Welcome to my garage

I had a friend once who collected recordings of novelty songs: "They Don't Make Nun Names Like They Used To," "The Homecoming Queen's Got a Gun," songs like that. Don't know how long it had been since I'd thought about my friend -- Joe -- until just the other day, when I was driving around Birmingham. I couldn't help remembering one of Joe's favorites, "I Like Them Big and Stupid." That's a pretty good description of what passes for residential architecture in Birmingham these days.

"The thing that attracted them here is what they're destroying." So says one resident, referring to recent building projects. And who might "they" be, and how can they get away with destroying a tony place like Birmingham? Depends on who you ask, but if the person doing the talking is the owner of an old bungalow-style house -- the kind that gives Birmingham its distinctive, small-town identity -- chances are "they" are the builders who buy up older homes, tear them down and then put up big, boxy hulks in their place, with walls pushed practically to the property line.

How come "they" can get away with this? (In other suburbs, Huntington Woods, for instance, they couldn't.) Again, the answer depends on your viewpoint, but if you own a piece of the old Birmingham, it might look like it's simply a matter of money and lax zoning restrictions. Old houses go for maybe $300,000 or so, but one of the replacement homes might have a price three or four times that, which means a lot of extra cash in the city coffers at tax time. So, you cut the builders a little slack, ease up on the building codes, look the other way when new construction causes damage to the far less taxable, older properties.

Small price to pay for progress. Right? Wrong, if you're one of the people who was attracted to Birmingham in the first place because of its unique character. It's near a big city, but seems more like a village, with leafy streets, neighbors who actually know the people next door, residents who sit on their porches. Precisely the kinds of things that "new urbanists" are busily reinventing in gated enclaves across the country. But in Birmingham, everything was there already. Until "they" showed up.

And "they" are everywhere. Drive down any street and you'll see new construction sites, contractors' portable toilets parked out at the sidewalks, big heaps of building materials, basement excavations that turn once-upon-a-time lawns into gaping money pits -- with more coming all the time. The community consists of 7,000 single-family houses. In 1997, 22 permits for demolition were issued; so far this year, there have been 45, more than twice as many.

But enough about politics. What has this "strip mining" of the past produced architecturally, to use one resident's name for what's been going on?

Putting the best face possible on things, the net result has been undistinguished. The problem here is not so much a failure of imagination as a near total lack of it. The new places are big, about that there's no arguing, and modern (for the most part). But to what end? There's almost no attempt on the part of builders to create an architecture compatible with the vernacular, bungalow style (and scale) that characterizes a lot of old Birmingham. Nor is there an attempt to use the differences posed by contemporary building to open a dialogue with the architectural past of the city.

What you get instead are a whole lot of big, stupid hunks of expensively contained space, parked right at the sidewalk, dwarfing the scale of everything around them. These are houses with no fronts, no good sides. The concrete driveway takes the place of the yard; gaping garage doors replace the outmoded front porch. The net result is a streetscape that's fast becoming the architectural equivalent of a proctology exam: Up yours!

If walls could talk -- and these certainly seem to -- what else could they possibly be saying? It's an odd place, a real novelty, just like the songs my friend Joe used to like.

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