Monday, June 13, 2011


A while back, I was amusing myself with a trendy architecture magazine chock full of frigid minimalist designs, accompanied by the often hilariously stilted pronouncements of their architects.  Suddenly, amid this predictable context, a photograph of a perfectly charming Spanish Revival home fairly jumped off the page at me. Unlike the edgy trendoid homes usually featured in such publications, the place looked warm, inviting, and completely livable.

I soon found out why. It wasn’t designed by an architect at all, but by a Hollywood set designer.  His architectural rationale was refreshingly simple: Create a timeless home that was comfortable for its owner. No trace of double-talk there.
For me, this pointed up a frequent trait of architect-designed homes. Too many are statements of doctrine—whether Modernist, Deconstructivist, Minimalist, or whatever--rather than stages for their owners’ lives.

I use the word “stage” deliberately, not in the sense of an artificial, make-believe construct, but rather as a setting that complements the lifestyle of its owner. And despite the scads of high-tech and minimalist designs that crop up unendingly in the trade magazines, I’ve never yet had a client request a house that was cold, hard, and clinical inside. On the contrary, my most tech-savvy clients long more than anyone for the sort of familiar home styles they recall--or perhaps just imagine--their grandmothers living in.

During the early twentieth century, a number of practitioners specialized in designing such “stages for living”. In Southern California, the early work of Cliff May  drew on the honest palette of Spanish Colonial architecture to produce rustically beautiful homes that were also eminently liveable (May, incidentally, was never licensed as an architect).  In the Bay Area, William R. Yelland evoked the rustic vernacular of France’s Auvergne region, whose charm he had admired during his service in the Great War, while Carr Jones--a man trained in mechanical engineering, of all things--wrought lyrically beautiful homes from salvaged brick, lumber, and iron.  

On the opposite coast, Florida’s Addison Mizner conjured up unforgettably exotic Spanish Revival/Mediterranean/Venetian Gothic confections for the center of Palm Beach--buildings which even today set the standard for Floridian architecture.  
All of these architects were dismissed by their more “serious” colleagues as mere set-dressers, concerned with atmospherics and little else. Meanwhile, the Modernists, in their ploddingly earnest way, made heroic efforts to showcase concrete, steel, and glass in residential work. Ironically, over seventy years later, it’s the work of the purported set dressers that remains cherished both for its livability and its timelessness. 
How could the pointed nonchalance of a May, Yelland, Jones, or Mizner have ultimately prevailed over the intellectual rigor of Modernist doctrine?  And why would a set designer’s creation of adobe, wood and wrought iron seem infinitely more appealing than the self-consciously showy work contrived by other architects on those same magazine pages? Is it possible that humans feel some kind of natural kinship to ancient materials and building styles?

Perhaps the answer is right in front of us, and has been for millenia:  While we design to please the mind, the heart remains the final judge.

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