The decline of architecture?
October 14, 2009 6:49 PM   Subscribe

Why is it that I seem to instinctively prefer houses from the late-19th or early 20th century to post-war architecture?

I'm a architectural dilettante. I like what I like, but I don't know too much about houses or architecture so I can't explain why I like what I like. I need a bit of help. Can someone much more knowledgable than me about the subject explain why I--and many other people it seems--seem to prefer houses build during the Edwardian or Georgian period than the modern or post-modern stuff? I do like the occasional modern thing, especially when the design specs are really really high, but it seems to me that this contrasts with my feeling about most all pre-modern architecture, which I like as a rule and it would be the rare exceptional bad building which rubs me up the wrong way. OTOH, MOST of the stuff from the second half of the 20th century rubs me up the wrong way. It just seems so bland.

I have a suspicion that this instinctive dislike is based on some kind of building technique which changed in the 20s or 30s. Maybe your average suburban building started being mass-produced at this time? Or is it because the older buildings are often in the more desireable neighborhoods? Was it due to the invention of the car?

I'm mostly drawing from architecture in New Zealand, but then also some stuff I've seen in Europe and elsewhere. What is the reason for this? In other fields such as painting or music, I'd say I can appreciate modern styles and idioms much more than the older stuff...but I'd like to know what happened to architecture in the 30s or 40s and thereafter which made it change so.
posted by dydecker to Home & Garden (34 answers total) 58 users marked this as a favorite
Mass production?
posted by R. Mutt at 6:56 PM on October 14, 2009

I felt the same way until I actually sat down and learned about modernism. This survey of Connecticut mid-century modern homes might help you see the value in quality modern architecture.
posted by oinopaponton at 7:00 PM on October 14, 2009 [1 favorite]

I don't know what I'm talking about, but it's possible that the crappy houses built a while ago have been torn down while the crappy houses that were built more recently are still standing.
posted by madcaptenor at 7:02 PM on October 14, 2009 [4 favorites]

The Timeless Way of Building is essentially a book-length exploration of this phenomenon.
posted by jeb at 7:06 PM on October 14, 2009 [1 favorite]

I'm no expert either but I did stumble upon Tom Wolfe's From Bauhaus to Our House a decade or so ago, and it made a lot of sense to me. It's more concerned with larger buildings (office buildings, schools, apartments etc) but with a little extrapolation, you can see how the themes apply to your question:

Wolfe was critical of what he saw as too much adherence to theory. Wolfe characterized the architecture as based on a political philosophy that was inapplicable to America, arguing, for example, that it was silly to model American schools on "worker's flats" for the proletariat.
posted by philip-random at 7:11 PM on October 14, 2009

After posting that, I realize that perhaps just linking to a book doesn't really help answer your question. Alexander argues that there are certain timeless, invariant, globally significant rules that govern what makes a space for humans pleasing. If this strikes you as a bit mystical, it should. Alexander's a bit mystical. He believes that these when these rules are embodied in a building by careful balancing of opposing tensions and resolution of conflicts, the resulting design will Live, and that a design which ignores these principles will be dead. He talks a lot about the Quality that Can Not Be Named.

He believes that a building on its own cannot live, there needs to be integration from the largest scales, cities and towns, to the smallest, things like doors and their knobs, and that the rules which govern the interplay of these things need to be a reflection of the way a people live. So he writes about what he calls "Pattern Languages". A pattern language is a set of guidelines that encode the way a community functions into how its architecture should be designed. He's written a general example ('A Pattern Language') and a specific example ('The Oregon Experiment'). An example pattern would be "Light on Two Sides of Every Room", or "9% parking", or "Four Story Limit."

Getting to how this applies to your question, he would argue that before Modernism took hold in architecture (I don't remember who it was who first described The International Style as the style so bad no country wanted to take the blame for it, but he'd probably agree with it), most buildings and towns were constructed in accordance with rules like his. The lack of electric light ensured that people built according to Light On Two Sides, for instance. The fact that architects weren't involved with most building meant that builders used vernacular patterns refined over long periods of time to lay out towns, individual Main streets and neighborhoods, houses, and rooms.

