The morning of April 29th, I was up with the birds—and 2 billion of my fellow earthlings—to watch the British royal wedding. The newlyweds were radiant; the event sparkled with romance and pageantry. But what snapped open my sleepy eyes were the too-brief glimpses of the royal parks, gardens and lawns.
I was impressed with the royal gardening, how the imposing palaces are themselves happily wedded to their settings. In my imagination, I strolled the gardens, inhaling the scent of flowers and tree blossoms; lost in reverie. I forgot about the nuptials and attendant hoo-hah.
The 19th century art critic John Ruskin proclaimed, “Though I have kind invitations enough to visit America, I could not, even for a couple of months, live in a country so miserable as to possess no castles”.
If Ruskin could visit the States today, he might not find castles up to his exacting tastes. He would certainly encounter plentiful castle wannabes in the enormous houses that populate our suburban landscape. If these colossi fall short of being castles, they likewise fail to be homes.
English is one of the few Indo-European languages with a word for “home”. Except for “love”—its kissing cousin—“home” possesses more resonance and radiance than any word in our language.
“Home” is a metaphor for all we most prize: love, warmth, nurture, privacy, intimacy, cosiness, comfort, companionship and festivity. The commonplace, “There’s no place like home”, is uncommonly true.
An overlarge residence forsakes the qualities that make a house a home. A too-big house is scaled, not to the physical or functional requirements of its residents, but to a simple and compelling notion: the bigger the better.
Just as small is not necessarily beautiful, big is not perforce better. The advantages of size are offset by commensurate risks, as demonstrated by sprawling corporations, schools and bureaucracies of all kinds. Bigness carries a lot of baggage.
Musing about American mansions, I’m reminded of Biltmore House, William K. Vanderbilt’s humongous gilded age faux chateau in North Carolina. Writing to his friend and fellow author Edith Wharton, Henry James observed of the 175,000 square foot pile, “It’s like a gorgeous practical joke—but at one’s own expense, if one has to live in solitude in these league-long marble halls”.
When scale goes wrong, as it does so lavishly at the Biltmore, and to a lesser extent in the homes of suburban grandees, the first casualty is the human factor. The structure’s exaggerated size diminishes rather than enhances the stature of its inhabitants—who appear to disappear in its vastness. Too often the great big house sits in its lot forlornly—a super-sized flying saucer flung into a landscape to which it bears no relation.
Right now, owners of big houses have challenges enough. As house prices plunge, fuel and food prices skyrocket. Attributes that made the house seem like a wise purchase—its impressive dimensions and imagined resale value—are now albatrosses dangling from the owner’s aching neck.
How might one bring balance, harmony, scale, integrity, beauty and magic to the modern manse? Can the owner’s dream house become a place of dreams?
It can be done. A garden gives a house proportion, warmth and continuity with its surroundings. Not a formal geometric garden, but a garden that proceeds from a house like a breath, lending color, shape, animation and pleasure to the scene.
Appropriately, British architect Edwin Lutyens and garden designer Gertrude Jekyll performed this very transformation for UK estates—bringing garden and house together and, thus, to life, for royals and royal wannabes in the late 19th and early 20th century.
With such reintegration of house and garden, the residence begins to dream and take root in its verdant setting. The structure’s height and width are moderated; angles softened, edges blurred—geometry yields to poetry. The now welcoming house loses its tinsel grandiosity, and assumes a quiet and inviting grandeur. You won’t have a palace, or a castle, but something better. You’ll have a home, and a fairy-tale romance all your own.