The Architect and the American Country House, 18901940
The American Country House
Wheel Estate: The Rise and Decline of Mobile Homes
Every American city is surrounded by a curious mirror image of itself: cottage country. Each Friday evening people make their way to their rustic retreats; on Sunday, the exodus is reversed. The precise magnitude of this periodic emigration remains undocumented, but if one includes not only beach houses, mountain lodges, lakeside cabins, and ski chalets, but also trailer parks, permanent campgrounds, hunting camps, ice-fishing houses, marinas, and houseboats, the number of second, country places is vast. The well-to-do go to Bar Harbor, the Hamptons, the Cape, the less affluent make do with less scenic, or merely less desirable, locations. The destinations vary, but the aim is the same: take a break, get away, get out of the city.
This desire is nothing new, for, as James Ackerman points out in his new book, which traces the evolution of the villa since antiquity, people have been building country places for more than two thousand years. What is a villa? “A building in the country designed for its owner’s enjoyment and relaxation,” he writes. To complete the definition, one need only add that the owner is almost always a city dweller, for the villa exists because of—and as a counterpoint to—the city. The great periods of the villa and country house, such as in sixteenth-century Italy, Georgian England, or between 1890 and 1940 in the United States, have always coincided with times of vigorous metropolitan growth. Indeed, Professor Ackerman identifies only two periods in Western history when thriving urban cultures did not build themselves country retreats: the burgeoning of the communes of central Europe and Italy between 1000 and 1400, and the heyday of the republican city-states of ancient Greece. The reason for these two omissions is unclear—most likely life outside the protection of city walls was simply too perilous.
The villa was a Roman invention, and in many ways all subsequent country houses, whether of Florentine merchant princes, English aristocrats, Tidewater planters, or New York City financiers, were merely variations on a Roman theme. What binds all these works together—and I would include the humble lakeside cottage and beach shack in this prestigious company—is the city dweller’s idealization of rural life, and his establishment of an architecture that encompasses, and expresses, this ideal.
The urban ideal of country life is, of course, a fantasy, and herein lies the interest of the villa as an architectural type: its unchanging purpose. “The villa has remained substantially the same,” writes Ackerman, “because it fills a need that never alters, a need which, because it is not material but psychological and ideological, is not subject to the influences of evolving societies and technologies.” When Pliny the Younger described the pleasures of lazing about on his seaside terrace, or of getting out of a toga and into some comfortable clothes, we know exactly what he is talking about. Petrarch, who reawakened Italians’ appreciation for the pleasures of country life, wrote that “I came to the villa at Careggi not to cultivate my field but my soul”; it is a sentiment that every weekend cottager shares.
The ancient Roman villa began as a rural version of the typical town house. The rooms were arranged around two courtyards—an atrium near the entrance, and an inner peristyle surrounded by a colonnade—and looked into these courts rather than out at the countryside. Eventually this scheme was turned inside out. Rooms were planned so as to take advantage of the best views. Instead of courts there were porticoes that looked out at the surrounding countryside, and instead of a compact cube, the villa acquired wings that extended into the landscape. These later villas, of which only excavated ruins remain, appear to have been added to over time, and must have had an irregular and picturesque appearance that reflected the informal way of life that they contained. We do not know the extent of the gardens around these houses, but to judge from Pliny’s descriptions of his own villas, it was views of the agrarian landscape that were most appreciated, especially as the Roman villa was often, though by no means always, at the center of a working estate.
The villa reappeared in fifteenth-century Italy, although by then the only evidence of Roman villas was in literature, and the earliest Renaissance villas derived their form from that of medieval castles. Like these military structures, although for different reasons, villas were often built on heights, with commanding views of their owners’ extensive landholdings. Eventually, villas lost their medieval features, but there was a curious indecision about just how they should look. On the one hand there was Cosimo de’ Medici’s villa at Fiesole, designed by Michelozzo, which resembled a rather grand farmhouse, informal, undecorated, and, to a surprising degree—as a result of artificial terracing—a part of the hillside on which it stood. Thirty years later, his grandson Lorenzo the Magnificent designed a villa at Poggio a Caiano that was formal, grand, classically ornamented, and palatial in appearance. Clearly a beautiful object in the landscape, not of it.
Which brings us to the sixteenth-century genius, Andrea Palladio. Professor Ackerman published the first English study of Palladio, almost twenty-five years ago (it is still in print, and well worth reading), and his enthusiasm for his subject makes this one of the most engaging chapters in The Villa. Which is as it should be, for it was Palladio who brought the two Renaissance strands together and established the definitive form for the villa, a form which would last for several centuries, and still reappears today.