The Modern is a reaction to several forces that destroyed this: greater specialization among people, the World Wars, new technologies, and the incredibly huge changes the car inflicted on the way people live. Over the course of human history, there were all kinds of changes in transport technology, but at the town scale, you basically could walk or ride some kind of animal to get from place to place, so constraining this scale constrained design.

The reason this becomes significant in even not MODERN-type modern architecture and planning (maybe we should just call it contemporary?) is that these forces exploded these patterns. So even where Design architects are not involved, and no grand theory of Abstract Forms or whatever is at work, the patterns are still gone. In the USA, I think less than 10% of buildings are built with the involvement of architects. More new construction involves interior designers than involves architects. Take the typical tract-built subdivision. In America (I don't know anything about NZ), it was extremely common to put porches on houses, as it had been forever, basically. But in a subdivision where there are no sidewalks, the houses are farther apart, and everyone drives, why would you sit on your porch? No one does, and so porches ultimately get glassed in or turned into rooms. Alexander would say the porch is part of the "Hierarchy of Public Spaces", the "Entrance Transition", and the "Semi-public Space". It gave people a way to be in public without being all the way in public, and to have a mediation zone between the private realm of the home and the public realm of the street. This doesn't work at all in a typical post-war subdivision. its just a weird room where its not the right temperature most of the year. People enter and leave the building through their attached garage, which isn't designed to be an entrance, even though in reality, its used that way all the time. The tensions aren't resolved. Another good book about this is How Buildings Learn by Stewart Brand, now that I think of it and blabber on about porches being glassed in and garages.

I'm not saying this is all true or anything, just giving you a perspective from some people who've thought about this.

There's another car-related school of thought that's more mainstream architectural criticism style that comes from Robert Venturi. Venturi's not a great architect, but he's a pretty interesting writer on architecture. Learning from Las Vegas is a good place to start. Venturi isn't critical of the (in his case, post-)modern in architecture, he's interested in it, but he explores how once the car became the dominant mode of transport, the function of architecture's decoration changed: when experienced at car speeds and distances, old architecture doesn't read the same way, so places like Las Vegas learned to adapt by building ridiculous facades on what are essentially flat sheds. He then explores how using symbols in outsize ways, or old architectural features purely as symbols can work, and his ideas were influential among a group of Americans, idk about abroad. I also think his influence is terrible and his buildings are hideous, but I love reading his writing.

Personally, in the USA, and, I'd imagine, New Zealand, I think its worth looking at the quality of construction as well. When somebody is paying a bunch of craftsmen to build them a house they hope will be in their family for 100 years, things come out a bit differently than when they are paying Toll Brothers the lowest possible price for a house for them to live in till the GE Accelerated Executive Program causes them to move again in the next three years. Construction in the 19th century (US at least) was FANTASTICALLY expensive by modern standards, before the invention of Balloon construction (in residential) and curtain wall construction (in commercial). Masterminds did it and it was hard. They did it well. The modern house building system is optimized everywhere for minimum cost with minimum cost unskilled labor, and its a super elegant system within the frame of those constraints, but those constraints don't yield the best houses.

This is getting long, but some other books you might be interested in include Rem Koolhaas's Delirious New York, which explores the approaches architects took to skyscrapers, first trying to adapt classical forms to grossly stretched buildings before abandoning them in search of new (and ultimately Modern) design languages (its also about lots of other stuff but thats relevant to your question) and Bernard "I Also Started A Successful Line of Womens' Shoes Called Bernardo Or Something" Rudofsky's Architecture without Architects, which is a global survey of vernacular architecture thats...its incredible, it kind of makes you want to cry, seeing the grand sweep of humans all over the world and how they've solved the problem of how to make homes for themselves, and how its encoded their attitudes about their families, neighbors, strangers, work, enemies...the whole human story. It's a great book.
posted by jeb at 7:34 PM on October 14, 2009 [176 favorites]

R. Mutt is actually pretty correct, as far as I know. Levittown was the first notable mass-produced suburb in the US, constructed between 1947 and 1951, and was enormously influential in post-war residential construction, at least in the US. Here, the middle class started having enough money to buy their own houses, and a large amount of housing needed to be built quickly to keep up with demand.

