What style is it?
This weekend I rode a yellow school bus from La Crosse to Madison (long story) and was seated next to a friendly and very chatty retired school teacher. When I told her I worked for a local architect doing mostly residential work she immediately asked me, “oh, what style of houses do you design?” Good question.
Note: I think I’ll approach this post more as a comment than a full on rant. The question of style is of apparently great importance to the house-buying public and of very little interest to me other than as it concerns everyone else’s interest. What makes a good house has little to do with a gambrel roof or bastardized Tudor half-timbering. Still what the thing looks like seems to be the first thing that people think of when they consider a house.
Applying a “style” to the exterior of a building (and by that I mean both inside and out, not the facades alone) while using a basic contemporary plan and idea of rooms is an idea that’s been around since the 1800s and certainly continues today. In America we place even more importance on the appearance of our homes than in other western countries. Perhaps this heightened concern has to do with the fact that we Americans are all more or less rootless. Our histories are less embedded in place than our contemporaries in other places. Therefore, “a house not only provides shelter; it informs neighbors and passersby of its inhabitants wealth, taste and degree of conformity to community values.” But this can easily carry over into meaninglessness. This is often carried too far in modern America. Houses are “built from standard plans designed for a generic site, with a colonial shell -pick your colony – enveloping an attempt at a modern floor plan. The exterior and interior, the form and function no longer relate.”1
Well, what style did you want?
Style over substance is, after all, what most people seem to want. Last summer, at a family reunion in Middle America, WI, I was cornered by second cousin in-law who asked a few mildly interested questions about my design firm and then told me in a lowered voice (as if sharing some secret and key piece of design-business acumen) that many contractors in cities just have a few house patterns that they build over and over. “Well”, I was tempted to reply, “I bet they’re producing a really quality product … and that it contribute at all to the glut of ticky-tacky crap that has sunk the American housing market as effectively as a pair of concrete shoes.” The fact that all those efficiently similar houses are designed poorly, constructed from cheap materials and basically start depreciating in value from the moment the front door is installed did not concern my cousin in the least. Obviously, I didn’t say any of those things out loud; one doesn’t doesn’t speak one’s mind at family reunions. But I can relieve my feelings somewhat by posting about it.
To illustrate my point I here turn to John Milnes Baker’s delightful little book American House Styles: A Concise Guide. There are too many of this type of housing style taxonomy books to count; most are aimed at laypeople interested identifying the “style” of their own home. I own several myself, each with varying degrees of historical analysis and attractive drawings. This one is a bit different, however. The author is a residential architect and seems to have done a brisk trade through his career in applying various dream “styles” to pretty conventional house plans.
Any style you like, apparently.
Baker chose to do his Guide to Residential Style somewhat differently than the norm. Instead of making sketches of existing houses from all over the country marked neatly with dates, locations and a little analysis appended, he includes one floor plan at the beginning of the book and then demonstrates how it could be grown up from the ground into all the typical period “styles” of American history. His final section covers the mass housing of this past century. He shows a generic house plan (see thumbnail below). Note the attached garage (as you wouldn’t be able to tell it was an American house without one).
For this single plan he creates a host of little thumbnail elevation sketches – these images are scans of drawings I copied into my pocket sketchbook but they are fairly faithful copies of the book’s. The following text is quoted. Uncharacteristically I didn’t note page numbers but the passages are easily identified by their historical period.2
Minimalist Traditional 1935-1950: “The compromise of the depression years. Usually one story or one and a half stories, multi-gabled with little or no decorative details.
Related to the Neocolonial Revival 1950-1970′s: “The real-estate developer’s staple, they are usual pale reflections of the original prototypes. Roof pitches are usually too low and windows badly proportioned. … with aluminum siding, fixed vinyl blinds and a little brick veneer to dress up the entrance they are the quintessential ‘phony colonies.’”
Builder’s Contemporary 1960-1985: “… simplified details and massing of contemporary design.”
Super Mannerist 1960-1970′s:“An exuberant Post Modern style characterized by eccentric massing, whimsical fenestration and decorated with flamboyant colors and bold graphics.”
Post Modern 1960′s-1990′s: “The term applies to any of the architect-designed houses that incorporate details and features from a checklist of trendy cliches. Stylized classical references and vernacular buildings blend in and amalgamation of affectation. Pastel colors, stripes and eccentricity characterize the style.”
This one always reminds me of my Urban Theory prof, Nancy Miller’s definition of Post modernism as “anything pink … with pediments.”
Deconstructionist 1980′s-1990′s: “A sort of post-postmodernism, these designs are novel, quirky and perversely eccentric. On the level of civil liberties, I am glad we are permitted to express ourselves in public, but I would prefer that free speech was verbal rather than quite so permanent – even in California where the style originated.”