FloMo Diaries, Installment 4: Functional Boxes

*I mentioned earlier that I was inspired by an idea David Byrne (co-founder of the great Talking Heads) had. He bought a bike and cycled around the various places his artistic life took him and write a book about what he noticed. Taking a page out of that book, I’ve started writing down nuances of my suburban culture of Flower Mound, Texas, as I meander through in car, on feet or in coffee shops. For a few weeks, anyway.*

To get started, let’s listen to a song, shall we? Once you get to the player, click on “season 1” and then hit the “play” icon so you can hear the song Little Boxes. On the show “Weeds,” they used to have lots of famous bands/singers do a “cover” of this song, but this is the original version by Malvina Reynolds (copyright 1962 Schroder Music Company, renewed 1990).

Once, when I visited the Hopi Nation, my guide told me that one of the characteristics of their tribe was how verbal and relational they were. He mentioned this was because of the limited inhabitable land (described as an “island of Hopi surrounded by a sea of Navajo”) required that they build small homes close together to fit everyone in. By contrast, the Navajo were comparatively quiet and isolated, given they have 26 million square miles to spread out their tribe. Their different geography and necessary architecture (the Hopi build villages on mesas, while the Navajo tend to spread out self-sustaining farms in the lowlands) affected their collective lifestyles.

Then, I noticed that the Dutch do the same thing. See, their entire country is below sea level (we had to ride our bikes uphill to get to the beach). Towns were built on the higher lands in the country, generally with a town square with lots of shops and restaurants, usually with living spaces above these. The farms then became the norm the further you get from town. Because the living spaces were small and compact, most evenings people would simply go to the town square and “grab a terrace” to visit with friends and neighbors. There were bike racks everywhere downtown, too (another unique function of their architecture was their system of bicycle paths). Even the Dutch national soccer team’s (who wears orange colors in honor of the House of Orange–a family instrumental in Dutch history) unique style of play is a function of their collective lifestyle: Close teammate support in tight areas. Their short passes in small areas has given them the nickname The Clockwork Orange. Their geography and necessary architecture affects their collective lifestyle to such a degree that they way they play soccer is influenced.

I grew up in the suburbs of Alabama and we had our own unique geography. Our suburb was at the top of Shades Mountain, which, well, is really only about 900 feet tall but covered a lot of area. Lots of steep hills and if you drive along Shades Crest Road you get a nice view of the valley. This terrain allowed for some unique design and architecture, like…

…nobody had swimming pools in our neighborhood. Too much rock underneath, so there was a community pool that most homeowners purchased a “bond” to go swimming and play tennis. Most summer days were spent there by everybody that couldn’t drive and the people that drove them there.

…everybody had a one-car garage. This meant that most of the folks parked in the driveway, and generally got home at the same time.

…we all had chain-link fences.

…the average home in our neighborhood was on two levels, with about 1,600 square feet.

Now, this may not sound like a whole lot of anything. But when you mix all that stuff together you get something like this: We knew every single on of our neighbors. On every side. And across the street. This was because you’d see the Graingers out in the yard when Lex got home. You knew when the Whitlock’s kids and grandkids were over because you saw them chatting on the back deck. When you were grilling out, the neighbors were letting their dog out, they’d stop to chat. In fact, you’d put in a gate on the mutual fence you shared so the little kids wouldn’t have to climb over to play. You’d have to apologize to Mr. Key for hopping his fence to get the baseball you’d hit over it when he caught you. And, even a cluster of 10-year-old boys enjoyed the sight of Pam Stokes (community college student/cheerleader for the local pro football team) and her friends getting some sun at Shades Cliff Community Pool. The members of the local steel worker’s union did as well, although the conversation among their wives was probably somewhat different.

Did you catch all that? A few things like a front porch, a chain link fence, long driveways, and big yards more or less forced community interaction.

See, in our neighborhood, all the homes are designed with two-car garages. There are no front porches, only front doors. This actually allows for you to come home from work and not be seen by any neighbors.

Add to that, everybody has a 6-foot tall wooden privacy fence. Just the name tells you what it’s for, and they’re pretty effective. We do see our back-door neighbor’s kid when she’s at the top of their pool slide and she waves. They see our kids in short bursts when they hop and down on the trampoline.