There was also a lot of theoretical junk floating around that could possibly have influenced suburban sprawl (notably Frank Lloyd Wright's Broadacre City).
posted by LionIndex at 7:52 PM on October 14, 2009 [1 favorite]

The 3 storey Edwardian we used to own had windows on the third floor that faced each other so you could get a cross draft; ditto the second and first floor windows. All rooms could be aired. There were three very large maples planted far enough away from the house to not crowd it that offered shelter from the summer sun and let the winter sun warm the house. When we pulled up the kitchen floor, there were real, not nominal, 2x12s under it. The floors and all the substantial trim wood was oak, the hardware was well made, ornate and original. The windows were much longer than modern ones, all the better to catch the light in winter. Other old houses I've lived in had attic/whole house fans to cool them in summer. They never creaked in the winter gales. They were practical, solid houses with wide doorways, staircases and landings. What's not to love? Well, except for the wiring and plumbing and old boilers.

If modern houses were built in a form follows function mode, they would be more comfortable, have box rooms, and places where children could play or sleep without my having to worry about their being hurt or wakened. I've found the 'modern' houses I've lived in to be harder to heat and cool, have awkward windows, odd corners and either huge or tiny bathrooms. I don't find them comfortable. To me, it's style over function. Modern furniture is much better at being functional. What happened? Do you think architects/architectural schools are to blame? People used to design their own houses to some extent 100 years ago, at least those who could afford to.
posted by x46 at 7:52 PM on October 14, 2009 [3 favorites]

If you've ever played The Sims, your Sims have this happiness factor which increases when they're in a room they like. They especially like rooms with lots of angles and corners. This has been a joke with me and some other friends for a while -- "Ooh, the Sims would LOVE this place!" -- but it's a decent example of the types of embellishment that make a building unique and pleasing to the eye.

You might not go for all of the gingerbread on a Queen Anne, but your eye definitely has more to look at. There's more material to provide a contrasting or complementary look. This helps the house seem warmer and more lived-in. Think about how a room or outfit looks boring without accessories. It's not just about function or color; it's about all of this put together so it works. These little hints of design are like callbacks in comedy; they make your brain find connections and remember that you liked it over there, so you'll probably like it over here and wonder where else it might be used.

You know -- like in Big Lebowski, where the rug "really ties the room together."
posted by Madamina at 8:00 PM on October 14, 2009

x46, you're generally talking about a small minority of architects who place their ego ahead of the needs of the client. Unfortunately, those are the ones that get the most media attention because their work is "daring". If it turns out to be functional as well as daring, that's always a plus (I always thought Kahn was really good at this). Anyway, I've worked in residential architecture firms for years, and the clients are always heavily involved in the design of their house. If your architect is designing your house in a way you don't like, you're with the wrong architect. But, some people want the big artistic statement to live in. Some architects are to blame, just as some developers are to blame for tract housing. But not the profession as a whole (I'm obviously incredibly biased in this belief).

Also, one of the whole goals of the modern movement was to allow more light to enter buildings - this is why the structural system went from load bearing walls to a columnar frame. Once you pull the structure away from the exterior envelope of the building and free the exterior walls from the need to carry loads, you can have as many windows as you want. The columnar structure would also open up the floor plan to allow you to arrange your living space in any way you wanted. Obviously, the initial ideas got corrupted somewhat, and we ended up with the bastardized modernism that everyone rails against.
posted by LionIndex at 8:14 PM on October 14, 2009 [1 favorite]
is a good introduction, I think. With the links fanning off of it.

In 1932 came the important MOMA exhibition, the International Exhibition of Modern Architecture, curated by Philip Johnson. Johnson and collaborator Henry-Russell Hitchcock drew together many distinct threads and trends, identified them as stylistically similar and having a common purpose, and consolidated them into the International style.

This was an important turning point. With World War II the important figures of the Bauhaus fled to the United States, to Chicago, to the Harvard Graduate School of Design, and to Black Mountain College. While Modern architectural design never became a dominant style in single-dwelling residential buildings, in institutional and commercial architecture Modernism became the pre-eminent, and in the schools (for leaders of the profession) the only acceptable, design solution from about 1932 to about 1984.

