PART IV: FROM FIN-DE-SICLE TO THE FUTURE
America’s flirtation with traditional architecture grew more serious during the course of the 1980s, when crown moldings, panel doors, and divided-lite windows made their reappearance on the residential scene, encouraged by a revived ornament industry whose products were once again available by the cartonful. The 1990s brought the new traditionalism into full fruition—some might say into decadence—just as the 1890s had brought on the final flowering of Victorianism. Custom and tract homes alike were almost reflexively designed in a full-on Revivalist mode, as if fresh interpretations of traditional architecture—not to mention Modernism—had never existed at all.
The widespread appearance of civic design review boards in the 80s and 90s further stymied the evolution of residential architecture by adopting cyclical planning fads as fixed design objectives, and by anointing the reflection of “context”—the existing look of the surroundings—as the holy grail of design. Alas, such design by reflex, rote, and regulation remains widely entrenched even today, and that’s a pity, since it merely serves to confound innovation in a world that cries out for change.
The history we’ve examined in this series can tell us much about what the current century might bring, and just as much about what it probably won’t. The twentieth century brought a lot of stylistic vacillation, but little substantive progress in the way we build houses. So far this century, it's looking like we can expect more of the same. My predictions:
• Styles will continue their cyclical changes, and the worst nightmare of Modernist architects will come true: Rather than being a movement that could change the world, Modernism will simply be considered another historical style. Moreoever, today’s spiky, ultra-chic designs will seem as quaint and naively futuristic as Depression-era Streamline Moderne does today.
• Building construction will continue its molasses-paced rate of innovation. We’ll see more modularization of components such as stairs and windows, but total prefabrication will remain anathema for mid- and high-end homes. However, the lowly mobile home industry—which already prefers its products to be known as manufactured homes—will become the leading innovator in prefabricated and affordable housing.
• As resources inevitably become depleted, we’ll see less new construction and more adaptive reuse of the existing building stock. Rather than simply recycling materials, we’ll recycle entire buildings—an even more efficient use of materials and manpower.
• Electronic technology will be quietly and invisibly integrated into homes (much as it already is in automobiles). Computers will be unobtrusively tucked into controls for energy efficiency, entertainment, security, and lighting, rather than being the sort of in-your-face gadgets predicted by propellerheads.
• Unless they’re willing to deal with the pressing problems of the next century—diminishing land and natural resources, the need for affordable housing, and the social changes brought about by an emerging Third World—architects will consolidate their current position as lap dogs for the wealthy, and will remain irrelevant to most everyone else.