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#199: Rust Never Sleeps
Paul Fussell’s 1983 book Class: A Guide Through the American Status System is a caustic examination of a topic that Americans supposedly don’t think applies to them, hate discussing, or most likely, both. Although Fussell often seems to be shooting from the hip (in a way that makes the book a fun read), his detailed taxonomy of America’s nine class tiers, ranging from “top out-of-sight” down through the middle and “prole” classes to “destitute” and “bottom out-of-sight,” still rings uncomfortably true, although many of the details have changed. It’s probably impossible to read the book without examining your own behavior, wondering which class your speech and attire place you in and whether it’s apparent to everyone else. The awkwardness of all this is Fussell’s point. In the 40 years since the book’s publication, Americans seem to have become more class conscious (at least from my vantage point), while the marketing strategies that exploit our simmering class anxiety, as Fussell describes it, have become more sophisticated, further increasing our unspoken awareness of that insecurity. The Varian Rule states that what the rich have today, the middle class will have in ten years—another way of saying that upper-class signifiers are always drifting downmarket, by popular demand.
One of the most insightful, excruciating sections in Class is Fussell’s description of American housing: “Given the structural uniformity of the boxes constituting the current house, the owner must depend largely on front-porch and facade appliques and decorations to deliver the news about the social status he’s claiming.” In other words, the 20th-century standardization of residential architecture has made it one of the more unintentionally democratic features of the American socioeconomic landscape. The square footage may vary, but all those newly built Tudors, Cape Cods, and ranch houses are fundamentally boxes—a condition perfectly expressed by the term “McMansion.” Depending upon the class identity we intend to convey, we adorn these boxes with Ionic columns that support nothing, fake red brick surfaces, coach lanterns, or an endless variety of equivalent ornamentation. In 1983, this observation was prophetic: Across countless domains, surface imagery was decoupling from its underlying substance. An object as individualized and non-fungible as a house, so deeply connected to its occupants’ identities, could turn out to be a box, just punched up with pieces of flair. Only a decade prior, architects Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown had interpreted the American built environment more generously in Learning from Las Vegas, celebrating the “decorated sheds” that Fussell ridiculed.
In retrospect, though, housing was just following the same trajectory as everything else. In a 2002 paper, David Harvey writes, “That culture has become a commodity of some sort is undeniable. Yet there is also a widespread belief that there is something so special about certain cultural products and events (be they in the arts, theatre, music, cinema, architecture or more broadly in localized ways of life, heritage, collective memories and affective communities) as to set them apart from ordinary commodities like shirts and shoes.” He proceeds to describe the inherent tension between uniqueness and standardization that animates the global wine market, among others. The kind of housing Fussell describes—the decorated shed—resolves that tension, wrapping a commoditized product in packaging that references and simulates the erstwhile individuality that market pressure has wrung out of it. In cities dense enough to support high-rise apartment buildings, meanwhile, there is no need for such illusions. There, we already accept that housing is a pure commodity, a series of variously-sized boxes. Those buildings have their own unsightly facades, their own half-assed attempts to brand themselves, but as Thorstein Veblen wrote a century prior, “the needless variety of fronts presented by the better class of tenements and apartment houses in our cities is an endless variety of architectural distress…Considered as objects of beauty, the dead walls of the sides and back of these structures, left untouched by the hands of the artist, are commonly the best feature of the building.” A decorated shed is still a shed. We know that instinctively, and seem to feel relief when it’s openly acknowledged.
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