American individualism and the built environment

My parents downsized a few years ago to a townhouse. Like many such arrangements they are part of a neighborhood association which collects dues and maintains a fairly strict covenant. It’s been a very good move for them in general, in large part so my father wouldn’t have to worry about things like lawn care and snow removal.

Not everyone, not surprisingly, respects the covenant equally however. The couple in the unit adjacent to my parents’ recently installed white replacement windows. The association bylaws explicitly require brown trim around all windows. A year before that, the same couple added new fencing which ties into a nearby fence owned by the middle school, also a violation.

There is recourse written into the covenant, but no one wants to make waves. They have to live next to these people, after all, and litigation isn’t as fun as some people make it out to be. It’s been brought up in meetings and mentioned to the offenders. They feign ignorance in response, make seemingly vacant promises to rectify the issue and then go on with life.

The Architecture of Happiness points out that “The problem with unrestricted choice, however, is that it tends not to lie so far from outright chaos.” The author runs with this them for a number of pages.

Is personal expression at odds with order? Is an eclectic built environment less attractive than a planned, or even just guided, space? Is what differentiates chaos from order merely a matter of personal preference?

These are the kinds of questions The Architecture of Happiness seems to be aiming at as I get a little farther into the book. Being a designer and artist and someone who is keenly aware of his surroundings in general, I undoubtedly tend towards an ordered environment. However, I believe in what might appear to be a middle ground, where variety thrives within a visual program — or where a visual program promotes and directs variety.

Photo from Wikipedia


About pcNielsen
Paul Nielsen founded The Aesthetic Elevator late in 2005. He owns a piece of paper, located somewhere in his house (not on the wall), stating that he earned a B.F.A. from the University of Nebraska around about 2001. While there, he studied studied architecture, graphic design and ceramics, graduating with a degree in studio art. Paul presently serves as communications manager for a small non-profit doing their print design and marketing. He spends as much time sculpting in his studio as possible — which is not nearly enough. Visit his website at

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