Aren’t we the monsters?

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The recent letter to the editor about monster homes destroying our trees seems to have expressed a sentiment shared by many. It certainly resonated with me.

Reading the letter made me think of the nursery rhyme "This is the house that Jack built," although it ran through my mind in a slightly altered version, with words that had metamorphosed from playful into sinister: "This is the monster that built the house that killed the tree that served the birds and drew the insects that helped the plants that grew the food that fed the monster that built the house …." In this kind of a cycle, aren't we the monsters because we are allowing it to happen?

As an architectural historian and a lover of nature, the transformation of Richmond over the past decades has left me feeling disappointed and fearful. I know I am guilty of waxing nostalgic about many things (it's one of the hazards of the profession when you're a historian), but my reaction to Richmond's drastically changed cityscape and landscape goes far beyond nostalgia.

When I am on my bike running errands, I inevitably find myself riding through residential neighbourhoods consisting of street after street of look-alike, pretentious constructions, the so-called monster homes, wedged in to lots meant for houses half their size. I can't help but think that a fire in one of these would engulf the entire street in an instant, so small is the space left between them.

As for the trees orginally growing on the lot of a monster home, what fate other than destruction could have awaited them? They made it impossible to turn the paved front yard into an area negotiable by the many vehicles driven by whoever resides there. But who does reside there? I have yet to see anyone outside, or see anything that suggests there is life beyond the facades. Other than the parked cars, of course.

Occasionally I try to understand, architecturally speaking, those monstrous piles. I try "reading" them as I would a sentence, because architecture, like language, has a vocabulary. It's a vocabulary that is intended to say something. It can be pompous or modest, loud or quiet, modern or historic, etc., depending on what the architect wants to communicate. The types of doors, windows, gables, stairs, columns, arches—are some of the elements making up the vocabulary of architecture, which in combination express the style of a building.

Whenever I attempt to "read" one of the monster homes, my head spins because the vocabulary is jumbled up. It's nonsense. It's like words dumped out of a bag and strung together without regard for syntax. It boggles the mind.

Equally disturbing is the sheer size of these constructions. If, in fact, there are any people living in them, their utility bills must be astronomical. Very well, you may counter that the owners of monster homes dispose of unlimited funds, but that doesn't alter the fact that our natural resources are, by contrast, not unlimited. What will happen when they're used up? At that point, not all the funds in the world will be of any good to anyone. Will we then be crying for the tree that was killed by the monster that built the house …? Too bad. Too late.

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This page last updated: November 20, 2011.