House Hunting

The stylistic confusion of American architecture since the late Seventies has prompted some people to try to take control of the design of their surroundings rather than entrust their houses to the perceived whims of professionals. Many people are disaffected with the contemporary architectural scene because they feel that high-style architects are more concerned with developing their own ideas and imposing them on their clients than they are in creating houses responsive to what the inhabitants might want or need.

Although other art forms have long been freed from the necessity of sponsorship, architecture still requires the direct instigation of a patron. The relation between architect and client mistakenly implies the likelihood that the client will approve of the results. But it is one thing to ask a portraitist to repaint an unflattering chin, and quite another to ask an architect to alter a building after it has been completed. The seemingly irrevocable nature of most architectural decisions is reinforced by the scale and permanence of what has been constructed; yet it is also much more common for buildings to be altered after the fact by someone other than their creator than is ever the case with a painting or a sculpture.

What is remarkable about the several first-person accounts written in recent years by the proud patrons of great twentieth-century architects (especially the owners of houses by Frank Lloyd Wright ) is not that there have been so many of them, but rather that there haven’t been more. For every achievement in the history of domestic architecture that brings pleasure to its owner, there are many more that bring acute disappointment, though few clients react with such bitterness as Dr. Edith Farnsworth did after Ludwig Mies van der Rohe completed his house for her at Plano, Illinois in 1951. In her unpublished memoirs she called Mies “colder and more cruel than anybody I have ever known. Perhaps it was not a friend or collaborator, so to speak, that he wanted, but a dupe and a victim.”

One of the stated goals of the postmodern movement in architecture was a greater sensitivity to the people who live in or use newly designed buildings. But it is now widely acknowledged that postmodernism, which began two decades ago as a populist rejection of rigid and repetitive late modernism, has turned out to be just as formalist and schematic as the style it intended to supplant. The permissive attitude championed by such early postmodernists as Charles Moore and Robert Venturi—summed up in Venturi’s famous assertion that “Main Street is almost all right”—was eventually replaced by the restrictive doctrines of such postmodern classicists as Michael Graves and Leon Krier, who implausibly maintain that the classical language of architecture is still understood and beloved by the general public, though little evidence of that alleged affection exists.

The increasing interest in vernacular and regional traditions among those disillusioned with both modernism and postmodernism—a plague-on-both-your-houses faction that includes many architects—has its …

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