The Ducks of Mill Basin

Michael Appleton, a Daily News photographer who shot post-Saddam Hussein Iraq, has said some of the homes remind him of minipalaces in Baghdad. Near this home there was one with a guard house and a white Rolls Royce in the drive.
At first I thought this was a shopping mall. In fact it is the 50 million dollar house of a Russian industrialist, complete with motorized gate and security guard, just out of the photo to the left.
The Senator's house which spurred my trip out to Mill Basin. A building so contrived, virtually its whole existence is as status proclamation.
The front entrance and garage doors are not wood— they're copper.
Catering hall or private residence?
In Mill Basin its not only about historical pastiche, there were quite a number of "modern" houses.
There's something 1970s ecclesiastical/synagogue about this one.
Sidewalk "parterres" on the street of mausoleums (see below). I actually really like this one.
I'd read in the New York Times about a Brooklyn Senator being investigated for corruption and incidentally they had a photo of his house. It was so outlandish, so kerazy I knew I needed to see this thing up close. So last weekend a friend and I took a drive out to the senator's neighborhood —out in far south Brooklyn adjoining Jamaica Bay. An area once known for oysters, clams and crabs, Mill Basin is now known for Greco-French Builder-Regency chateaus, bulging Juliet balconies and hypertrophied porticoes. It sent me running for my copy of Learning from Las Vegas, but more on that in a moment.

Mill Basin started off the 20th century with a lead smelting plant but up until then the shellfish were its major attraction. Landfill started the housing boom and bungalows and modest Capes —Levittown like—were built in the 1950s and 60s. Some streets still retain structures from the original building wave. One, lined with a series of spit-shined split-level shingle and brick numbers, each sporting enormous pedimented and columned entries, looked like a row of mausoleums. And that's not necessarily a criticism.

Some Things I Learned:
Mill Basin is almost preternaturally neat and tidy.
Recall The Truman Show where everything about the town is perfect—except for the fact that it's all a stage set.
While it's suburban in feel, Mill Basin is not exactly leafy
A whole lot of custom sidewalk tiling laid in lozenge patterns, and a surprising amount of topiary lend it an orchestrated Home Depot-Vaux-le-Vicomte sensibility.
Mill Basin architecture is about symbols.
As Robert Venturi et al. in Learning would have us understand, much of our country's commercial architecture and building "vernacular" is maligned because it's misunderstood.* See, the simplified story is that the big crude columns and empty historical and atemporal references of American buildings have to be B I G because they are meant to be seen and recognized from a highway, at 60 mph. The issue in Mill Basin is that the symbols of success on each and every home are meant for the neighbor across the street. Here, where the houses are built up to the very lot line, the chrome and novelty stained glass and balustrades practically assault you as you walk past. You're not protected by doing the 60 mph driveby.
Mill Basin is made up of lots o
f ducks Venturi and Co. on ducks:
Where the architectural systems of space, structure, and program are submerged and distorted by an overall symbolic form. This kind of building- becoming-sculpture we call the duck in honor of the duck shaped drive-in building on Long Island.
In other words the architectural form itself is the symbol, the meaning of the building. Like the senator's house, I would posit that many of the buildings in Mill Basin are architectural contrivances more than they are home. Their raison d'etre is to shout in the most personalized way that money can buy, "The Good Life Lived Here!"//

This sort of thing—teardowns replaced with custom-tailored stage show fantasies—is happening all over the city. Similar neighborhoods are mushrooming in Queens (see a Times piece on Bukharan Jews' architectural predilections in Forest Hills, and this new piece on the "Beverly Hills of the East Coast" in Malba). The Bukharan article especially gives some insight into the custom-paved-sidewalk mindset:
The Bukharian tendency to pave over everything is practical, he continued. Bukharians preferred a terrace or patio to a lawn, which he called “useless land.” A yard required mowing — “a waste of time,” he said.//
While doing some image research I came across Shenker Architects, a firm in Brooklyn, by way of Ukraine, that appears to do significant residential business in the High Arriviste style. From their web site:
many unexpected perspectives throughout the house were enhanced by carefully fashioned details, where design overpowers expensive materials.
*(Also because he thinks Modernists are insufferable poseurs who put one over on everybody, but you'll have to reread the book as I did to enjoy all the snide commentary.)

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