I'm an ornament fan, and it's interesting to trace the abandonment and uptake of it in architecture.
posted by sebastienbailard at 8:23 PM on October 14, 2009

I love Victorians, particularly the Stick (aka Eastlake) variant, and my interest carries through to American forms like Prairie and Craftsman/bungalow architecture. I dislike the ranch home even though its basic principles derive from Frank Lloyd Wright (open plan, low to ground, etc.). But mostly I hate the tacky stick-on plastic decor, fake brickwork, and wholly incompatible "Colonial" pilasters or "Victorian" inscribed glass doors, and a general lack of a sense of proportion. This last is I think a key point. Many 19th century designers were taught to observe the Golden Ratio and it shows. Today nobody even thinks to make sure their shutters are the right size for their windows and things like mismatched roofs are common. Still, the simple old ranch house can grow on you in comparison with bloated McMansions.

Anyway, I do appreciate good contemporary architecture (note that the Modern period is a specific style that is now passé). Something like the "Ferris Bueller house" (garage, really) is striking and brilliant, not just by itself but in siting. (The North Shore, where I used to live, has loads of pretty good Modern-contemporary architecture.) Trends such as Postmodernism are somewhat poorly understood by the public, but I think in the long run they contributed to a return to comfortable 19th-century influences and many of the townhomes and the like built during the housing boom are an ... improvement at least. (On the other hand, if you know that a condo complex replaced a block full of solid, rehabbable 19th-century structures, it can be sad, because you lost all that patrimony as well as visual diversity.)

I would generally work -- if I were you -- at improving my sense of architectural history. Pick up a book like A Field Guide to American Houses so you know what you're looking at. Ultimately, too, feel comfortable with having a preference. I also urge some flexibility in that you ought to understand some of the reasons why architecture has changed and what the function of the postwar and 21st century home actually is and who it serves. That way you'll be more forgiving of the egregious offenses you see.

If there's any principle I can focus on as why I like a particular style or example, it would probably be honesty. There's nothing wrong with imitation or adoption, but the more unnecessary an adaptation is, the faker the decoration is, the less I like a structure.
posted by dhartung at 8:54 PM on October 14, 2009 [5 favorites]

I think it's the building materials just as much as the architectural styles. Old houses have plaster walls instead of sheetrock. They have carved pieces of wood around the windows and doors instead of pressed particle board. They have no vinyl siding. The windows are wood grids with many small panes of glass, instead of one big piece with some false mullions layed over. The gauge of metal in the doorknobs and latches is thicker. The doors are heavier, and the floorboards wider.

New houses, even big expensive ones, have this aura of cheapness. You can just tell that the parts were made to meet a price point first and foremost. Right now I'm imagining opening an interior door in someone's new McMansion, and noticing how the doorknob is thin, hollow, and brass-plated, the door is particle board with a pressed fake woodgrain pattern, and it scrapes across the springy, synthetic carpet. I really think that back in the day, people built things as well as they knew how. That never happens anymore.
posted by scose at 11:44 PM on October 14, 2009 [1 favorite]

I suggest reading Christopher Alexander's "A Pattern Language." It seemed to me after I read it that older buildings drew on traditions that reflected what people really like, use and want, and if necessary were modified over time to more nearly meet those likes, uses and wants, whereas modern buildings, starting from scratch, were often designed in ignorance of those patterns, or prioritising other things such has appearance from the outside, maintenance costs, or construction costs..
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 1:17 AM on October 15, 2009

In the UK at least, most "mass produced" residential homes built before about 1920 have much higher ceilings than those built after. That's my reason anyway. I love modern architecture, but modern mass produced housing (other than the many fabulous one-off mid-century modernist commissions mentioned in this thread) feels relatively small and cheap.
posted by caek at 4:11 AM on October 15, 2009

I'd like to recommend Suburban Nation which addresses post-WWII sprawl in the US: building codes, single-use zoning, lack of civic planning. It compares houses in sub-divisions with traditional neighborhoods. It's not just the design of the house that affects you but it's relationship to the street.
posted by TWinbrook8 at 6:12 AM on October 15, 2009

Then too, post war housing was all about getting large numbers of people out of cities and into single houses. Add to this the nomadic nature of American people and there becomes less reason to kill yourself to make a really nice house. The more people accept the shoddy, the more shoddy they will get. Same thing with higher education, take out food, entertainment- you name it. And the skills needed to get the classics die out over time, and the parts become harder to find. Thus the crappy feel of mcMansions.

