Monday, January 3, 2011

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


The housing shortage that followed the close of World War II brought a spate of mass-produced, sparsely-detailed but laudably affordable tract developments such as New York’s pioneering Levittown.  By the mid 1950s, however, such modest designs were already being displaced by the rambling, low-slung California Rancher, a home style that better reflected the vast wealth and national pride during of the postwarera.  With its precedent-setting double garage, the Rancher glorified conspicuous consumption, but at the same time was kept literally down-to-earth by a rough simplicity that bespoke traditional Yankee values.

Around this time, more populist brand of Modernism made an appearance with the astoundingly progressive designs of California developer Joseph Eichler.  With their flat roofs, bold facades, and broad sweeps of plate glass, Eichler homes drew heavily on Bauhaus tenets, and found tremendous appeal among architecturally sophisticated tract buyers.  Sadly, there weren’t a whole lot of the latter, and Eichler went broke in 1967. 

The 60s were a turbulent decade, and architectural trends proved no exception.  While most houses continued along the well-worn Rancher rut, architects of custom homes were happy to experiment with grid-paper Rationalism, icebox Minimalism, cast-concrete Brutalism—in fact just about any ism that came down the pike.  

Perhaps the most influential of these Modernist ideas also came from California, though from a far less probably source:  the tiny coastal village of Gualala, where architect Charles Moore was building a unique development known as the Sea Ranch.  Its houses featured artful arrangments of shed-roofed cubes clad in cedar siding, and this completely fresh approach had enormous influence on residential architecture well into the 70s.  Sea-Ranch inspired designs were especially popular in hilly wooded areas, where their craggy outlines looked wonderful peaking out of the treetops. 

The Sea Ranch’s inspiration came none too soon, because by the end of the 60s, the stalwart Rancher had just about run its course.  After two decades of popularity, people were finally tiring of its now-predictable floor plan, with rooms strung methodically along a seemingly endless central hall.  And in any case, the vast, flat-as-a-tabletop building sites that were required to show these sprawling homes to best advantage were growing few and far between.  

A version of the Rancher in which the floor levels were offset by a half-story offered an interim solution to these problems, and the so-called “split-level” became the very embodiment of modernity during 1960s.  Even the most diminutive hillock provided a fine excuse to build a split level, and throughout the decade such houses could be seen marching up sloping sites across America.  

In the suburbs, however, developers began to focus on two-story floor plans as a way to accommodate ever-bigger homes on ever-tighter lots.  This in turn led rather naturally to more traditional styles coming to the fore—Spanish Revival, Half-timber, even some rather scrawny-looking Colonials.  These timid early attempts at traditionalism were almost laughably two-dimensional, yet they were the first harbinger of the tidal wave of traditional architecture that would swamp Modernism by the end of the century.

The Baby Boom generation, having grown up in ornament-challenged Ranchers and been schooled in flat-topped boxes, now hungered for tradition with a vengeance.

Next time:  From fin-de-siecle to the future.  

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