Tuesday, January 31, 2012


If you’ve ever seen one of the old Buck Rogers movie serials, with their packing-crate robots and Art Deco rockets shooting sparks, you can appreciate how quaint another era’s vision of the future can be--and how difficult it is to get it right.  Yet speculating on things to come, whether in writing, in images, or in three dimensions, is something humans find irresistible.

Architects are no exception.  The Futurist movement of the early 20th century, for instance, saw technology as man’s saviour, and liked to wax poetic over things like turbines and high voltage towers.  Yet to many modern eyes, their stark, mechanistic cities of tomorrow are not so much redemptive as sinister. 

During the 1920s, the Russian Constructivists saw architecture in equally edgy terms.  Thanks to Stalin’s growing distaste for their work, their most ambitious ideas, like those of the Futurists, were never built.  This fact has ironically worked in their favor, since speculating on the future is a good deal safer than actually trying to build it in three dimensions.  Paper predictions remain snugly encased in the context of their own time, while real structures must actually occupy--however uncomfortably--the future they were meant to predict. 

Disneyland’s 1957 House of Tomorrow, an all-plastic home designed by MIT and sponsored by the chemical giant Monsanto, is a classic example of this phenomenon.  With its plastic furniture, plastic dishes, and molded plastic walls, it turned out to be an almost comically inept predictor of housing’s future.  While plastics did find limited acceptance in many kinds of building materials, from drain pipes to windows, the predicted plastics revolution augured by the House of Tomorrow never materialized.  

Indeed, the actual building trends of the early twenty-first century show a steady retreat from man-made polymers and controlled environments, back toward organic materials and more environmentally-sensitive design.   

Theme parks and expositions in general have been a steady source of futuristic centerpieces, from the Trylon and Perisphere of the 1939 New York World’s Fair, to the globe-like, 140-foot tall Unisphere at the 1964 fair held on the same site, to the more recent Spaceship Earth, the Florida EPCOT Center’s eighteen-story geodesic sphere of 1982.  

Overshadowing all of these is the 605-foot tall Space Needle, centerpiece of the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair. With its concave pylons and flying-saucer superstructure, the Space Needle evoked the sort of future in which people would have robot housekeepers and fly around in jet-powered backpacks--that is, when they weren’t out driving their atomic cars.  This space-age optimism even permeates the color names used in the tower’s paint scheme:  Astronaut White, Orbital Olive, Re-entry Red, and Galaxy Gold.

As a now charmingly-retro hallmark for Seattle, the Space Needle has been an unqualified success--even today, it remains the city’s biggest tourist attraction. As a predictor of future architectural trends, though, the Needle missed the mark.  

The fact that the Space Needle and its futuristic brethren already seemed quaintly outdated within a decade of their completion shows just how risky building a vision of the the future can be.  It’s a sure bet that our own “House of Tomorrow” predictions about computer-orchestrated homes--the sort of scenario in which your toaster automatically goes online to buy more Eggos--are just as likely to come to naught.  

Still, architects will no doubt keep offering you their ideas of what’s to come.  Whether our predictions pan out or not--well, the future will be here soon enough.

Monday, January 16, 2012


The Carson Mansion in Eureka, California--perhaps America’s most recognized Victorian house--is so preposterously ornate that it approaches caricature.  Lumber magnate William Carson was anxious to showcase the marvelous versatility of his California redwood, so he made sure his architects, the brothers Samuel and Joseph Newsom, pulled out all the stops in his mansion’s design.  And did they ever:  Since its completion in 1886, Carson’s soaring gingerbread confection has remained the last word in Victorian bombast.  

The Carson Mansion is a good example of what might be called an architectural extravaganza--a design that represents the zenith of its era.  Such works usually arose in the most prosperous times, which accounts for their frequent appearance during the 1880s, the Roaring Twenties, and the supremely confident decades following World War II.  Whether we call such buildings outrageous, way out, or over the top, we know an extravaganza when we see it. 
“Over the top” rather literally describes the works of architect John Eberson, the inventor of the “atmospheric” movie palaces of the 1920s.  In Eberson’s theaters--Florida’s Tampa Theater is a fine example--the audience was seated in a mock outdoor garden or courtyard, surrounded by antique building facades complete with statuary, fountains, fake ivy, and stuffed birds perched on the windowsills.  Overhead, mechanically-projected clouds drifted lazily across the auditorium’s vaulted “sky”.  When the show was about to begin--or should I say continue?--the clouds slowly yielded to darkness and constellations of twinkling electric stars.  Today, thanks to their endearingly high-kitsch concept, Eberson’s atmospheric theaters are among the most celebrated of all movie palaces.