We have small front yards and landscape them in such a way that they look nice and require minimal effort to maintain. Most people hire others to do it…and I don’t blame them. The weather isn’t too conducive to an enjoyable experience even for those who enjoy yard work. They do look nice, but throwing a football around on them isn’t going to happen unless you have a four-year-old. Which our neighbors do…but we don’t see them. We do hear them playing occasionally on the other side of the privacy fence.

So, right off the bat, our architecture limits social interaction and in some ways encourages a social phenomenon called “cacooning.” Where you stay in your cacoon and watch movies and all.

There are some other unique features that have some side effects, too.

Like there are things called “Homeowner’s Associations” where they create agreements designed to protect property values. It’s a nice idea for the benefit of the collective (although, interestingly, most of these same folks decry anything political that might look like “socialism.”). You know, you gotta keep your yard mowed (some of the more affluent ones actually include landscaping in the annual fee–which keeps everyone from even being seen in the front yard) or get your trash/recycle bins hidden and inside on the right days or certain colors of paint can’t be used or no treehouses in the front yard or where you can put a basketball goal. All that kind of stuff. I’ve heard horror stories of some that are way too controlling, but generally speaking, they’re helpful to keep property values steady.

I saw one subdivision that actually advertised on signage as they were building homes to sell: “Come by and choose one of our 6 unique floor plans.” I don’t think they grasped the irony of their own sign, considering they were planning on building around 300 homes. The average home in Flower Mound (of which there are nearly 17,000) has 3,000 square feet and the median home price hovers right around $300,000. Yeah. Not for the McKinney’s, though. The one of 17,000 we purchased doesn’t quite hit average or medians. Occupational hazard.

Some of the subdivisions now include a pool and tennis courts in their homeowner’s association fees. One even has a small water park. I’d imagine there are still some dads ogling the college girls and their wives having the same conversations our parents had about the college girls and their friends hanging out there.

Have you noticed what our intersections of major roads are like these days? There’s usually a grocery store anchor tenant in the strip mall. With a drug store on one corner. A bank or two on the other. Some fast-food establishments surrounding all of it. A pizza delivery place. A coffee shop. A mechanic as well. In addition to all of them being the same, well, umm, the design on these establishments? A functional rectangle. Just rows and lines for efficiency and low cost.

Because our yards are so small, our community does have a lot of parks. Although they aren’t so much for playing as they are for organized sports for kids. There are lots of downsides to everything being overseen and organized by adults, but one benefit is that these have generally replaced the front porch. You bring a chair and hang out with the other parents of the kids on your team while practice goes on.

We have a good little affluent life here in Flower Mound. I’ll take it…

…especially when compared to the other options that are out there, man.

But think about the words to that song you listened to…

Little boxes on the hillside,
Little boxes made of ticky tacky,
Little boxes on the hillside,
Little boxes all the same.
There’s a green one and a pink one
And a blue one and a yellow one,
And they’re all made out of ticky tacky
And they all look just the same.

And the people in the houses
All went to the university,
Where they were put in boxes
And they came out all the same,
And there’s doctors and lawyers,
And business executives,
And they’re all made out of ticky tacky
And they all look just the same.

And they all play on the golf course
And drink their martinis dry,
And they all have pretty children
And the children go to school,
And the children go to summer camp
And then to the university,
Where they are put in boxes
And they come out all the same.

And the boys go into business
And marry and raise a family
In boxes made of ticky tacky
And they all look just the same.
There’s a green one and a pink one
And a blue one and a yellow one,
And they’re all made out of ticky tacky
And they all look just the same.

We need to be aware of the downsides of this affluence and homogeneity and teach them that sometimes architecture should inspire you rather than be limited to 6 floor plans of functional boxes…

…that success is about more than becoming a doctor and a lawyer or a business executive…

…that childhood should be about more than video games in your cacoon and organized soccer team practice…

..that the goal of going to a university shouldn’t be to come back and live comfortably in your 3,000 square foot quarter million dollar functional box…

…that life is about more than golf as a hobby…

…that the stuff you fill up that functional box with purchased at a retail establishment will never make you happy…

…that knowing your neighbors is a good thing…

…I could go on.

You get my point, right?

That if architecture and geography can be powerful enough to influence how a nation plays soccer, well, it can be powerful enough to influence how we think…

…and dream…

…and get inspiration…



…about what really matters in life.

So, keep a level head out there, kids. That song is provocative and powerful for a reason.

P.S. Maybe this isn’t as funny as at first glance…

courtesy Baby Blues comic, by Kirkman & Scott and King Features Syndicate

(click on image to see it larger)