical as well as emotional environment that is import. One focus of this section is the relationship, both before and after birth, of a mother to her child. Part three takes a larger scale look at environments and discusses cities, over stimulation, and the importance of nature. At times, this book could venture off into hypotheticals, but Gallagher generally clear about when this was happening. Overall, The Power of Place is an entertaining introduction to environmental psychology.
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Finished Interior Design by John F. Pile. This is a textbook. Reading text books is fun! This book is a basic overview of the field of interior design. The book covers history, the design process, planning a design, human factors, social responsibility, different materials and interior elements, color, lighting, furniture, special needs, internal technical systems amongst other things. Reading a text book on interior design makes it clear that the field is much more than decoration. Interior design (at least, good interior design) is focused on how space is used and making sure that use is effective. As such, I find that this book has a closer tie to environmental psychology than many of the other books I have read in the general area of environmental psychology, architecture, and interior design. I enjoyed learning about interior design, and I appreciated the fact that 550 pages go a lot faster when there are lots of pictures.
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Finished The House: Its Origins and Evolution by Stephen Gardiner. Gardiner gives a history of the development of the form of the home. The history of the house begins with caves, but we quickly move on from caves to round houses made out of primitive materials. Over time, both the design of the house and the materials use advance and mature until we reach ancient Greek and Japanese architectures, considered by Gardiner to be the epitomes of ancient architecture. This history up through this point was fairly detailed. After that, Gardiner skims over the relatively uneventful time between Greek architecture and the Renaissance. From there he gives an overview of what he considers the most important styles. Next up is Gardiner denouncing modern home architecture (both densely packed cities and sprawling suburbs feel his criticism, a theme I shall take up later). However, all is not hopeless, and he ends the book by pointing out the positives of late 20th century architecture.

Gardiner has a very specific aesthetic, and I have not read enough architecture books to know whether or not it is peculiar. He likes styles where the elegance and design of the structure comes from the form of the building. Extraneous decoration (such as that found in Victorian architecture) is something he considers to be ugly. His taste happens to line up with mine, but I cannot completely agree with his wholesale dismissal of decoration. A point made in The Architecture of Happiness (de Botton) is that elaborate decoration can be a useful way to feel in control for a society that may not be in control. Gardiner believes buildings should be beautiful; he does not think that the appearance of a building should be defined only by its function. However, he does believe that the building should come from the form of the building and the materials used, not some extraneous trappings.

Throughout, Gardiner stresses that successful buildings should have a human scale and fit the community around them. Both these points express, on different levels that buildings should respond to needs. A building that has human scale responds to the need for space and for protection that an individual feels. A building that fits the community around it would fit in with the existing community stylistically as well as fulfilling the needs of the community for safe places that allow interaction of the residents with the larger community.

The only thing I disliked about this book was Gardiner's writing style. The book was filled with one to two page paragraphs, long and complicated sentences (worse than mine!), and lots of jargon and undefined terms. The jargon is what bugged me the most. While I do not expect an architecture book to necessarily assume that the reader has as little knowledge of architecture as I do, I do expect the author to try at least a little. For example, Gardiner mentioned buildings on "piloti" half a dozen times (or so I guess) before he said "piloti, or stilts". Once it said that, it was clear enough what piloti were. If he had done that earlier, I would have been saved much confusion. He also had a whole chapter on the concept of mandala's in architecture without defining "mandala" (a mandala, as he used it, is a geometic symbol that represent the unity of the universe).

Overall, good but dense book. Although I have not yet found a more readable book with the history, I can certainly recommend lighter books that discuss some of the same concepts of human scale and community.
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Finished Public Places and Private Spaces: The Psychology of work, Play, and Living Environments by Albert Mehrabian. I picked this up on the Great Powell's Trip of '07. Public Places and Private Spaces is an environmental psychology book for a general audience. It is a semi-academic mix of studies and the author's commentary.

Mehrabian applies the insights of environmental psychology to the personal environment (your body), then to homes, work, public environments, and cities/suburbs. The organization really emphasizes the applicability of environmental psychology to many different aspects of life.

Mehrabian also presents basic useful concepts. Mehrabian classifies environments using three dimensions: arousal/non-arousal, pleasure/displeasure, and dominance/submissiveness. The emotional effect of an environment can be predicted based on its characterization. For example, a pleasant, moderately arousing environment that makes one feel dominant (such as a familiar and busy city block) will generally cause approach behavior. However, if one's arousal level increases (say by wandering into an unfamiliar area), the pleasure decreases (perhaps by a shift in weather), or one feels less dominant (maybe the crosswalk signals have bad timing) the nearly identical environment may cause avoidance behavior or hostility.

But not everyone reacts the same way even to the same environment. One way to categorize a person's general reaction to an environment is to classify them as a screener or a non-screener. A screener tends to experience a reduced environmental load by filtering out much of the environmental input. A non-screeners experience higher environmental load because they filter less input. Non-screeners tend to be more sensitive to both the positive and negative aspects of their environment. These two categories describe a spectrum; neither extreme screeners nor extreme non-screeners get along very well in the real world.

Finally, I want to point out that this book shows its age in amusing ways. The book was written in the mid 1970's, and it sometimes shows. The author really likes the idea of using colored lights to change the properties of a room. He will sometimes give examples that talk about a well to do person making $25,000 a year. Things like this make me giggle.

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Erika RS

May 2012

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