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Handmade Places b y j i l l n o ke s

An extensive network of elevated birdhouses rises from the front yard of Sam and Lupe Mireles in San Antonio. Sam Mireles has been making the ornate aluminum birdhouses, many adorned with pagoda roofs, turrets, and crenellated parapets, for more than 50 years; photo by Krista Whitson, AIA.

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Not so ver y long ago, almost ever yone in America participated in the familiar activity of building. Whether it was making a cabin or corral, barn or hen house, expressing one’s life through shaping space was a common activity. Even plain, utilitarian structures often bore the imprint of their maker, perhaps by something as simple as initials carved on a beam or a special stone laboriously positioned as a fireplace mantle. However, because building technology has become so complex, we now rely almost entirely on professionals for both design and construction. Yet yards and gardens remain among the few realms where people with ordinary means and skills can shape space with their own hands to create a personal expression that is visible to all.

Today, most new residential constr uction adheres to rules enforced by homeowner associations or deed restrictions that dictate paint colors, plant selections, and maintenance guidelines intended to protect property values. But security, orderliness, and predictability are benefits that come with a price: increasingly generic or homogenous landscapes, less understanding and tolerance of “outsiders,” and even a diminished sense of community and long-term attachment. In contrast, the homeowners I encountered during the field research for my book Yard Art and Handmade Places: Extraordinary Expressions of Home demonstrate that the garden can be a powerful gesture of hospitality and sociability. Such gardens provide an intermediate zone between the house and the street where neighbors and strangers alike can meet and interact. When we view these places only as curiosities, or focus attention mainly on the assembly of material objects, we distance ourselves from the makers and reduce their achievement to something that seems merely peculiar or sentimental. Hearing the stories of the makers of extraordinary yards and gardens helps explain, as cultural geographer Robin Doughty writes, how “human industry transforms a location, a given space, into place, a repository of meaning.” In this context, the idea of home is more than just real estate and property values. Instead, it is seen a something my thic, something remembered and yearned for. At their best, these handmade places become an important contribution by an individual and family to a life-affirming social order. My book is an invitation to a different kind of garden tour, one that shows special places irrevocably tied to the sense of belonging. Jill Nokes is an Austin-based landscape designer. Yard Art and Handmade Places, her second book, will be published in 2007 by UT Press. Krista Whitson, AIA, was the book’s principal photographer. Images from the book will be exhibited next year at the San Angelo Museum of Art.

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Texas Architect Nov/Dec 2006: Place Making