In suburban castles, everyone is dispersed, the family unit fractionalized by space and time. Each family member seems to have a private asynchronous orbit, eating in solitude, watching television alone; home computers and cellphones have rendered this exile even bleaker. The house, subdivided against itself, will not stand. Alienation has no place in the home; there's enough of that elsewhere.
Inside the titanic new homes, the only refuge seems to be the kitchen, the de facto modern hearth. The kitchen offers an intimate and creative realm, a forum for sharing affection and catching up. More and more kitchens and living rooms are now joined, creating a fluid, vibrant and open environment, one that is truly alive. It's the true indoor garden.
A few years back, one lucky family won HGTV's "Dream House" Sweepstakes. The winners' euphoria soon gave way to misgiving. Ill at ease in their sprawling 6,500-square-foot Southern mansion, the parents and their two young sons were soon camping on the mezzanine of the second floor landing, itself the size of a small house.
Dwarfed by their behemoth, the family soon put it up for sale and repaired to their former bungalow back in Illinois. Meanwhile, the vacated palace proved a tough sell, miring the family in maintenance fees and taxes. A bad dream house, you might say. HGTV now offers contestants cautionary advice on the responsibilities of winning.
There will always be those who want their trophy home to reflect how far they've come: oversized icons of their affluence and success. In Seattle, an innovative, ecologically sound mega home development was created for a promotion called The Street of Dreams. In 2007, before its new owners laid down the welcome mat, the house was torched by environmental terrorists, practicing their own form of conspicuous consumption.
A bad time, like now, is a good time to home in on what we want from a house. Prices are still tumbling, and credit is tight. House-hunters are increasingly thinking small, reconsidering the charm of residences (including gardens) scaled to humans.
A family of four requires little more than 2,000 square feet. Keeping the family together begins by being together, with physical proximity. The moderate-sized house is an opportunity to reverse the recent trend: a smaller home and a larger garden taking the place of the gargantuan house and little or no garden.
Indeed, to complete the happy scene, all such a house requires is a substantial garden, with well-planned flower borders and productive vegetable and herb plots true to the character of both the local climate and particular qualities of the family, rather than the prissy tyranny of shelter magazines. If the house has curb appeal, that's just something you'll have to live with.
George Ball is chairman of W. Atlee Burpee & Co and past president of The American Horticultural Society.