The villas designed by Palladio (there were about twenty, most of them still standing) are definitely intended to be experienced as objects in the landscape, but they are also a part of the countryside, not only because of their site, and their explicit response to view and vista, but also because of their design, which combines classical pediments and columns with an almost rustic simplicity of forms and materials. Palladio knew nothing of the appearance of the villas of antiquity, but there is a Roman pragmatism in his use of plain, stuccoed surfaces, and the sparing use of ornament, indeed, in terms of building techniques nothing had changed in the intervening sixteen hundred years. These were not, strictly speaking, places for leisure, but the Venetian gentlemen farmers for whom they were built were certainly city folk whose urban culture—and urban wealth—demanded more than mere functionality. “The particular aim of the Palladian country house,” writes Ackerman, “was to give magnificence to the once humble agricultural complex, symbolically joining the substructure of work to the superstructure of consumption.”
The Palladian idea of a country house reemerged in another urban culture: eighteenth-century England. The English country houses were bigger and grander, partly because their owners were richer, and partly because these country homes were also places for entertaining large numbers of guests. These palatial houses, which Mark Girouard has called “power houses,” divested themselves of any agricultural associations, and although they owed their architectural form to Palladio—or, rather, to Palladio’s Four Books of Architecture—their relationship to the countryside was altogether different. They did not look out on cultivated fields, but on what Ackerman calls “England’s most influential and enduring contribution to the visual arts”: the landscape garden.
This innovation, which Horace Walpole credited to William Kent, represented a reversal of the tradition of the formal Italian and French gardens. Instead of treating the landscape as a huge, formal garden, the English created gardens that resembled a natural landscape. “Natural,” in this context, did not mean rough or rustic, however. Sheep were sometimes allowed to graze in a pasture, but only as an ornamental accessory. The purpose of the landscape garden was to be scenic, romantic, and, above all, evocative of the classical past. To that end, it incorporated Grecian temples, statuary, grottoes, waterfalls, bridges, and a variety of architectural fragments that Kent called “eye-catchers.” These structures were arranged to give the viewer an orchestrated sequence of views and experiences as he walked, or rode, through the garden.
The landscape garden was a conscious re-creation of the sort of scene that appeared in the paintings of Claude Lorrain and Nicolas Poussin, and was hence described as “picturesque.” It was inevitable that a taste for picturesqueness and informality should eventually influence the design of the villa itself, and in mid-nineteenth-century America it did so thanks largely to the writing of Andrew Jackson Downing. Downing was a horticulturalist, not an architect, but his books on the design of gardens, cottages, and country residences had great success with the public and were extremely influential. Downing was addressing an upper-middle class that had the means, and the inclination, to build country retreats outside the city, and he wrote at a time when improved transportation (including railroads and steamboats) made suburban living a practical possibility.
The type of suburban villa that Downing advocated—and that architects such as A. J. Davis built on the banks of the Hudson—was influenced by a landscape that was often wilderness, or had been until recently. Unlike their classical European antecedents, these houses were often built of wood, rather than stone. They incorporated features such as board-and-batten siding, scrollwork ornament, and steep roofs, and a characteristic of the American villa: the porch. They were picturesque houses in a picturesque setting.
Ackerman closes his engaging narrative with a juxtaposition of two twentieth-century architects whose country houses neatly embody the two contrasting ideologies of the villa: Frank Lloyd Wright and Le Corbusier. Wright’s own country house, Taliesin, in Spring Green, Wisconsin, begun in 1911, was in many ways a restatement of the early Tuscan villa (he had spent the previous year—his year of exile—in Italy, principally in Fiesole). As in his later masterpiece, Fallingwater, a weekend retreat built for a Pittsburgh department store millionaire in 1935, Wright carried Downing’s conception of the picturesque to its full, artistic fruition. Not only did the house evoke the forms of its natural settings, but because of its irregular composition and use of rough masonry, it actually seemed to be a part of the landscape, a landscape which was, at least in the case of Fallingwater, left in its original, untouched state.
This natural quality, which Wright called “organic,” was also an affirmation of his growing rejection (literally, in the case of his move from the suburbs of Chicago to rural Wisconsin) of the city. Whereas the villas of Palladio brought urbanity to the Veneto countryside, Wright’s country residences, with their great hearths and expansive plans, were imbued with the age-old American ethos of returning to the land.
As Colin Rowe pointed out in 1947, in his famous essay “The Mathematics of the Ideal Villa,” the suburban houses that Le Corbusier built near Paris during the Twenties and Thirties were an explicit reinterpretation (in plan) of certain of Palladio’s villas. They were also a reaffirmation of the villa as an urban artifact deposited in nature, but distinct from it. Le Corbusier considered himself an urban man, and his country houses did not sentimentalize the move to the country. The nautical imagery that he adopted in the Villa Savoye (pipe railings, ramps, funnel shapes, expansive terrace decks) gave the occupants the impression that they were steaming through the landscape, more passengers than participants.