Monday, December 10, 2018

HOWDY, FOLKS: The California Rancher Rides In

Long, low, and simultaneously modest and chest-thumping:
The Rancher bespoke American values of the 1950s.
Author's note: This is another in Architext's occasional essays on American residential styles.

America was riding high in the 1950s. The country had recently returned from trouncing the Axis, despite a late entrance into a war whose odds were far from certain. The economy had been launched out of the Depression, first on the strength of wartime contracts, and then by a pent-up postwar demand for consumer goods. As a result, U.S. industry was now far and away the mightiest on earth.  And America’s faith in democracy, so shaken by the Depression years, had been restored to granitic solidity by its great triumphs both overseas and at home. 

What better time for a home style that managed to convey all this and more?

Extremely elaborate examples, nowadays
referred to as "Storybook Ranchers",
featured diamond-pane windows, knee
braces, and other over-the-top rustic details.
That style was the California Rancher, and it became the architectural emblem for a yet-unsurpassed time of prosperity in U.S. history. The Rancher’s design was emphatically native--a melange of homegrown vernaculars ranging from the Spanish Colonial-era hacienda with its full-width porch, to the functional ranch building with its shaggy simplicity, to the bungalow with its ground-hugging lines and low-pitched roof. 

Dutch front doors, shown here with the
ubiquitous crossbuck motif, were a red-hot
fad during the Rancher era.
Ranchers also reflected a classic paradox of the American character: On the one hand, it embodied Yankee modesty with its countrified, aw-shucks motifs;  on the other, it glorified power and consumption with its rambling street frontage and chest-thumping double garage. It simultaneously managed to proclaim:  We’re Americans—we’re real nice folks, but we kick butt when we have to.

The Rancher is a breeze to identify. It’s the first popular style to flaunt an attached double garage, for those two cars Herbert Hoover had promised us decades earlier. But the Rancher’s garage made up for its late showing by being impossible to overlook: it projected well forward of the house, with the huge door itself becoming a broad billboard often tricked out in moldings or x-shaped crossbuck motifs, all underlined by a vast swath of concrete driveway. 

 Rancher loor plans—not to mention front elevations such as
this one—were stretched out to outlandish proportions.
Every Rancher worthy of the name also had a front porch, though few were really usable as such.  Rather, the point was to provide a showcase for all those down-home details:  Bandsawn knee braces sprouting from the tops of posts; crossbucks on the front door; and yet more crossbucks in the gawky wooden porch railings and on garage doors..

The classic Rancher exterior typically  had rough-sawn vertical board-and-batt siding (batts being narrow wood strips that covered the gap between boards), or else rustic horizontal lap siding. Later mass-produced versions used stucco on the majority of the house, reserving the more costly siding for accents on the facade and gables.

Eventually, things settled down to your basic stucco Rancher,
perhaps with a few features such as the wood wainscoting
and false dovecote in the gable of this tract-built example.
A genuine Rancher’s roof was invariably covered in shakes, a material that bespoke America as well: a little uncouth, perhaps, but tough and resilient as all get-out. In classic examples, a false dovecote topped by a weathervane might be found astride the roof ridge, while at each gable end, false beams jutted out to carry the rake boards with unshakable confidence. Rancher interiors emphasized the same plain-spoken, native materials as the exterior: used brick, copper, hammered iron, and coarse woods such as knotty pine.

Functionally, there's little to criticize in a Rancher. The floor plan is straightforward, with rooms methodically strung along each side of a long hall--much like a stretched-out bungalow turned crosswise. The style’s main structural problems stem from the fashion of making the houses ever longer, lower and closer to the ground. Often the effort was too successful--yielding a ranch-size meal for termites and dry rot.

Monday, December 3, 2018


Unlike Americans, Old Worlders don't mind a little
imperfection. The Bishop's House, Sheffield, England,
circa 1554. (Image courtesy Friends of Bishop's House)
A while back, a client of mine asked me to give the once-over to a house he was hoping to buy. It was a charming, well-kept little cottage with all the hallmarks of a history—some gouges here, some settlement there, perhaps a few cracks in the plasterwork. It wasn’t dilapidated by any means; rather,  it had a nice warm patina of long use.

