If I’ve ranted and raved about any architectural subject over the years, it has to be the idea of fashion-driven “modernization”. With today’s renewed appreciation of historic residential designs such as the California Bungalow, you’d think that designers would finally get the message that every architectural period has its finer points. We’ve seen the pattern umpteen times: After five or so decades of neglect and abuse, older styles are suddenly rediscovered and cooed over by designer types, while other, more recent styles are patronizingly judged to be in need of “improvement” by superimposing today’s fashion biases upon them. I still routinely hear interior designers advising homeowners on “getting an updated look” and “contemporizing”--words that instantly set my teeth on edge.
Architectural styles have always followed a cycle of initial popularity, decline, disgrace, and rediscovery. Victorian homes, you’ll recall, were held in contempt for the first half of the 20th century, during which time countless examples were either demolished or just as irrevocably destroyed in the process of being “modernized”. Today one wouldn’t dream of stripping the ornament from a Victorian house and slathering it in stucco, but during the Forties, that’s precisely what many architects and designers urged their clients to do in order to get an “updated look”.
Sounds ridiculous now, doesn’t it? Yet apparently, we’ve learned nothing from such mistakes. Regardless of the quality or thought that went into their design, examples of past styles that are currently out of favor--for instance, the spare and unadorned Modernist homes of the Sixties--are deemed unworthy of the same appreciation we’d give a Craftsmen Bungalow or some other style that’s currently chic. Design elements that are integral to Modernist architecture--slender window frames; plain, ornament-free walls and ceilings, and flush doors--are blythely replaced because the don’t happen to fit in with the current mania for plasticky, frou-frou-laden design.
A basic truth of aesthetics is that the more fashionable something is now, the more unfashionable it will be later--and not very much later, mind you. Yet, driven by the relentless juggernaut of advertising and fashion industry hype, both designers and homeowners continue to buy into the bogus idea that a thirty-year-old house needs modernizing, while a sixty-year-old house needs restoring.
This is an exquisite bit of pretzel logic. First, we’re encourouraged to remove everything that makes the original house belong to its era; then, a few decades later, we’re supposed to wring our hands in regret and try to put it all back. Why not cut out the middleman, and simply keep your house in its original style?
Improving a house by revamping it with momentarily trendy features is the architectural equivalent of dressing Ishi in a three-piece suit. I could cite any number of vintage homes that have commanded higher sale prices for being in fine original condition, but I challenge any architect, designer, or decorator to cite a single example of a fashion-driven residential makeover done ten or fifteen years ago that can still be considered an improvement in light of changing tastes. No kidding--I’d really like to hear about it.