Purveyor. Not of goods, but of good ideas

Saturday, January 21, 2006

ARCHITECTURE: The Slippery Slope of Fake

I'm thinking of building a house. I needed to do some research, so I packed myself up and traveled to Orlando, Florida, where I attended the International Builder's Show last week.

I was struck by how many home building products were sold not on the basis of how they might benefit the people living in the house, but on how the products would benefit the builder. The primary concerns of a homeowner like me are, "Is it good?" and "Can I afford it?", but a builder's concerns are different: 1) Is it easy to install? 2) Will it create problems that might lead to costly callbacks later? and 3) Can I make a profit on it?

Sometimes, these priorities work well together. Problem is, when the builder's concerns, not the homeowner's, are primary, it can lead to some particularly distressing results.

This was frequently in evidence at the show as I came to realize it's possible to build a completely fake house. One vendor summed up this trend nicely with its jaunty slogan: "Inspired by the appearance of actual wood." Recycled cardboard, discarded plastics, sawdust and who knows what else are now molded into dimensional forms and embossed with artificial grain. You can nail the stuff, bend it, cut it, you name it and it won't rot, peel, or otherwise raise an objection. For the "wood look," there's the old standby, vinyl siding, of course, and fake wood flooring and crown molding and exterior trim. There's also the trend toward gas burning fireplaces with ceramic "logs." Because gas burns cleanly, no chimney is necessary to channel smoke, but I can't discern which bothers me more, a conventional-looking fireplace with fake logs and no chimney (a headless horseman in my living room), or a completely unnecessary chimney built for appearance with no function at all.

Clearly, these materials and methods have many advantages. I'm no technology luddite, I'm just baffled and concerned by why we let these inauthentic expressions become a pervasive part of our everyday lives. Nothing wrong with plastic. Let it be plastic. But this fake stuff unfailingly brings to mind the old Monty Python phrase, "Look, you're not fooling anybody." The real conundrum is why we seem to prefer what's fake, or at least, why we let it happen with so little pushback. Do we even recognize the difference between what's real and what isn't?

• • •

I wish I could recall where I first heard this story, but a suburban boy was at a friend's house and stayed for a sleepover. In the morning, the friend's mother served them fresh squeezed orange juice at breakfast.

The visting boy made a face.

"What wrong?" the friend's mother asked.

"This doesn't taste like the frozen stuff my Mom makes," he said.

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