Tuesday, December 21, 2010

RED TILE AND ALL THE REST: An Overview of Twentieth Century Architecture


The Craftsman bungalow had reached its typical form by the 1920:  An exterior clad in shingle or rustic siding; a chimney of river rock or clinker brick; and a wealth of spiky wooden detailing on the bargeboards and rafter tails.  The style’s hallmark was its front porch, which was almost invariably  sported a pair of tapered columns supporting a small gable roof echoing the main one.

The floor plan was a simple rectangle containing six rooms, often with no interior hall at all.  Built-in furniture such as sideboards and bookcases were meant to help clear out the Victorian clutter of furniture in favor of pristine, sun-filled spaces.  
Builders turned out Craftsman bungalows by the tens of thousands.  However, the mid-twenties saw the Craftsman exterior finish gradually phased out in favor of stucco, a cheaper material that nevertheless gave these insubstantial little houses a massive appearance that their Craftsman predecessors lacked.  The stucco finish also earned these houses a new name:  California Bungalow.  

However, the decade of the 20s saw the beginning of a dramatic change in architectural tastes.  Tiring of the increasingly predictable Bungalow, Americans began to pine for the sort of escapist architecture they were seeing in the equally escapist films of the era:  Romantic Spanish haciendas, half-timbered manor houses, turreted French farmhouses.  These exotic styles were reproduced—albeit at a diminutive scale—by the obliging builders of the time, and collectively known as the Romance Revival, they remain among the most charming and colorful homes America has produced.

Then, in the early 1930s, change arrived from the other end of the architectural spectrum.  The divergent brands of Modernism espoused by Wright’s domestic work and Europe’s Bauhaus finally made some inroads into residential architecture.  Known today by names such as Prairie School, Art Deco, and Streamline Moderne, nontraditional designs using smooth surfaces, sleek curves, and flat roofs made a small but important showing in American architecture through the eve of World War II.  

For the most part, the unfamiliar vocabulary of Modernism limited its application to custom homes, and to commercial work such as retail stores and theaters.  Nor did Modernist architects do much to further the efficient production of housing, despite their love of machines and technology—in fact, just the opposite:  Through their precoccupation with flawless finishes, they frequently made their designs even more costly and difficult to build than traditional ones.    

Ironically enough, it was schlockmeister developers who created some real technical progress in postwar home designs.  World War II had ended the Depression, but it also interrupted housing construction, creating a huge demand for homes by war’s end.  Hence, economy and efficiency became the twin objectives of postwar builders, who introduced such cost- and labor-saving measures as slab floors, drywall, and hollow-core doors.  Although these materials have become virtual emblems of slapdash construction, they also represent one of the few instances of real progress in building methods during this century.  

In the process of addressing the housing shortage, developers also learned how to mass produce houses and how to market them.  By asking as little as $100 down at tracts such as Long Island’s Levittown, developers made it absurdly easy for American families to achieve the dream of home ownership--and never mind that the neighbor’s house looked remarkably like yours.

Next time:  The Rancher Rides In. 

Thursday, December 2, 2010

RED TILE, AND ALL THE REST: An Overview of Twentieth Century Residential Architecture

PART ONE: Goodbye, Victoria

American architecture in the 20th century has been like one long funhouse ride.  We’ve trundled along from the polar extremes of Victorian frou-frou to ascetic Modernism, passing a host of stylistic surprises enroute.  Yet ultimately we’ve ended up at the same place we started, hardly wiser for the experience.   

The circular tale of residential architecture in the 20th century is a complex one, but its beginnings lie in a time we can all identify with—if only because it sounds uncomfortably similar to our own.

In the late 1890s, the public’s appetite for Revivalist architecture—a more precise term for the umbrella style we call Victorian—had been pretty well sated.  For the latter half of the 19th century, architects had blithely been adding and subtracting (mostly adding) elements from a grab-bag of unrelated historical styles.  These compositions grew increasingly outlandish as the century waned, as infamous Victorian confections such as the Carson mansion in Eureka, California will quickly confirm. Revivalist architecture was clearly approaching its limits, and the pendulum of taste had already begun its slow reverse in preparation for the fin de siecle.  

