Are we happy with our habitats? It seems like every time I turn on the TV, read a newspaper or even get the mail out of the letter box I’m accosted by beautiful images of luxurious interiors, perfectly lit exteriors or before and after shots of living spaces that hold the promise of a better life for me too, if only I’d embrace the dream. Someone looked at the fireplace at my last house and said, “Gee that would come up really well if you replaced/re tiled/refurbished/updated/polished it” I looked at my fireplace, with its carpet covered concrete at the front, loose tiles and wobbly shelf and thought to myself, “If I touch a brick, surely the whole thing will collapse?” Clearly I’m not a renovator. But what are we seeking with the promise of life in a better, a more beautiful, a more up to date house? And is there an end to it?
Visitors come to my home and see the threadbare carpet, the cracked walls and the holes in the deck outside. We have a lovely overgrown vegetable garden too, overgrown with every species of local weed that can be imagined. Many of the visitors have renovated their own homes already. If you have a lot of money (like many things in life) you can throw cash at the house and fix it pretty quickly, in the same way that throwing cash at anything fixes it. Or if you don’t you can take your time, spend your free days working on it yourself and co-opt the help of friends and family to get the job done. People who do this are very dedicated to the completion of the task and have a long view of the effort and costs required to complete the job. Or, like one family I know, you can put together your plans, submit them to your local council, get them approved and then proceed to sell your house because suddenly you found a better one already renovated just the way you like and save yourself a lot of heart ache.
This all raises the question, not so much of how one should live – although this is very much a part of it – but how much one should live with yesterday’s architecture, yesterday’s styling, less fashionable, perhaps outdated and worn houses and their contents. Are we all subject to keeping up with the Jones’s? What if we’re happy enough how we are? What if we see better uses for our money (if we have it) than to spend it updating our abodes?
Renovating costs a lot of money. And if you live in a city with skyrocketing real estate then it’s going to cost you even more money. There is the cost of architects, draughts people, council and state fees for applications, the cost of labour and the cost of building materials. The prices for these are subject to change as typically renovations always seem to run into problems, often associated with the weather…
What can’t be costed in however, is the desire for change to which humans are subject. If change and variability are the basic stuff our lives, then our desire to reshape our houses, refashion our dwellings and remodel our homes comes as no surprise. Change is hard wired into our selves, and even further, it is our diverse response to change and novelty that marks us as human.
Our relation to the things in our lives is moderated by our desire to interact with those things and experience our lives as improved, different and closer to an ideal because of this, and so too is this reflected in our relation to our environs. We need change in our lives as change refreshes us, refreshes our perspective and our relations to things and to each other. We are literally reinvented by novelty. It is not enough to clean the house (which is after all, a form of refashioning), but much better to both clean and re arrange, re shape, re model and thrust ourselves into a changed environment in order to experience ourselves anew.
Gardens, which were once places to run around in, grab some sun and performed a functional as well as recreational aspect have also been made anew. They are now exemplars of sumptuous landscaping, textures, materials and vistas often reflecting cultural borrowing that create an environment of luxury, of holidays, or of whichever state of mind you care to name: jungle, kids playground, retreat, garden nook, native garden, formal garden, kitchen garden, formal or informal entertainment area, office/library/meditation room with or without decks, parkland, botanical garden, tropical garden or simply backyard. And this too is dependent upon your cultural background.
In Australia we decry those neighbours who want to cut down all the trees in their backtyards, leaving the cityscape as one bereft of greenery. We look on in horror as gardens are removed and tiles put down to mimic the courtyards of back home, the landscapes that are reflected in the garden areas of homes from the Middle East, from Europe, from the UK. Gardens for some are what you put in a big pot outside. For others, its fruit trees in miniature while for others it’s nothing less than roses climbing the front of the house and lavender adorning the drive. We all do this: I remember sitting under Eucalypts in Europe, munching on leaves and thinking of home.
But the garden is one aspect, it’s not really renovation as anyone can meander into a garden and start work on it with a garden tool. But home renovation has a sense of permanence about it that is not seen in spadework in the vege patch. It usually requires concrete, that of the metaphoric and the real kind. Changes are wrought for permanence, to match the temperament, mood and budget of the person seeking to remodel themselves. Aren’t our environments a reflection of ourselves? If a handbag says something about my bodily maintenance then what does my house and garden tell you about me?
People in the street in which I live have recently begun renovations. We’ve witnessed the thinking, planning and submitting. We’ve marvelled at the quickness of demolition, at the slowness to start of the building phase. We’ve had conversations about the progress but declined to inspect the premises that are half what they used to be. And I kind of like the sunshine and sky that come into my kitchen window right now, now that the back of their place has been knocked down.
And much like the renovation shows that entertain me so well on TV, I expect that this renovation will be complete in 60 minutes and that we can all move on to the next phase of our relations. I can’t really fathom why people want to talk about renovations at length and for so long. After all, it’s just a house. We’re not changing the world. But as humans interacting with and upon our everyday environments, we are changing the world, aren’t we?