On the other hand, it did provide houses for a lot of people who never dreams in their depression childhoods that they would ever see such a day, so from the greater happiness side of things, there is a plus.

(There must be some interesting architects out there. If I ever become rich enough to build I house, I aim to find me one.)
posted by IndigoJones at 7:14 AM on October 15, 2009

I totally agree with your taste in architecture. I live in a 1920s rowhouse and love the details and construction. That said, keep in mind that you're seeing the best of the turn of the century houses, as those are the ones that have survived the elements and the wrecking ball. No one puts tarpaper shacks on the historical register.
posted by electroboy at 7:24 AM on October 15, 2009

I don't know what I'm talking about, but it's possible that the crappy houses built a while ago have been torn down while the crappy houses that were built more recently are still standing.

I think this is an often overlooked piece of the "older is always better" puzzle. Many of the bad ideas of the past were torn down.

And the lack of good HVAC meant that the homes had to be designed with ventilation top of mind. High (expensive) ceilings, many, large (expensive) windows, etc. If you could afford a nice house, you could probably afford enough land to keep your house separated from the other houses, so seeing your neighbor taking a dump while you are trying to watch TV was less of an issue.

I grew up in a postwar subdivision, of relatively upscale houses when they were built. All brick, basements, narrow but decent sized lots. These neighborhoods are still vibrant, unlike the cheaper slab houses and vast tracts of loneliness they were in. Another neat feature was that they all looked different. There were different models of homes, and even where they were identical in floorplan, their exterior was different. A final neat feature was that while they had decent sized windows and were pretty close to one another side to side, all the homes were designed so that you couldn't see what was going on in one house from another. And generally, the bedrooms were on one side, and the daytime areas were on the other. So if you *could* see inside your neighbors' house, they weren't using that room at the time. They too were in their dining room looking into their neighbors' empty bedrooms. Close, but comfortable.

Contrast that with more modern homes- either they don't tackle that problem at all and just install paper shades, or the homes simply don't have windows on one side of the building. When you look out your side window, you see a garage or a vast expanse of beige siding. Just as close, but somehow uncomfortable. I also notice that homes designed recently may well have tons of windows, but they are not suited for window coverings. So you can drive down the street and literally see people eating dinner, because nobody can figure out how to install suitable drapes. Even if there is plenty of setback and space between homes, you feel uncomfortable and exposed.

(I would contrast that to the Mies VanDerRohe style of modernism. ("Prairie Modernism??") Lots of glass and light, but the business areas of the home are not right up against the glass. You get the benefit of feeling a part of the outside environment without the negative of feeling like you are outside.)

I love older office buildings for the same reason- look at the plans for many of the Wash DC office buildings. They look like monolithic blocs from the street, but on the inside there are lots of courtyards and open areas. Artificial light was more expensive than designing a building to take advantage of natural light. It is less so now.

I also think there is a practicality in building design now- if one is building a timeless public building, it gets built (hopefully) more traditionally. But I think many people have learned that real estate needs are fickle, and so many buildings are built only to last so long. Not so much designed obsolescense, but designing to match the march of obsolescense.

When I worked for McDonald's, one of the stores I worked at was one of the first ones (OK, the 490th one), built in the early 60's. It had been modified, added onto, etc, over the years. Finally, the time came that it was simply not meeting the needs of modern restaurantcy. A new one was built, and when it came time to knock the old one down, the addons came down like nothing. The original, 40 year old building, however, was a real bastard for them to demolish. I think that's a lesson that's been learned over and over. Why waste money building something to last 100 years, when time and time again, we find that we don't need (or even WANT) it to.
posted by gjc at 7:47 AM on October 15, 2009

Indigo Jones- I think the nomadic nature of Americans came much later than the postwar building boom. Those people generally stayed put once they had a house. They were sick of the nomadic nature of city apartment living. The next generations, however, were stick of staying put and started moving around. Then you add the housing price bubble of the last 15 years, and you'd (seem to) be a fool for staying put. People were literally subverting their own design aesthetics and comfort to build and decorate their new homes for the best resale value. Silliness.
posted by gjc at 7:51 AM on October 15, 2009

jeb's answer is great w/r/t contemporary vs. traditional architecture and why you might feel the way you do. It's partly just a matter of taste, but there are also rational arguments and explanations for your intuitions.

