“Many Mansions”

In Excerpts on January 21, 2011 at 10:43 am

Joan Didion has a knack for hearing the unspoken. A knack that has less to do with listening and more with living. Being around. Being out, and being in at the right times. Usually such people aren’t particularly skilled at this; it’s simply how life operates for them. It comes naturally, and this naturalness only enhances it. Bends life even tighter around them.

The essay “Many Mansions,” from The White Album, is a great study of our contemporary built environment, seen through the lens of a single residence: the home built for California governors by Ronald and Nancy Reagan in 1975. It was never finished; Jerry Brown refused to live in it when he took office.

Here are a few of Didion’s thoughts, each a testament to her ear for the built environment’s quiet subtexts and her keen synthesis of them.

“‘Flow’ is a word that crops up quite a bit when one is walking through the place, and so is ‘resemble.’ The walls ‘resemble’ local adobe, but they are not: they are the same concrete blocks, plastered and painted a rather stale yellowed cream, used in so many supermarkets and housing projects and Coca-Cola bottling plants. The door frames and the exposed beams ‘resemble’ native redwood, but they are not: they are construction-grade lumber of indeterminate quality, stained brown.”

She continues, cutting the meaning of the house open, a metaphysical cross-section:

“The place has been called…a ‘Taj Mahal.’ It has been called a ‘white elephant,’ a ‘resort,’ a ‘monument to the colossal ego of our former governor.’ It is not exactly any of these things. It is simply and rather astonishingly an enlarged version of a very common kind of California tract house, a monument not to a colossal ego but to a weird absence of ego, a case study in the architecture of limited possibilities…flattened out, mediocre and ‘open’ and as devoid of privacy or personal eccentricity as the lobby area in a Ramada Inn. It is the architecture of ‘background music,’ decorators, ‘good taste.'”

The “architecture of background music.” What a great description for the ubiquitous non-places we encounter every day. If you want to read the whole thing, it’s only a few pages long; full text here.

  1. […] Jan. 21 “Many Mansions” :: Joan Didion explores the never-lived-in governor’s residence outside Sacramento […]

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