As early as 1890, architects such as Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright had begun savaging the artifice and eclecticism of the Victorian era, and it fell largely to Wright to show the way out of the aesthetic jungle of the Revival styles.  Early in the 20th century, he stunned the architectural world with his so-called Prairie houses, which grew increasingly daring through the first decade of the new century and culminated in the almost supernaturally modern Frederick Robie House of 1909.  

On the Left Coast, change came in a characteristically kinder and gentler form.  Architects such as Julia Morgan and Willis Polk stripped away the increasingly bizarre encrustations of Victorian ornament and returned to a more sedate and authentic Beaux-Arts vocabulary.  Polk’s impeccably refined San Francisco villas of the early century remain a benchmark of restrained elegance, and Morgan works such as William Randolph Hearst’s San Simeon need no elaboration here.  

On a more progressive front, other California architects such as Ernest Coxhead, Charles and Henry Greene, and Bernard Maybeck shunned Revivalist ornament in much of their residential work, preferring to use a palette of natural materials and hand craftsmanship.   What became known as the Craftsman Tradition was replete with pointedly unrefined finishes such river rock, brown shingle, clinker brick, and rough-hewn wood. 

By the Teens, the Craftsman Tradition was firmly established, and tract builders took notice.  Initially, the changes were only skin deep:  The gawky, vertically oriented designs of the Victorian era remained, but were stripped of their gingerbread and clothed in shingle instead.  The result was a still vaguely Victorian-looking home known, reasonably enough, as the Brown Shingle.  

Around 1915, builders applied the shaggy Craftsman palette to a simple, ground hugging house with a low-pitched roof whose name, bungalow, derived from a form of barracks tent used by the British in India.  In its very simplicity, the Craftsman bungalow was to influence American residential architecture for the remainder of the century.  

Next time:  The Bungalow and Beyond.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Red Tile Style: The Story

When Douglas Keister first brought up the idea of our co-writing a book on Spanish Revival architecture, I had my doubts. We had just come off of the relative smash success (by publishing standards, at any rate) of our first collaboration, Storybook Style. This was a book filled with remarkable and sometimes fantastical little houses which brought a pageant of color to every page. I clearly remember telling Doug, “I love Spanish Revival architecture, but I think a whole book on it might be really boring. They’ll be nothing but page after page of white houses.”

How wrong I was--spectacularly wrong. It turned out that Red Tile Style was, if anything, even more vibrant a collection of architecture than Storybook Style had been. And this was precisely because the agreeably clean, white canvas of these buildings provides a perfect backdrop for kaleidoscopic variation. 

When the proof copy of Red Tile Style finally arrived at my doorstep from Penguin/Putnam in New York, I practically wept for joy--the combination of Carla Bolte’s sumptuous book design and Doug’s unfailingly lyrical photography (“Sharp as a tack,” as he likes to say) was like a candy store for Spanish Revival fans, myself included. As an architect/author determined to do right by a style I’d long studied and always admired, I couldn’t have been happier with the result.


Doug Keister had the good fortune of early publishing success in 1987, when he photographed Daughters of the Painted Ladies, one of the landmark series of books on Victorian architecture. These titles had, as they say in Hollywood, “legs”, and were instrumental in creating the popular movement to restore Victorian homes across the country. And while early success can sometimes be a curse, not so for Doug--he soon followed up by photographing an equally influential series of books on the Bungalow home style, co-authored with Paul Duchscherer (The Bungalow, Inside the Bungalow, Bungalow Gardens, and more). It was after this highly successful series for Penguin-Putnam that Doug came to me with the idea of expanding a newspaper feature story I'd written into what became Storybook Style, the book that led directly to our working together on Red Tile Style.