Also recognize that there is more to your gut feeling than just the style of the architecture. There is good quality design in both styles, and plenty of crap as well. Many more of the bad traditional buildings have been torn down to make way for something new, so you only see the good stuff; the new bad stuff is just too new to be torn down yet. Also, because contemporary design tends to be a search for novel solutions, architects are taking bigger risks with each building they design. This can pay off in spades, but it's a gamble. Following a traditional pattern would produce fewer knock-out masterpieces, but also fewer ugly failures. The possibilities of modernism are (arguably) endless, and modernism is better able to adapt to the different design pressures of modern life. Speaking of which, the impact of the automobile on post-war architecture and urban design cannot be overstated. It's a huge force in design - sometimes it feels more like cities are designed for cars than for people. Lastly, the construction materials and quality also make a difference in the feel of a building. There are a lot of traditional techniques and materials that are simply too labor-intensive or otherwise expensive to use today. The new techniques lack craftsmanship and the historical connection; they feel cheap and plastic instead of sturdy, like a building should feel.
posted by Chris4d at 9:00 AM on October 15, 2009

I'll throw in an idea that's basically my own (crackpot?) riff on Mandelbrot's Fractal Geometry of Nature. I haven't actually read the book but I saw a PBS show on fractals, so ... crackpot alert, I guess. (And if this turns out to be a good theory that's discussed in the book, I can't take credit for it.)

Anyway, humans are accustomed to a natural environment that is highly fractal. At any scale of viewing, from closeup to landscape panorama, there are interesting features to delight the eye, whether it's the pattern in grains of sand or the peaks of a mountain range. We find this "zoomability" very comforting and pleasing.

Older architecture, as mentioned several times above, tends to be more ornamented (think Victorian gingerbread) and such a house will be interesting to look at from various distances. For example, a Queen Anne house has an interesting shape, with turrets and a wraparound porch, etc, so from a distance you can admire its silhouette. A little closer you can enjoy the different types of millwork in the gingerbread - shingles, moldings, spindles, etc. At arm's length you can admire the fancy brass doorknob and leaded glass transom.

Newer (mass-produced) buildings tend to look good from a distance, if at all. There's no detail to enjoy when you're close up, so they offer no zoomability and don't feel "organic", "part of the landscape", etc. They don't suggest the pleasing fractal nature of, well, Nature.

Anyway, that's my theory about why architectural ornament is so much more appealing, on the whole, than plain facades.
posted by Quietgal at 9:02 AM on October 15, 2009 [3 favorites]

I just finished taking my midterm exam on this very topic about an hour ago. Basically you're talking about the point where architects started using "rational" principles to solve social and economic problems. Form began to follow function as never before. Industrialization and mass-production raised wages and living standards, but high wages = expensive labor. No time for fussy hand craftsmanship; everything is now mass-produced.

Steel frame construction blossomed around 1900. Sullivan & Adler build early skyscrapers - facades have more glass and less stone. Forms break away from classical (greek / roman) ideals.

1909 - FLW's Robie House in Chicago.

1914 - Le Corbusier proposed Dom-ino house idea, with concrete slabs supported by columns. Structures no longer depend on exterior walls and partitions for support, so building forms become abstracted from structural meaning. Liberating, yet alienating.

Early '20s - California (often primitive, closer to nature) modern is born. Lots of glass, distinction between outdoors and indoors is blurred.

Mid '20s - Bauhaus (Socialist-leaning German design school) advocates for factory-built building components to address post-WWI urban social / economic problems. Bauhaus not looked on kindly by burgeoning Nazi party. Collapses.

Late '20s - International Congress of Modern Architecture (CIAM) is formed, initially with some former-Bauhaus people, later led by Le Corbusier. Promotes use of architecture to address social and economic problems. Industrialized building good, expressive artsy building bad. Advocates strict zoning laws. Rigid adherence to well-meant ideals becomes somewhat totalitarian-flavored and leads to construction of soulless, anonymous-feeling places.

