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Building Blots

By C.D. Payne

HOW DO YOU FIND the school of architecture at American universities? Simple. Just look for the ugliest building on campus and there you are. I'm not sure when architecture in this country hit the downside of the roller coaster (1945? 1960?), but all around us is evidence that the decline is accelerating. From garish McMansions along the ridgetops, to sprawling tract developments, to the latest asphalt-girdled strip malls and big-box stores, the landscape is disappearing under a sea of instant eyesores.

Developers face so much opposition these days because the public cynically (and, alas, rightfully) assumes that what is being proposed is more of the same visual blight.

Two recent developments in Sebastopol illustrate this trend.

On the south end of town, a hill was bulldozed to make way for a grotesque barn of a hotel, planted cheek to jowl with a warren of ersatz Victorians overlooking the hotel's parking lot. Now the last remaining open space on the property is being filled with what looks like military housing.

On the other end of town, an old apple orchard has given way to a ski chalet run amuck--apparently designed as a showcase for acres of black-asphalt roofing shingles. One can only wonder if the architect designed those stupendous, steeply raked, and in-your-face gables to shed Sonoma County's anticipated winter snow loads.

The same aesthetic myopia has struck our home builders.

Once houses for the affluent (and the less affluent) aspired to a certain sober dignity. Now Las Vegas-style grandiosity is the name of the game, as cheap truss-framed roofs convolute crazily, windows of all shapes and sizes multiply at random in the facade, faux Greco-Roman porticos rise from spindly 4x4s, and ceilings reach heights formerly considered appropriate only for airport terminals. All that's lacking is a whooping slot machine in the "great room." Welcome to your local developer's vision of the good life in Sonoma County circa 2001.

Thousands of new homes and buildings will be going up here in the next few years. How many of them will add to the beauty and quality of life of Sonoma County? Is anyone asking that question--say, for instance, the Rohnert Park city officials now hustling through the proposed new Costco?

Ah, yes, yet another architectural gem to look forward to.


C. D. Payne, a Sebastopol resident and author of the Nick Twisp novels and other books, has strong opinions about the structure of things.

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From the August 2-8, 2001 issue of the Northern California Bohemian.

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