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Traditional New England mocks modern architects

Rolling over the hills of New England is a treat. At every turn in the road the perspective changes, but the barns, churches, houses, and fences always come in the right proportion and at the right location, making the scenery enchanting. It is a marvelous feeling, this being inside a painting, inside an improvised and at the same time well-conceived stage. People built those homes and fences, improvising, but using good sense.

Vermont, as do some of the Northeastern states, forbids roadside billboards. It announces hotels, restaurants, or tourist needs by well-designed placards along the way. With equal good sense and good taste, Vermont does not pack singing advertisements on the radio in between good music, probably guessing that the listeners are sensitive people.

Sad as it may be, I was frequently reminded of driving in our state of Florida. Here highways cross a landscape of subtle beauty composed of pines and orange groves with the always- magnificent presence of clouds that make the Florida landscape so unique and beautiful, unfortunately always interrupted by ugly billboards giving unwanted information. Some observe that it takes time to become mature and that Florida is still young. That may be so, but I do not agree with the implied premise that what is young cannot be good.

Next to Vermont, in the state of New York, is Saratoga Springs, a town in which at the turn of the century new millionaires built mansions to be used during the summer months. If the architecture of New England is humble, the one across the border is pretentious with the spirit of new wealth, each house trying to surpass its neighbor. The street may at first sight seem a mishmash of architectural styles, but a more-careful look discovers that it has great quality.

In a similar manner, a younger Florida had powerful people who built with quality. The Flaglers, the Deerings, the Merricks: Those were people, who with power and decision, created the structures and environments of which we are so proud today. Somehow our older Florida, in spite of its great vitality, has not done as well. New England is old, and one of its charms is its lack of vitality. There is no great desire there for renovations; as one crisscrosses those charming lands the feeling is that of entering into grandmother's bedroom, which remains as she left it and is sometimes suffocating because the windows have not been opened since.

Renovation is coming to New England, but against its will. It is probably for that reason that what is coming is not as good as it should be. G.K. Chesterton once stated his position as a conservative and added the idea that if one likes a white wall and wants to keep it white, one has to give it a frequent coat of new paint.

The New England motels and shopping centers, with their standard Florida looks, are additions of the last few years and are not exactly a complement to the peaceful, homogeneous landscape. In fact they are an intrusion; they are as well- suited as the visitor in shorts coming to the formal dinner. Those structures have not been invited, but they are there. The intrusion is not only the architecture; it is also the 20th Century, intruding into the past.

The typical New England houses painted white, with small windows protected by dark-colored shutters, are of excellent design. They were and are easy to build and easy to heat. They're the product of centuries of experiences, and they look well because they belong, perhaps not now today, but they belong there. Along came the motel designed for Florida with open corridors -- an inspiration that has become a classical standard model used in most of the country. Large windows offer you a view of the front or back of your car sitting eight feet away; you have to keep the curtains drawn lest the traffic of passing guests will know the color of your pajamas or will question why you don't wear any. The motel, a product of the automobile and semi-tropical America, sits in the hills of New England crying out for palm trees and getting instead the full thrust of high winds in zero-degree weather. In Florida we act with equal brilliance, constructing glass towers conceived as heat traps and making them sweat in the semi-tropical sun.

Man, as we all know, is the most intelligent of creations, which means that he, better than any other creature, can adapt. Man can live in igloos, in caves, and also in condominiums. No wonder millions every night can stop and rest in those motels that make no sense, particularly in New England.

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