For my part, after having spent the early years of my career content to merely practice architecture, I finally exercised--or should I say, rediscovered--my love of writing. After a few years of freelance journalism, I became an architecture columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle in the early Nineties. My semiweekly essay on architecture and the built environment, Architext, was picked up for national syndication by Chronicle Features a few years later, variously appearing in the Chicago Tribune, Boston Globe, Philadelphia Enquirer, and the Los Angeles Times (the column is now syndicated by Inman News Features).


Red Tile Style followed on the heels of an earlier collaboration between Doug Keister and myself. A feature story I wrote for the San Francisco Chronicle in 1995, about the peculiar “Hansel and Gretel” architecture found throughout the San Francisco Bay area, was the germ of Doug’s idea to co-author an entire book on the subject. This style of architecture, also referred to as “Storybook” or “Disneyesque”, had up to that time been completely unexamined, which made ferreting out its story quite a challenge. The result of our work, albeit quite a few years later, was Storybook Style: America’s Whimsical Homes of the Twenties.

Now, publishing is an ugly business, because an author’s love for the subject, alas, does not necessarily translate into proportional success for the published work (which is why Doug to this day remains unmoved by my idea for a book on old factory smokestacks. No, really! See, it would be this really tall, skinny book--but that’s another story.)  At any rate, to our delight, Storybook Style took off right from the outset, and it remains more or less the sole and standard reference on a topic that finds ever wider interest among architects and lay persons alike.

The problem, as always, was: What to do next? Neither Doug nor I felt like pursuing a book on any style that we were less than passionate about. But it quickly became apparent that Spanish Revival architecture was another clear instance in which our interests overlapped. 

A journey of a thousand miles, it’s said, begins with a single step, and that is how Doug and I approached the work of authoring Red Tile Style. After much dancing around the topic, that first and most difficult step was our mutual commitment to finally get cracking. Thereafter came the many road trips and airplane flights in pursuit of photographs and data, the stays at lookalike motels, the diner meals both good and bad; followed, when most of the information has been gathered, by endless vetting of images and the need to pull a chaotic jumble of images, facts, and ideas into some kind of focused, comprehensible format. Whenever panic struck in the face of this visual and textual pandemonium, the overarching motivation for us to slog on was a genuine affection for the architecture and the people who surrounded it. It was worth it.


Doug Keister has just recently turned in--if one can believe this--his thirty-ninth book for publication, Forever New York: A Field Guide to New York Cemeteries and Their Residents, which is also his fifth on the fascinating and largely unexplored topic of cemetery architecture. In the span of those five books, Doug has become an acknowledged expert on the history, symbolism, and aesthetics of America’s most famous resting places. He’s also had to endure every possible pun and wisecrack on the topic, so I think I’ll just lay that impulse to rest.

As for me, I still practice architecture as my “day job” while continuing to write my syndicated column, Architext (whose run is now closing in on twenty years). As an outgrowth of having written Storybook Style and Red Tile Style, I also do a great deal of consulting on historic architecture. Given my abiding fondness for these homes, it’s especially gratifying that people across the country entrust me to provide architectural guidance for their exceptional Storybook, Spanish Revival, and other vintage properties. 


Doug Keister may be busy writing and photographing his fortieth book, but he’s still available for professional architectural photography of the highest caliber. Doug is also an experienced public speaker who’s traveled all over the country to hold forth on architecture and other subjects dear to his heart. He can be reached at his website, <keisterphoto.com>.

As for me, I’ve provided architectural consultation from Maine to Alaska over the years, and I’m always available by email. Should you have a simple architectural query that can be answered in four words--such as, “Should I install new overhead garage doors in my Spanish Revival home, or repair the old sliding ones?”, I’ll endeavor to give you a prompt reply (a more complex question will probably cost you some money, though). 

Like Doug, I’m also available for public speaking, discussion panels, radio interviews and the like. You can contact me through my website at <gellner.net>. And incidentally, the correct four-word answer is “Repair the old doors.”