The Roaring 20s also gave America one of its most outrageous Spanish Revival houses, improbably named Scotty’s Castle, and just as improbably located in Death Valley, California. The Castle was built  by a wealthy Chicago insurance executive, Albert Johnson, though it was named for Johnson’s longtime companion Walter Scott.  In 1926, after amassing some 1500 acres of Death Valley land, Johnson began work on the main buildings of his 12,000 square-foot house.  A construction engineer and two architects collaborated on the design, which included custom furniture and hardware.  A crew of craftsman was imported from Europe to carry out the detail work, and no expense was spared in the Castle’s construction: Johnson spent over $50,000 on a pipe organ for his music room, while Scott bragged that the wrought iron work alone had cost $168,000. 

By 1931, however, with the Depression rapidly sapping his fortunes, Johnson had to call it quits with some twenty percent of the project still unfinished. Even at that, Scotty’s Castle represented such a high-water mark of Twenties-era optimism that it was eventually acquired by the National Park Service and opened for tours.  

But don’t think that more recent times haven’t given us some architectural extravaganzas as well.  Though we may not appreciate it yet, the vast indoor shopping malls and highrise-atrium hotels of the 1970s, the theme bar-restaurants of the 80s, and the dot-com billionaire mansions of the 90s will likely all yield candidates for such honors in the future.  And of course pretty much any hotel casino built in Las Vegas during the past decade--those brazenly ersatz renditions of Paris, New York, Rome, or Venice, complete with Eberson-like indoor streets under artificial skies--are sure to find a place in this boffo hall of fame. 

Monday, January 2, 2012


There are enough headaches in planning a home or addition without fretting over where the towel bars go, right?  Unfortunately, it’s just such trivial details that can sabotage all your efforts if they’re left to the last minute.

Certain classes of items are commonly ignored or overlooked during the design process, not only by do-it-yourselfers, but by architects as well.  Typically, they’re accessories that seem so minor they don’t command serious attention until it’s too late.  
In laying out a bathroom, for example, few people will take the time to decide exactly where the towel bars and toilet paper holder will go--usually because they’re too busy thrilling to the prospect of that new designer lavatory or sunken tub.  Yet the day-to-day convenience of a bathroom hinges more on those two humble accessories than on any fashionable plumbing fixture.  How often have you used a bathroom where the toilet paper roll was on the wall directly behind you, requiring Houdiniesque contortions to reach it?    

The only way to avoid such dismal outcomes is to decide in advance exactly where everything will go, right down to the smallest piece of hardware.  For example, if you’re right-handed, the toilet paper holder should ideally rate a spot to the left of the toilet, about even with the front of the bowl, and about thirty inches off the floor.  The opposite arrangement will work almost as well, though it’s less natural, but after that, your options go downhill fast.  

As for towel bars, you should reserve some unsullied wall space for at least one 18-inch bar for face towels and one 24-inch bar for bath towels (two of each is even better). Every robe hook, shoe rack, soap dish, clothes rod, or what-have-you in your project should get the same careful consideration.

Light switches, like toilet paper rolls, often end up in places they shouldn’t be, though it’s more often due to last-minute changes forced by jobsite conditions.  People often assume they can fit a switch in any sliver of wall that’s as wide as the switch cover plate.  Not so:  The extra wall studs required around doorways and in corners often won’t leave enough room to squeeze in the necessary electrical box.  Therefore, if you don’t want to end up having to move a switch to the wrong side of a doorway during construction, make sure you leave plenty of room between the door trim and any nearby obstructions.  Multiple switches require correspondingly more breathing room.  

On the exterior, downspouts are probably the most common accessory to suffer from benign neglect.  I’ve seen many exquisitely-designed homes despoiled at the last minute by tangles of ugly downspouts snaking hither and yon across the walls--all because the architect or owner didn’t find that lowly detail sexy enough to be worthy of careful attention.  

In this case, as in the others, you have to sweat the details--sexy or not.  It shouldn’t be left for subcontractors to decide where the downspouts go, since they’ll usually just slap them up wherever it’s most convenient.  Instead, find out how many are required, and then scout out the best locations yourself.  Don’t put downspouts on the front elevation if a less conspicuous spot is available.  Avoid unnecessary offsets and angles, and on gutters that run along the side of the house, put the downspouts toward the rear corners of the house, not the front.  

Take the same sort of care in locating gas and electric meters, plumbing vents, flues, and all the other incidental bric-a-brac that can clutter up a home’s exterior.  Place them out of sight, or at least where they won’t be visually obtrusive.  Make sure they end up where they do for a reason, and not just because no one was paying attention.