Small Houses and Long Forks

December 12, 2010 at 3:24 am 2 comments

Brad Pitt at the Burn After Reading premiere

Image via Wikipedia

A few days ago Francisco Barrios, a professor in Bogota, Colombia who has been kind enough to link to my blog and to frequently read and sometimes comment on it, made a request. He would like for me to write about architecture. Wow! I can’t resist a request to write on command about a given subject. It’s a challenge, especially when it’s a subject that I know so little about, really.

Here’s what I knew about architecture before I took on Francisco’s challenge. I once worked for the corporate offices of a preeminent manufactured housing company, the Mercedes Benz of trailers, if you will. They build singlewides, doublewides, triple wides, customized modulars, and prefabricated houses. It’s a great company, and I really loved working for them. They were so good to me. I would like to say that this increased my knowledge of architecture, but that would be a big fat lie.

I knew that architecture was the profession of building buildings, the art of designing buildings, and sometimes referred to the buildings themselves. I also knew that the University of Texas in Austin, where I live, has a pretty good school of architecture. Uh, and Frank Lloyd Wright. And I knew that the kind of guys who studied architecture usually find my personality irresistible for some strange reason. That was the extent of my knowledge. And even now, it’s not improved by much.

One thing I do know about myself is that although I appreciate great beauty, and I enjoy study for study’s sake, and I like to study aesthetics, I just don’t have it in me to write about architecture in a classical sense. I am not the right person to write something that would encompass the whole of architecture on a grand scale. I wouldn’t know where to begin, and I would come across as woefully ignorant as well as hopelessly arrogant if I thought I could tackle such a complex subject.

I read the blogs that Francisco linked to in his comments. Well, okay, maybe not the entire blog of Alain de Botton. That’s a log of reading. I read some of it. I knew I had to find my angle, and I remembered my recent post on The Tiny Barn. Finding an angle is the hallmark of a great writer, in my opinion. You have to pick what’s important to you, research it, and then come at it from a fresh perspective. There’s very little that’s never been said before, but you can say what’s been said before in a new way.

What interests me about architecture is the green movement. I like reading about ways that architects are designing buildings from the ground up in ways that are not only pleasing to the eye but also compassionate to the earth and its people. I like reading about architects that design buildings that conserve natural resources, work with the earth’s landscape rather than against it, and take under consideration alternative materials.

These constructions don’t have to be ugly utilitarian monstrosities. In fact, they can be beautiful, and these structures have gotten a lot of publicity lately, especially with Brad Pitt’s sponsorship of the rebuilding of New OrleansLower Ninth Ward (

The Tiny Barn was a humorous post designed to draw attention to the culture of consumerism in the United States. I never meant to really live in a storage shed. The idea, however, drew me to the small house movement. Some call it the tiny house movement. Whatever it’s called, I find it ingenious.

The average square footage of a house built in the United States in 2004 was 2,330 square feet. In 1970 the average square footage was 1,400 square feet. In the early twentieth century most homes were between 600 and 800 square feet. ( (

Family sizes have been decreasing with the advent of reliable birth control that’s readily available, and extended family members do not typically live with each other in America. A culture of producers that once needed storage facilities for everything from canned goods and smoked meats to homemade quilts now buys all those things from the supermarket or the department store. People rarely cook anymore, let alone bake their own bread and can their own vegetables. But our houses keep getting bigger.

I’m not advocating the ban of technology or any such silly nonsense. I love my computer, my iPod touch, and my electricity, my household appliances, and my Target store, the one with the grocery section. I can’t keep a plant alive, and I have absolutely no desire to hunt and kill my own food.

What I’m trying to say here is that I think we don’t need this much space. And that some of this excess of abundance is just that: an excess. It’s a waste. It’s a contributor to everything from the obesity epidemic and the Greenhouse effect all the way to the quality of our modern relationships and even our divorce rate.

People used to live in little houses and make things and have actual conversations with real people in their kitchens over homemade pie. Apple’s FaceTime and instant message are great, but they don’t and can’t substitute for real, substantive and tangible time spent with living and breathing people. Kids nowadays prefer texting to a phone call. If we aren’t careful, then I fear that we will eventually become a race of virtual people, like one of those science fiction movies starring Keanu Reeves or Tom Cruise or Bruce Willis.

One of the websites that I visited for the Small House Movement, the Small House Society ( mentions that, “Some people just desire to live simply so that others can simply live.” It’s not an original saying. I’ve heard it before. It’s sometimes attributed to Gandhi, but there’s no proof that he ever said it. It’s popularly used within the sustainable living movement.

And here’s where I’m going to come full circle and show how architecture relates to Christianity. Live simply so that others may simply live. If you think about it, how far off from that is do unto others as you would have them do unto you?

We don’t all have to live in tiny houses built on trailers to demonstrate our love for Jesus. That’s absurd. I’m not advocating that you sell your 2,400 square foot house in the suburbs or tear it down and start new. That would be an even bigger waste. But you can build or buy a smaller house next time or use the space you do have to make homemade quilts for friends, or to give them to charity. You can invite people over more often. Host an exchange student. Grow a garden; maybe you, unlike me, can manage not to kill a tomato plant. Use the abundance of space you’ve been blessed with if that’s the case.

There is so much emphasis in Christianity on the afterlife and the concept of heaven and hell and purgatory and the Second Coming and all that entails. Evangelicals and even most mainline denominations interpret these things very literally. And I’m not refuting their existence. I’m open to that interpretation because I know my God is an awesome God; he’s capable of more than I can imagine. I’m also open to the interpretation that when Jesus was talking about the kingdom of Heaven, he might just have been talking about a heaven on earth.

Once again, I’m going to conclude with a very unoriginal thought. I heard a pastor give a sermon years ago about the difference between heaven and hell. A boy dies and gets to look in both places. And first he visits hell. Hell is a room with a long dining table, complete with cloth napkins and fine china and a crystal chandelier. The table is heaped with mounds of gorgeous, hot steaming food. It smells so good. But everyone at the table is in a foul mood. When the boy looks closer he sees that everyone at the table has abnormally long arms. And the ends of their arms are forks. They have forks instead of hands. The people try to feed themselves but their arms are so long that they can’t reach their own face.

The same boy gets a peak at heaven. And heaven is exactly like hell, but instead of no one eating and everyone being grumpy, everyone is eating and happy. The people in heaven have arms just like the people in hell. But the people in heaven are feeding each other.


Entry filed under: Art, Chrisitanity, Ecology, Economy, Ethics, Faith, Money and Finances, Social Commentary, Spirituality. Tags: , , , , , , , .

Early Christianity: St. Iranaeus of Lyons The Neighborhood Potluck

2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. popsdumonde  |  December 13, 2010 at 2:05 pm

    Lastnight I happened upon two friends at the coffee shop and the topic of McMansions came up. We talked about the waste of resources, what it cost to heat and maintain these monsters. Heating comes to mind, it’s 13 degrees below zero right now!

  • 2. pacho barrios  |  December 20, 2010 at 5:37 pm

    We all talk about solidarity and compassion. Perhaps the best way to help (others, the planet) would be by leading a more austere life.


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