Typology: Levittown

Levittown presents an interesting contrast to Usonia; both are exrban and express that idea of garden city and the American dream of the single family home but in very different ways.  Usonian houses were completely individualized with remarkably close architect – consumer involvement.  In some cases the home owners did some or a lot of the construction work on their own houses.  Levittow, by contrast, was a totally uniform developer-built system.  However, it had a social ideal at its root as well it was an opportunity for young families to transition into the middle class in a time of economic transition.  I recently learned that my great grandparents lived in Levittown New Jersey for a few years.  According to the annotated street map that we found in my grandmother’s papers they bought into a new development even before it had been platted.  The paperwork says “Address after July 15th 1960 will be 40 Montrose Lane, and is marked as a rough X in an open part of the map.

The Idea

William Levitt made his reputation in manufacturing during World War II and his ideas about housing production (and business in general) were very much a product of that era.  His strategies focused on maximizing value and getting the most for the least.  This philosophy was not entirely self-centered.  Levitt saw his developments as providing a service and his clients as people like himself who also wanted the best value for their money.

The Method

The construction process brought Ford’s assembly-line theories out of the factory and into the field on a massive scale.  Kenneth Jackson describes the it:

“After bulldozing and removing the trees, trucks carefully dropped off building materials at precise 60 foot intervals … The construction process itself was divided into twenty-seven distinct steps … Crews were trained to do one job – on day the white-paint men, then the red-paint men, then the tile layers.”

The building process began with “laying the foundation and ending with a clean sweep of the new home.”  The Levitt teams also used central factory areas to put together the most complex elements which both reduced and concentrated the need for skilled labor.1   In Levittown NY, the assembly line system of production reached a productivity of 30 houses per day.2

Built Small and Built Smart

Levitt plans were extremely compact with the residential program fit into the smallest possible exterior envelope.  Plumbing core is concentrated to reduce internal piping and the kitchen is placed toward the street to reduce the length of piping to the street.  Although this was later said to be about giving mothers visual access to children playing in the street.3   The Levittown planners drew a clear distinction between the program and style, believing that, “family living came first and style was secondary.”  The family in question was an up-and-coming war worker or veteran with his wife and several small children and the houses were planned for that demographic. Children’s bedrooms were sized generously with extra space meant as to serve as a play area.  There was a second bathroom meant for their use.  Kitchens were placed at the front of the house (partly as a method of reducing the length of pipe to the street) but also to allow mothers visual access to their children at play.

The Big Brother Model

Levitt’s influence on the lives of his inhabitants was not only exerted through the implicit forces of the type of houses and neighborhoods he had created.  The Levittown house came with an owners manual which included rules about how high border shrubbery could be (fences were prohibited), the color of the house, the days on which washing could be hung out and the allowable number of pets.  These rules were “apparently followed in the early years, until it became clear that Levitt had no way of enforcing them.”4

The Family Unit

Levittown, as had Usonia before it, glorified the idea of the nuclear family as a unit – isolated from the larger community.  Wright did this by keeping his front elevations heavy and impenetrable.  Levittown accomplished the same thing by dramatically increasing the space around each house from what had been the norm previously.

The Critics

Many designers and planners have vilified  Levittown for its legacy of mass produced housing.  Lewis Mumford’s criticism of Levittown was scathing.  He described it as “an incipient slum,” and

“a multitude of uniform, unidentifiable houses, lined up inflexibly on uniform roads in a treeless … waste, inhabited by people of the same class, the same income, the same age group, witnessing the same television performances, eating the same … foods, conforming in every outward and inward respect to a common mold manufactured in the same central metropolis.  Thus the ultimate effect of suburban escape in our time is, ironically, a low-grade uniform environment from which escape is impossible.”5

The Last Word

Levittown has become the model for suburban development in the years since it was built.  For years, suburbia has been synonymous with the living American dream, although it is now very rarely an affordable housing option and it becomes increasingly less viable as energy prices rise and home values plummet.

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