Open Concept and Other Concepts
About three years ago I had a baby. And six months ago I had another. Both babies ate voraciously, every two hours or so, for the first six to eight weeks. It was insane. It was like doing something non-stop and not doing anything at all. My brain was on fire and it needed soothing. I turned to Netflix. I turned to Felicity, Gilmore Girls, Top of the Lake, Sherlock, Restaurant Nightmares, Friends, Luther, Parenthood, The Office, etc. As I fed my babies I watched one episode after another. I paused whenever they were done and we resumed when they were again hungry. Time stood still and it moved forward. And now that my new baby is not eating as often I have more time to think about what I’m watching, to savor the simplicity of things being resolved in twenty-two minutes or thirty minutes or an hour.
Most recently I watched one season each of House Hunters and House Hunters International. Both shows have a straightforward concept – a realtor shows a client (usually a married couple) three different properties that attempt to wed their wish list of home features and amenities with the realities of their budget. No property is perfect and concessions must be made, and the clients must decide what vision / desires for their home-life they can let go off and what they cannot. The show is life simplified. It is kind of mindless. I could imagine taking a really good nap with House Hunters on in the background. There’s just something so calm and peaceful about it.
And yet, turned another way, the show does a decent job of showcasing what we in America have come to expect from our homes. The desire to “go west” is now more myth than ever, but the long sowed seeds of the obsession with space and the need to posses it is very much alive in our home buying psyche.
Space, space, space. It appears that we want more space. I could be wrong, but in the fifty episodes of HH and HHI that are available on Netflix, not one person was looking to downsize their living space. Everyone wanted more space and they wanted the “open concept” version of it. Walls were constantly in the process of being knocked down to make room for openness and to create a flow from one living space to the next and to let the person who cooks be a part of the action with the creation of an open kitchen that opens into the living rom. This obsession of joining the party while cooking would be funny if most of the people raising this complaint were not women, which somehow makes this sad and weird – so we are still stuck in the kitchen after all these years? Oy.
Connie, coming off of a divorce and wanting to buy a cottage (HH episode 11, “Fresh Start On A Tiny Budget”) spends the entire episode blocking out the complaints of her adult daughter who insisted that each of the three properties she looked at were too small. I think Connie’s was the only episode where the buyer was specifically looking for a small space. Contrast that with my favorite couple, Joshua and Tracy (HH episode 20 “Low Budget Blues in Memphis”), who were stuck on finding a home with double front doors and an extra tall entryway. Also, they wanted a bedroom with enough space for a breakfast nook. I’m all about convenience and have been known to eat pasta in bed, so I was surprised and delighted to see this desire articulated. We want all kinds of space – horizontal, vertical, and new space that previously had no reason for existing.
The space obsession comes further into focus when we move to House Hunters International. Here, American space standards are transposed onto the realities of living in places such as Vilnius, Lithuania (HHI episode 1, “Racing Back to Vilnius”), Brussels (HHI episode 3, “Being Belgian in Brussels”), and Panguipulli, Chile (HHI episode 14 “Back to Nature in Chile”). It is not just that smaller living spaces are the standard – and many spaces in South American and Eastern Europe are smaller simply because they are older than America herself – it is also the lack of amenities that shock Americans looking to live abroad. Dishwashers are rare, as are washers and dryers, or at least it is hard to find the trifecta of these all under one roof. Things are smaller, more compacts, and in general there seems to be less focus on convenience, much to the chagrin of most of the house hunters.
Even the people who are brave enough to strike out in search of adventure and what must be super difficult renovation projects (HHI episode 2, “Building a New Beginning,” in which Chris and Michelle renovate a crumbling villa in Majorca), seem to be looking for a replica of the house they are leaving behind. I felt genuinely sad for Karin (HHI 3) as she searched for a home in Paris that closely matched the one she left behind in Minnesota.
It is also interesting to note that the show manages to feature men and women with fairly stereotypical gender-normative attributes. Men are looking for homes that are practical and budget-friendly, and women want character and quirkiness and charm. Women do not like the color of the paint in the living room, but men worry about getting to poop in private (HH episode 1, “Long and Quirky Wish List in Utah.” Really, in this episode Troy just can’t let go of his desire to have a toilet that is somehow enclosed and separated from the rest of the bathroom.) Women’s concerns are aesthetic, while men’s are structural. Women want a good place to home school their kids while men just want an air-conditioned shed (HH episode 14, “Pretty or Practical in Phoenix”).
Above all, it is hard to escape a sense of privilege when watching fellow Americans move sideways and up the economic ladder. It is heartening to see the delight of one couple in finding a home with a dishwasher in Ireland (HHI episode 25, “Belfast and Furious”) and disturbing to see another lament the small size of a gorgeous home that sits in the middle of a vineyard (HH episode 23, “Napa Valley Dream Home”).
Our wants are simple. Or they are not. Our desires are practical. Or they are ostentatious. In the end of each episode, the new homeowners invite friends over for a slightly awkward and staged get-together where they explain how much they love their new home. And for the most part it seems like they believe that. House Hunters is a twenty-one minute glimpse into the home buying process that in real life can take years. How interesting to see this boiled down to twenty-one stress-free minutes. Next time you need some tonic for the brain or a good nap, tune in to watch a few episodes of this weird weird show.