Looking around at familiar unfamiliar territory

That's what I mean about distinctive architecture.
That’s what I mean about distinctive architecture.

Oh man, I just discovered a THIRD column I forgot to post. I told you I’d been writing!

This one is one that had been boiling around in my brain for awhile. I even did a spot of original reporting and conducted an interview for it (albeit via email and the night before deadline.)

Readers curious about something as simple as “does America look the same as Australia?” may get a kick out of it.

It dawned on me sometime last week, as the two-year mark of my immigration to the U.S. rapidly approaches, that I can barely remember what it used to feel like to drive on the left side of the road, with the steering wheel on the other side of the car.

I’m sure seeing me sit and steer in the leftmost seat will be an adjustment for my mother, whose visit is another milestone that’s rapidly approaching: T-minus 19 days from publication, in fact.

For those who are unaware, Australia is one of those countries on a list of predominantly European countries whose drivers sit in what Americans know as the passenger seat. Once I finally got my license here, back in February 2014, I only had one or two mental blanks in which I opened the front-right door of my car and wondered who’d stolen my steering wheel.

But, truth be told, seating arrangements probably weren’t my biggest concern when it came time to start getting myself around central Maine and beyond. Nope. I was more worried about not being able to recognize my destinations.

That’s a strange fear indeed, but I’ll explain. A few Septembers ago, I was on vacation in Rhode Island with a good friend of mine, helping him set up his annual seafood festival. As we rode around doing errands, he asked me a question I had trouble finding the right words to respond with.

“Is this basically what Australia looks like?”

His query had me on the back foot, because it’s something I’ve pondered over for as long as I’ve been visiting the U.S., not to mention living here. I had to sit on the fence and tell him that there were similarities and differences, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on what those differences were.

I’ve been trying to pick away at the problem lately, though, and I think what it comes down to for me is, the architecture is a lot older here than it is back home. Hallowell, for example, was incorporated in 1771, a full 17 years before Australia was claimed by Captain James Cook as British sovereign land. I’ve seen so many “Welcome to…” signs on my travels through Vacationland that denote a city or town’s date of incorporation, most of them when the land Down Under was no more than an infant.

That’s part of the reason why I often have trouble identifying or recognizing my destinations: because I’m so accustomed to looking for businesses in more commercial-looking, recently built structures, I often overlook the ones that are built in beautiful, historic houses. And in this part of the world, there are a lot of those.

“The differences are primarily stylistic and material focused with the biggest being roof design and the use of brick and stone,” Portland-based architect Mark Peterson told me this week.

“We have snow in New England and flat roofs are well….flat and don’t shed snow very well.”
Makes sense to me. It even rings true to something I learned about Indonesian architecture years ago. Many of the oldest houses in that country have steeply slanted roofs for the same reason. But tropical Indonesia doesn’t get snow: it was a design throwback to some of the archipelago’s early settlers, who were Dutch.

Mr. Peterson said weather isn’t the only factor in shaping the way New Englanders built their homes, citing “economy, local resources, agriculture, family size, climate, function, available technologies [and] manufacturing.”

Climate and resources are obviously two major reasons why some Australian houses are built the way they are. A style popular in my home state of Queensland, aptly named The Queenslander, is characterized by being built over an open, empty ground level to encourage cooling airflow, with wraparound decks, wooden floorboards and often high ceilings.

In my experience – anecdotally, of course – my lack of ability to recognize buildings also applies out west, but in a different way. Having spent a couple of months living in Denver, and after staying with friends in California, I’ve noticed that everything just seems … bigger. More spread out. Even simple strip malls, which I’m more accustomed to looking like a block of Water St. in Hallowell (sans apartments), were behemoths taking up football fields’ worth of real estate.

“In the upper mid-west we have Mr. Wright’s prairie style, which has a horizontal, floating quality. In the lower mid-west there are a lot adobe type buildings built into the landscape, and California/west coast is a design lab and has historically, at least in the US, been a leader in progressive design thought,” Mr Peterson said, setting my mind at ease that my architectural cluelessness might not just afflict me.

Nowadays it seems that being green is just as crucial in building design as being able to withstand Maine’s brutal winters.

“Building envelopes are now thicker and tighter to reduce energy demands, materials are being produced with greater sensitivities to natural ecosystems and personal environments, and our perceptions of spaces we inhabit are more akin to the food we put in our bodies,” Mr. Peterson said.

“Building and design has become a science and the design world is looking more closely at natural systems and is attempting to translate the closed loop states we see in nature into our dwellings.”
If that’s the case, can you imagine how confused the next Aussie expat columnist in central Maine is going to be in 200 years’ time?


2 thoughts on “Looking around at familiar unfamiliar territory

  1. Adrian, I just read on-line that you are leaving ME. Good Luck in FL. I will miss reading your Columns. I’m originally from WTVL but currently a resident of MS. I have looked forward to reading your columns every month and look forward to following you in the future – if that is ok. What paper will you be working for? I would like to continue to read your stories. Thanks for giving me your time.

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