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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 Wright1 ) 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 In her unpublished memoirs she called Mies “colder and more cruel than anybody I have ever known.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 origins in a lingering resistance to the idea of architecture as the exclusive province of the professional. There is ample historical precedent for this. Architecture was the last of the major professions to devise a formal cursus honorum before its practice could be undertaken. It was only about a hundred years ago that the sequence of education, qualification, registration, and regulation began to replace the ancient apprenticeship system in architecture. Yet even in this century some of the most innovative architects—including Wright and Mies—were trained more in the medieval than in the modern manner, learning their craft in the workshop of an established master, instead of taking a university degree. Nonetheless, their experience with the processes of construction early in their careers gave them a better understanding of materials and building techniques than most college-educated architects have today.

Such professional organizations as the American Institute of Architects, founded in 1857 (the approximate equivalent of the American Bar Association and the American Medical Association in conservatism and primary commitment to protecting the proprietary prerogatives of the membership) and local architectural societies have had a central part in reinforcing the notion that architecture is an activity one can engage in only after lengthy and difficult preparation, beyond the capacities of most people. That, of course, is not true. Well into the nineteenth century the cult of the architectural amateur flourished. Familiarity with basic architectural principles had been considered an integral accomplishment of the cultivated gentleman since the High Renaissance. The expertly rendered architectural drawings of King George III, preserved at Windsor Castle, were produced under the tutelage of Sir William Chambers, one of the most prominent Neoclassical architects of the period, but instruction in architecture was by then accessible to virtually anyone who could read, thanks to the pattern books and treatises that flooded the market.

Commissions from the aristocracy or clergy, for whom issues of image and symbolism were often paramount, customarily involved detailed and sometimes learned discourse between designer and patron. On a less theoretical or intellectual level, it was also common for clients (especially of domestic buildings) to take a direct part in the process of designing the project. Even for humble enterprises, the client would talk with the carpenter or mason before work began, and opinions or advice were freely exchanged during the course of construction. Among the unfortunate results of removing architectural practice from its once accessible place in everyday life has been the loss of a constituency with a clear idea of what an architect does and how to get him to do what is wanted—or even how to go about determining what it is that is wanted.

Since the late 1960s, greater emphasis has been placed on engaging clients in the development of an architectural scheme, but attempts to do so have sometimes been taken to extremes. In the preparation of his work on St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church, designed and constructed between 1979 and 1983 in Pacific Palisades, California, Charles Moore conducted a series of seminars for the parishioners, during which he projected scores of slides of churches from the ancient to the contemporary. Votes were then taken to rank the congregation’s favorites, with the implication of incorporating features of those structures into Moore’s design. Moore rather cynically termed it

this “participatory” business; which featured me not as the form giver—that’s ruled out by the very process—but as the avuncular “facilitator,” who would make people happy and get everybody’s ideas and remove whatever impediments there were…and then by some magic laying on of hands on my part they were going to get a brilliant “arky-tect” design out of it.2

The fact that the completed Moore sanctuary bears a much closer resemblance to other works (especially houses) by Moore than it does to the churches of Gianlorenzo Bernini, Dominikus Zimmermann, Le Corbusier, and Alvar Aalto (to name a few of the more popular of the parishioners’ choices) is not all that surprising. It was Moore who selected those images in the first place, and although his characteristically wide range of stylistic enthusiasms was ostensibly “inclusive” (a concept that Moore was instrumental in promoting during the Sixties), it cannot obscure the fact that the architect’s biases were central to the direction the design took from the outset.

Any set of decisions about design is inevitably influenced by cultural prejudice, no matter how intent an architect might be to avoid it. Indeed, for all of the will of the Canadian architect Witold Rybczynski to return to architectural first principles, documented in his first-person account of the design and construction of what he calls “the most beautiful house in the world,” the spirit of yet another contemporary architect pervades both his architecture and his book. It is that of Christopher Alexander, a radical, revisionist theoretician and author of a cult classic series of polemical texts and practical guides to the reformation of architecture. Alexander, a professor in the school of architecture at the University of California at Berkeley and founder of the Center for Environmental Structure (a combination think tank and architectural firm), first began to attract attention during the late Seventies with his system of “a pattern language” of architecture.3 The language consists of 253 design precepts in which he believes the entire accumulated wisdom of the building art is contained.