1928 - Le Corbusier's Villa Savoye in France, and Mies Van Dehr Rohe's Tugendhadt house are built.

Early '30s - Some good stuff starts to happen with renewed interest in more human-friendly places, but the great depression and WWII sort of get in the way.

After WWII - Industry won the war! Woo-Hoo for industry! We love stuff that's made in factories! Prefab housing idea is taken up by capitalists who make it work better than the socialists ever could. Quick, cheap, simple houses are wanted both in the U.S. (Leavittown and the creation of suburbia in general) and in Europe, where cities have been bombed to hell and housing is a major problem. Mr. Blandings' dream house, etc...

That's how I understand the progression, anyhow.
posted by jon1270 at 9:20 AM on October 15, 2009 [2 favorites]

I could never figure out why my grandparents' homes, despite being much smaller than ours, always seemed so comfortable and inviting. Then came Google Earth, and a startling revelation that should have been obvious: residential lots in the U.S. are oblong, from front to back. Houses in the U.S. used to be oblong, from front to back, and fit perfectly on their lots. Post-war, however, houses evolved to become more frontal, and wider than they were deep.

I believe that there's something inherently more "livable" about the narrow, deep house, with common areas such as living rooms and dining rooms upfront, the kitchen toward the rear, and bedrooms off to one side, than there is about the more contemporary fashion of a sprawling hodgepodge of rooms. Don't ask me what that something is…it just seems somehow more harmonious.
posted by dinger at 11:17 AM on October 15, 2009 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks all for your very interesting answers as well as links to further reading. Time for me to buy some books...
posted by dydecker at 2:30 PM on October 15, 2009

Your profile says you're in Berlin - have you visited the Neue Nationalgalerie?

Looks like nothing special from the photos, but pretty amazing as you approach and enter the building. (I think.)

Mies van der Rohe was the classic modernist.
posted by Kiwi at 3:00 PM on October 15, 2009

Another book recommendation: The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs.
posted by desjardins at 3:46 PM on October 15, 2009

Sorry to add this too late, but I cannot recommend strongly enough, based on your question, THE ARCHITECTURE OF HAPPINESS by Alain De Botton. He does a great job summarizing the history of domestic architecture, and hardly writes a sentence that wouldn't stand on its own as a good epigram. Concise, quotable, thoughtful - and it's an easy, fun read.
posted by newdaddy at 9:53 PM on October 15, 2009

Indigo Jones- I think the nomadic nature of Americans came much later than the postwar building boom.

Though I agree it increased after the second war, the moving on nature of Americans has been a major thread throughout the country's history. Not entirely, granted, but even George Washington started out as a surveyor hoping to cash in on land grants for people who wanted to move west. Laura Ingels Wilder's, she of Little House books - her father was forever and a day picking up and moving stakes. Nineteenth century ancestors of mine, respectable middle class types, moved all around the country with frankly startling frequency, looking for that next job. Go west young man and all that. For every Tom Sawyer who made the small towns stable, there were plenty of Huck Finns with very itchy feet indeed.
posted by IndigoJones at 8:46 AM on October 16, 2009

Let me offer my (New Zealand) house as an encapsulation of the changes in New Zealand building: the top story is late 1920s, with plenty of Art Deco themes. It's built out of matai and rimu; even the sarking in the roof is Matai. The weatherboards are Rimu. It's weathered with virtually no repairs - we've got one weatherboard patch with pine (since we couldn't afford rimu!). It was built by craftsmen working with excellent quality materials, and although it's got some shortcomings (mediocre insulation by today's standards, a living room that could be a bit bigger, and so on), it's a sound building and attractive even down to its bones.

