In most university towns, the first of September marks a special festival of sorts. Lopsided couches and rickety chairs make their way out of front doors and park themselves on the curb, facing the streets to watch the procession of floor lamps, table lamps, overhead lamps, and every other lamp in between. Within arms’ reach, dressers and coffee tables, stained with the rings from wine bottles and sweating water glasses alike, prop up boxes of mismatched tableware and chipped plates and bowls. Colorful frocks mingle with rolls of fabric that once served as curtains, or rugs, or tablecloths. Everywhere, people weave, walking forward and backward, shimmying sideways.
This is the reality of move-in day, when the old lease expires and the new one begins, promising a new year of décor and roommates and commutes. In the commotion, old wall paint is marred, door frames are chipped, and floor finishes are scraped away. With every knock and thud of furniture clattering down stretches of halls and up flights of stairs, the hollow sound echoes through the walls, the acoustics distorted by patches of water damage and age. Every year, these imperfections accumulate, with little time between tenants to restore the scars from the previous year. With the demand for convenience and city dwelling on the rise, current methods of housing bulge to capacity, and in the realtor’s office, emails flash and signatures fly. There isn’t a chance for painters or cleaners unless the whole creature of a building enters hibernation.
In many neighborhoods, the solution to such saturated markets materializes in the form of scaffolding and the early morning whine of drills, punctuated by the resounding thud of demolition crews and heavy-duty hammers. Buildings slink horizontally across empty lots, settle downward until rooms are half-buried underground, or stretch upward at dizzying heights, more often than not clad in concrete and sleek glass plates and surrounded by a moat of asphalt with a few sprouting ginkgo trees. In the midst of our new and sometimes temporary neighbors, we insert and wedge ourselves in our own spatial boxes: walls, floor, ceiling, and a place to call mine.
The composition and architecture of a building is often a product of time and geography. Quintessential Bostonian row houses were built up from bricks, the walls angled to accommodate bay windows, whereas in Cape Cod, you’re more likely to see tidy wood-trimmed cottages erected from planks and coated in cheery paint. In San Francisco’s Sunset District, smooth concrete surfaces of shoulder-to-shoulder houses are painted with thick coats of pastels, as if they absorbed some of the fog over the decades, but in the Russian Hill neighborhood, the basic wall is dressed up in fluted columns and scalloped-edged trim and interwoven lattices like a debutante at a ball. Across the ocean in Japan, delicate screens of what amounts to translucent paper stand between rooms, letting sounds and light drift past, whereas in England and Germany’s drafty castles of yore, solid stacks of stone-on-stone create walls whose thickness might be better measured in meters rather than inches, creating chambers where whispers echo and bounce. At the same time, in compounds dating back to imperial China, elegantly shaped ceramic roof tiles perch in layers overhead, ending in a row of circular seals bearing characters for good fortune.
Like other physical objects that are subject to routine use, the body of a building requires maintenance, too. On wooden planks cladding the outside of a house, moss and lichen are scraped off and peeling curls of paint are sanded away along with the unruly splinters, to be dressed in a new coat of smooth, gleaming paint that not only pleases the eye but protects the vulnerable wood from the elements. Hardy, time-tested bricks shrouded in overcoats of grays and blacks can be scrubbed clean, removing decades of dark soot and grime to uncover the characteristic scarlet hues. Indoors, careless layers of soap residue alternating with speckles of dust and splatters from paint-jobs-gone-messy can be stripped until the warm glow of the original floorboards is rediscovered. Foggy windows, made tired and hazy by the after-effects of rain and condensation, can be polished until the glass surfaces squeak with protest. When the cobwebs are cleared and the dust moats are put to rest, the exteriors of our homes can return with vigor to the job of giving us a home.