Saturday, December 17, 2005

Space, Wasted and Otherwise

As I mentioned in a previous post, I was pleasantly surprised that on all five flights I took during a recent cross-country trip, every passenger who sat directly in front of me kept his seat in the upright position.

That made me happy, so just to be fair, I want to mention a few things that didn't make me so happy.

First of all, one of the best things the airlines ever did was introduce the self-check-in process. Rather than wait in a long line just so an airline employee can look at your ID, punch something into a computer terminal, and then give you your boarding pass, you can now simply walk up to a self-check-in terminal, stick in your credit card, and get your boarding pass. The whole thing takes less than a minute.

Or at least it used to, when the self-check-in process was first introduced. One of the reasons it was so quick was that it was new and most people were uncomfortable with it, so they chose to wait in a long line and let an airline employee do all the work instead. But this year, the line for the self-check-in terminals was as long as the other lines. And to make things worse, people weren't very alert about looking for available terminals. I think the woman a few people in front of me must have been waiting for a terminal to announce "Next customer, please" or something like that, because she stood at the front of the line even though several terminals were available. If I hadn't managed to get her attention and point to one of the empty terminals, she'd probably still be waiting in line today.

I can't blame the airline for that, obviously -- there's no law that says morons can't fly, nor do I think there should be. So it was annoying, but we live in a world full of morons, so I'm sure we're all used to that sort of thing. Here's what annoyed me more: When I went through the self-check-in process, I was given the opportunity to upgrade my seat to one with more legroom. As far as I'm concerned, you can never have too much legroom, and the cost of the upgrade was pretty reasonable, so I decided to pay for it. I ended up with a seat two rows in front of my original seat, and when I got aboard the plane, it was obvious that each seat had exactly the same amount of legroom. When I returned home, I tried to get the airline to refund my money, but they haven't done it yet and I don't think they ever will.

Another thing that annoyed me is that you now apparently have to pay extra for in-flight meals. I don't know how widespread this is, since I have only one flight to base it on. (None of the other flights included meals). On this one particular flight, they announced that breakfast could be ordered for $5. I decided to pass, as did many of the other passengers. Airline food isn't known for being particularly tasty, so I don't know why anyone would voluntarily pay for it. Still, I would have eaten it if it were free, so that was annoying. I can't really fault the airline, however -- it's United Airlines, which has been in bankruptcy for years, so maybe they saw this as a way of recouping a small portion of their losses.

This was a morning flight, by the way, but that didn't stop them for offering beer and wine. It wasn't free -- it never is in the main cabin. I don't have any objection to people drinking alcohol whenever they want to, but what I wonder is, who really needs a beer at nine in the morning? And I wouldn't go as far as saying that the airline is actively encouraging people to drink in the early morning hours, but if there's a message to infer from this, what could it be? I think the message is, "Drink all you want. Sure it's early, but you're on vacation, so live it up a little. Just remember, it's $5 a drink."

Speaking of messages, I don't know if you ever watch HGTV, but they have a lot of shows about people who are remodeling their houses. One of the current trends is to create luxury bathrooms -- bathrooms the size of bedrooms, furnished with huge picture windows and bathtubs with the same water capacity as small swimming pools.

Where I live, and in many other places as well, low-flush toilets are mandatory. And by "mandatory," I mean that they're required for any new construction or remodeling. Whether that's a good law or not, the idea is to reduce needless water consumption. My kitchen faucet even has a built-in regulator that restricts water flow -- again, for the purposes of water conservation. But if we're so concerned about saving water, why do we allow these huge wasteful bathtubs to be used? I'm not saying we should ban them; I'm just saying our laws should be consistent -- otherwise the people who make these laws are sending us a mixed message.

By the way, I don't get the whole "picture window in the bathroom" concept at all, especially since the windows never have curtains or drapes or blinds. Granted, it might be nice to look out a huge window while you're taking a bath or doing whatever else you do in the bathroom, but one of the characteristrics of windows is that they tend to be made out of glass, and one of the characteristics of glass is that if you can look through it, so can someone else on the opposite side of the glass. Maybe I'm just overly bashful, but there are times when I want a little privacy.

Of course, I think the whole idea of luxury bathrooms is misguided and stupid. But the people who want them are always saying they want their bathroom to be more like a spa or a retreat. Why? Who wants to spend all their time in the bathroom, no matter how nice it is? Not me.

This is all part of a larger architectural trend, of course -- the trend toward turning every room into a multi-purpose room. Master bedrooms are no longer just a place to sleep -- they're now "private sanctuaries" (to use another term I got from HGTV). And kitchens are no longer primarily used for cooking -- they're now used for entertaining as well. To be fair, kitchens have changed a lot over the years. They were always used for cooking, but they quickly became a place for informal dining as well. And they used to be closed off -- presumably so you could prepare food without disturbing your guests with all the smoke and noise and whatever else -- but in the last fifty years or so, they've opened up. They've been combined with family rooms for a long time, but the kitchen part of the room was still fairly distinct. And it was devoted exclusively to cooking -- it's only in recent years that kitchens have been designed to be entertainment areas as well.

I'm not complaining, by the way -- I'm merely observing. The way people live in their houses changes over time, so it's only natural that the way houses are designed should change as well. I used to think that all houses should have a formal dining area in addition to an informal one. I used to think that all houses should have a living room as well as a family room (mostly because I don't think televisions belong in the living room). But different people have different needs, and houses shouldn't force them to live one way or another. As a matter of fact, I have a formal dining area that I've never used, and living room that I rarely venture into. It makes the house look nicer, but for the way I live, it's just a lot of unnecessary space.

What I don't like is the trend toward making houses bigger and bigger, and the deliberate wasting of space (as exemplified by luxury bathrooms). Fortunately, there's a small but growing counter-trend. As a matter of fact, I read an article recently about an architect named Doug Rucker who's more interested in designing beautiful efficient living spaces than in creating oversized wasteful "McMansions." He's the kind of architect I would hire if I were building a house, because he also believes that architecture should reflect its time and place. In other words, he doesn't like the idea of building pseudo-Colonial mansions or pseudo-Mediterranean villas. Everywhere I look, all the new houses are bad imitations of these outdated styles and others, so it's nice to know there are a few architects with progressive ideas as well.

I remember reading something Buckminster Fuller once said about how houses are built. It was decades ago, so I don't really remember it, and I couldn't even tell you where I read it, but it was something to the effect that most houses are built inefficiently compared to ships and airplanes, in which great attention is paid to the economical use of materials and space. His point is a good one, and it would make the world a better place if the people who design houses took his words to heart. On the other hand, the people who design airplanes probably shouldn't be so economical with space, at least as far as legroom is concerned.