It was enhanced in the 80s with a lower story created by undercutting the house and building the extension, and a rework of the kitchen. The contrast is night and day. The weatherboards are cheap pine; the floors are shitty particleboard. The kitched is particleboard with veneer on the work surfaces and obviously cheap fittings. When we had the place repainted a few years back the downstairs section revealed a need for extensive work in the form of rotting battens that allowed the weatherboards to rip away when some strain was placed on them by the painters. It's a cheap and, frankly, nasty job done by medoicre workmen who would probably have been run out of town on a rail in the 20s if they'd tried to represent themselves as craftsmen. The difference is astonishing, but seems to be pretty much the norm. Houses built from the 80s on seem to have prioritised quick and cheap over everything else, for the most part.
posted by rodgerd at 2:26 AM on October 17, 2009

maybe you just like the older buildings. that's cool. but maybe it's actually certain things about them that you like.

as a rule of thumb, 80% of all buildings from a given era are rubbish; but many of the rubbish older buildings have been knocked down, so you are looking at an above-average sample.
posted by agfa8x at 2:39 AM on October 17, 2009

You might also check out The Old Way of Seeing: How Architecture Lost Its Magic and How to Get It Back by Jonathan Hale.
posted by metabrilliant at 7:15 AM on October 17, 2009

Reading the description of Alexander's work and thinking it through you could easily be forgiven for rehearsing the same dilemmas that caught modernists of the day - how exactly do porches respond to changing use of cars? why should we build to only 4 storeys when wealthy clients can afford so many more? when steel frame constructions offer so many other possibilities? I haven't read him myself so I'm only guessing at some of the possible reactions his work might provoke. From another angle he also seems to share a surprisingly affinity with modernists when he insists on a universal pattern language, that is one set of rules for all designs. To me, what Alexander seems to touch on but underestimate is the different ways public to private sequences are handled, not as a universal norm, but as a reaction of different contexts and lived circumstances.

Some architects, following this almost anthropological process of design, might argue that the garage should be the new entrance, since it offers the necessary transition from the public realm as experienced in american suburbia - the street as conduit of cars - and perhaps the porch should become more symbolic, as it is already anyway, perhaps a space for display rather than one of transition. This recognition of how a space will be used in relation to its context and the habits of inhabitants might go some way in describing the feeling of familiar, comfortable dwelling you get in any building. Older buildings may well embody the proportions, sequences and rhythms of space described by Alexander, but their homieness comes from the way these sequences support a particular way of life - in Alexander's case, the lifestyles of middle class America at a particular point in time.

Arguably Modernists of the 20th Century (along with their patrons and clients) understood "ways of life" in terms of a rational ideal and something they could design from scratch in coordination with other momentous changes of the time, from industrial processes of construction to increasing use of cars, whereas an architect today is apt to regard them as complex expressions of preference and circumstance.
posted by doobiedoo at 11:14 AM on October 17, 2009

Something I'd mention here, just to expand the breadth of social architecture discussion, is how Los Angeles came to be as it is.

Los Angeles is perhaps the best example of the urban planning pseudo-philosophy of The Sprawl. Strip malls, vast McMansion tracts, gulag apartment blocks, it's the default media image of emptiness, ennui and consumer nihilism—everything that people hate about suburban architecture.

Los Angeles grew as a reaction against the cities of the East. Tenement housing, it was believed, led to diseases both physical and moral. Los Angeles was designed to be an antidote to that. Its hot and dry climate was prescribed as a panacea for anything from tuberculosis to alcoholism, and with that went the belief that everyone should have a detached home with a lawn in order to assure their health. Zoning laws in Los Angeles didn't allow any construction over two stories until into the '50s in part because of this reaction against East Coast city living.

This style dominated California, especially Los Angeles, from around 1910-1930. They were some of the first pre-fab housing available, and coincided with the growth of automobile ownership, which made further sprawl possible, especially as zoning laws constrained denser construction.

So, you have a lot of pre-fab homes, which were explicitly cheap and had no environmental integration in their design (no site specificity possible), and as Los Angeles spread further, they were the dominant design idiom. Because of that, when land became expensive enough to have to back-fill a lot of those smaller lots with more dense housing (something that people still fight tooth and nail here, despite it having all sorts of environmental, health and aesthetic benefits), those buildings explicitly tried to fit in with the bungalows surrounding them, which meant that the scale and proportion of these buildings were a further distortion from something not all that attractive to begin with. As time went on, nearly all the bungalows were demolished, leaving only the ugly apartment complexes that magpied their influences (combined with others, which people have mentioned upthread).
posted by klangklangston at 11:01 AM on October 22, 2009

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