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.

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