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.