Unlike most visionary high-tech experiments of the recent past (like R. Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic domes or the Plug-In City by Peter Cook of the English group Archigram), Alexander’s low-tech prescriptions have not only not become dated, but have slowly gained more adherents as times have changed and his goal of emphasizing the social context of buildings seems more urgent. Furthermore, after years of codifying his philosophy before putting very much of it to the unforgiving test of building (always a risky proposition for the architectural theoretician who makes sweeping proposals), Alexander has lately turned his attention to executing his designs and has done so with encouraging results, from a school in Japan to houses in the US to self-built housing for the poor in Mexico.

Alexander has eschewed yet another stylish “look” in favor of designs that vary from context to context, though all draw on traditional forms, if not historical models in the manner of the postmodernists. To say that his school in Japan seems reminiscent of Tudor rural architecture, or his Northern California villas a sympathetic continuation of the turn-of-the-century Bay Area Style, or his Mexicali scheme a restatement of ancient Roman column-and-vault construction puts too much emphasis on possible sources in an aesthetic noteworthy for its independence during a period of extreme imitativeness.

Rybczynski ruminates on the current sad state of architectural affairs in much the same way that Alexander criticizes the contemporary establishment, and indeed what both say about the appalling lack of appropriateness or attention to surroundings in much contemporary architecture is irrefutable (though the mild-mannered Rybczynski is far gentler in tone than Alexander, who comes across as something of a Savonarola). Even the house of the book’s title bears a certain resemblance to some schemes by Alexander, most notably Alexander’s Linz Café of 1980 in Austria (as we can see from the pictures on the following pages), with its similar horizontal massing, vertical wood siding, overscaled fenestration, and shallow pitched roof.

Interestingly, for all their earnest rethinking the built results of both Alexander’s and Rybczynski’s quest for a new architectural truth look quite like the work of another Californian, the underestimated Bay Area architect William Turnbull. A sometime partner of Charles Moore, Turnbull has remained faithful to the Northern California farm-vernacular style he and Moore devised some twenty-five years ago with their then-partners Donlyn Lyndon and Richard Whitaker in the firm MLTW. That self-effacing, ecologically sensitive aesthetic (occasionally called the Sea Ranch Style after the Mendocino Coast vacation community Turnbull and Moore were largely responsible for creating) is the clear antecedent of Rybczynski’s dream house. The natural wood exterior, four-paned windows, small metal chimney pipes, gable roof, and overall aura of material reticence and deference to the landscape were all fashions—or anti-fashions—that persist in Rybczynski’s own house. One has the strong feeling that however thoughtful and sincere Rybczynski or Alexander is, others like Turnbull reached the same conclusions intuitively and less portentously quite some time before.

  1. 1

    Paul R. and Jean S. Hanna, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Hanna House: The Clients’ Report (Architectural History Foundation and MIT Press, 1981); Herbert and Katherine Jacobs, Building with Frank Lloyd Wright: An Illustrated Memoir (Chronicle Books, 1979); Edgar Kaufmann, Jr., Fallingwater: A Frank Lloyd Wright Country House (Abbeville, 1986); Henry Whiting II, with Robert G. Waite, Teater’s Knoll: Frank Lloyd Wright’s Idaho Legacy (Northwood Institute Press, 1987).

  2. 2

    David Littlejohn, Architect: The Life and Work of Charles W. Moore (Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1984), p. 167.

  3. 3

    Christopher Alexander, Sara Ishikawa, and Murray Silverstein, with Max Jacobson, Ingrid Fiksdahl-King, and Shlomo Angel, A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction (Oxford University Press, 1977).

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