|This house on Pilot House Road in West Vancouver is proof of E.M. Forster's contention that small houses can out-charm big ones. John took this photo in 1978; the house has since been replaced by . . . a very big one.|
[Margaret] remembered again that ten square miles are not ten times as wonderful as one square mile, that a thousand square miles are not practically the same as heaven. The phantom of bigness, which London encourages, was laid forever when she paced from the hall at Howards End to its kitchen and heard the rains run this way and that where the watershed of the roof divided them. (Howards End, E.M. Forster, 1921)
I may fantasize about living in a rambling old mansion, but my favourite living spaces have always been small. I could stand in the middle of my childhood bedroom and touch both walls. A later studio apartment, no bigger than today's walk-in closets, was as cozy as a nest. The cottage I live in now is so small that I can lie in bed and see diagonally across the house to the far corner of the living room. There is no entrance hall; you come up the front steps, open the door, and you're smack in the living room.
Howards End, the house in E.M. Forster's 1921 novel of the same name, is small too, at least in the eyes of the wealthy city-dwelling protagonists. Located outside London in an idyllic rural setting, Howards End is a symbol of nature, soulfulness and connection to the past -- everything the burgeoning, money-grubbing, soul-less city is not. Only those with imagination and humanity can appreciate it; its charm is lost on its business-is-everything owners.
I was struck by Forster's focus on the size and simplicity of Howards End because of the obsession with size in Vancouver's current crazy real-estate market. While houses five times as big as the little prairie farmhouse I grew up in are springing up all over, at the other end of the scale are mass developments of tiny condominium units barely big enough for couples, let alone families.
A former colleague who grew up in a similar house to the one I did thinks we should just be more sensible. Build smaller houses on small lots, each with a bit of yard, because families really do want some outdoor space, urges Brian Morton in a March 20 Vancouver Sun article. Have kids share bedrooms like they used to. Have only one bathroom instead of three or four. Have a small kitchen and one eating area, not two. Ditch apartment-size garages, unnecessary in our climate.
Instead of 3,000- to 5,000-square-foot houses that most people can't afford, or tiny, land-less condos that families don't want, why not build 1,200-square-foot detached houses on small lots that people can afford and families will want?
Even Margaret, Forster's wealthy Londoner who falls in love with Howards End as the rain pelts down on the roof, realizes that other things matter far more than size.