The $475,000 dog house is but one sign of what went wrong with our own late, great Guilded Age of architecture

The recent era of egregious consumer and corporate excess, now crashing down around our ears, is leaving behind many architectural reminders of itself. But for sheer egregiousness, few will ever beat a new residence being built near the English town of Cirencester.

It’s a $475,000 dog house.

Designed by British architect Andy Ramos, this residence will shelter a pair of Great Danes belonging to a surgeon, whose own luxurious house is to be constructed nearby.

The kennel details, as reported by the London-based Mail on Sunday newspaper, are fascinating.

The three-room dog house (two bedrooms and a lounge) will be outfitted with temperature-controlled sheepskin beds, a spa, an expensive hi-fi system, and a 52-inch plasma television set.

A retina scan at the entrance will enable the owner to keep out dogs who might try to pay unauthorized visits to the Great Danes. Closed-circuit TV cameras will provide the owner with round-the-clock surveillance of the dogs’ comings and goings between their house and their adventure playground.

A spokesman for the exclusive real estate development where the dog house will stand told The Mail: “People can design their own homes and this is a bit eccentric but it’s really nice that someone appreciates their pets as much as this lady does. She’s designed their quarters with all their needs at the fore.”

It would be easy, of course, to laugh off Mr. Ramos’s dog house as another folly of the extravagant age we live (or lived) in, then forget about the matter. If, that is, the pooch palace were merely an isolated architectural instance of some rich person’s silliness. It’s not.

Since the outset of the financial boom late in the last century, the landscapes of city and country (and the pages of the architecture magazines) have been littered with over-the-top residential extravaganzas that, despite their usually huge, overscaled size, are very often puny in artistic inspiration and ambition. The dog house is one example. There are many others.

But look-at-me, ostentatious bloat is only one part of the problem. There’s the issue of our period style, which has largely been a kind of imitative bombast.

Instead of encouraging innovative solutions to the old problem of housing, nouveau-riche clients in Britain and North America put architects to work designing lifeless, inflated pastiches of country homes in Georgian, French provincial or some other supposedly “aristocratic” manner. Everything got recycled into the new rural products — ponderous columns, architraves and pediments and entablature and the other bric-a-brac of classicism — but the results rarely sang with the elegance and flair of the originals.

Hitting the cities, the impact of this parody of ye-olde styles has been especially unfortunate. Take a drive through Toronto’s Forest Hill or York Mills or any other well-off neighbourhood in the city to see what I’m talking about. Hulking monster homes mar the streetscapes of modest Edwardian buildings (in Forest Hill) or spacious, mid-20th-century bungalows (in York Mills).

Massive, pretentious facades cobbled from remnants in the Tudor or Elizabethan or Georgian scrapyard glower out at pleasant streets that ask to be lined (and were, at least until the monster houses began to intrude) by far more retiring residences.

But if the latter-day crop of millionaires and billionaires have turned out to be aficionados of the overblown, it’s not possible to draw a necessary connection between wealth and bad taste.

The grandees of the old Georgian period (roughly 1714-1830, during the reigns of the British Georges I-IV) patronized the most advanced and intelligent architects of the day, who provided them with magnificent country seats and city mansions.

Frank Lloyd Wright was wildly successful among rich American businessmen, and even the radical Le Corbusier, a few decades later in Europe, found numerous rich private clients for his splendid experiments in residential architecture.

So what went wrong in the Gilded Age of our own century? I think it was a fateful convergence of the enormous growth of personal wealth, a widespread lack of constraint — the same failure of personal discipline and acceptance of limits that has fuelled the current economic crisis — and contempt for the human scale and visual fabric of the city, especially its streetscapes and the rhythms of its ordinary built forms.

This summing-up of the situation is, I know, a minority position, and many will disagree with it. If you think there is nothing wrong with constructing a dog house for half a million dollars, or dropping an ugly Tudor castle-gate on one of Toronto’s quiet Edwardian streets, I certainly could never convince you otherwise. But it may well be that the years of building such things are now over, and I, for one, am not sorry to see them go.

by JOHN BENTLEY MAYS
From Friday’s Globe and Mail
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December 5, 2008