Happily, he did end up buying it. But when I came back a few months later to see what improvements he’d wrought, I was dismayed. He’d systematically gone through the house and replaced anything that showed the slightest trace of wear with brand-new stuff from the local hardware emporium.  Hefty old doorknobs with the burnish of fifty years had been swapped in favor of tinny, glitzy brass ones; ditto the old lighting fixtures and bath fittings. The varnished wood trim (which had a few nicks and scratches, to be sure) had been smothered in a bland coat of bright white latex. And the wood floor—whose dents and imperfections bespoke the foibles of who knows how many sets of grandchildren—had been sanded glassy smooth and coated with a hi-tech sealer.
Lots of remodelers love to tear out
the old kitchen so they can
put in a fake old kitchen.
(Image courtesy

So much for a warm patina.

Still, I can hardly blame my client for wanting to make his little cottage sparkle. We Yanks always want everything to “look like new”.  Maybe it’s because the U.S. is a relatively young country, and newness is practically all we know. But just as likely, it’s because advertising relentlessly conditions us to believe that new things—whether cars, clothes, or trendy toys for the kids—are always better than old ones. That goes for houses, too. Those of us who can’t afford brand new ones opt for the next best thing: we buy old ones and then “renovate” them into oblivion.

Yes, it's old and beaten up. So what?
The point, as you’ve no doubt guessed by now, is that new isn’t necessarily better. So here are a few thoughts to consider before you wield that screwdriver or paintbrush at your defenseless old house:

•  Think twice before consigning any part of your home to the junk heap.  The quality of the building materials in most pre-World War II homes—whether hardware, flooring, or lighting fixtures—is generally much better than the stuff that’s available today. In the long run, there’s little to be gained by exchanging quality materials that show some age for flimsy goods that will only briefly look brand-new. 

•  Use that paintbrush sparingly! The lesser durability of today’s paint formulas makes repainting an iffy improvement. Therefore, if your old house has a reasonably presentable coat of oil-based paint on the doors, for example, you’re probably better off living with it than covering it with a latex paint, which won't properly adhere to it in the first place, and won’t have the same shine or durability even if it does.
Too often, repainting over perfectly good
oil based paint will just get you this.

•  Learn to live with a few scratches here and there. Americans are obsessed with keeping their homes pristine; unfortunately, this is a battle that the universe will always win. Home ownership is a lot more fun when you learn to take the odd flaw in stride. That’s not to suggest that you neglect your home, but rather that you learn to accept a reasonable level of imperfection. Europeans, I’m loathe to admit, are way ahead of us on this count: they’re quite comfortable with buildings that are old and timeworn, because they regard age and imperfection as a badge of honor, not as a sign of decrepitude.

•  Finally, remember that any idiot can make a home look new, but only time can produce one with a history.

Monday, November 26, 2018

BROWN SHINGLE: The Anti-Victorian

Victorian houses eventually became the
aesthetic equivalent of three banana splits
piled on top of each other.
Suppose you ate a huge banana split, and you loved it so much that you ordered another one and ate that as well. And then another.  You’d probably be eating dry bread for a few days thereafter.

That, in so many words, is what happened to people’s tastes after fifty years of ornate Victorian architecture. When builders and architects first started putting gingerbread on new homes in the 1850s, people loved it. So naturally, they added more. People loved that even better, so what was there to do but add yet more gingerbread? This cycle went on for three decades until, sometime during the late 1890s, people realized they were thoroughly sick of multicolored, gewgaw-covered houses. 

It was this overdose of ornament that brought on a great counter-reaction to the Victorian era, and ushered in the residential style known simply as Brown Shingle.
The William Berryman Scott House in Princeton, New Jersey,
by architect A Page Brown (1888) was an early harbinger
of dissatisfaction with Victorian gewgaws.
(Photo courtesy djkeddie CC BY-SA)

The Brown Shingle was everything the Victorian wasn’t. Whereas Victorian architects delighted in using artifice—imitating marble with wood, leather with linoleum, and gemstone with glass—the Brown Shingle used natural materials honestly employed. Its namesake exterior finish was pointedly plain—cedar shingles left to weather in the sun or, at most, sealed with a light stain. Window trim was broad, plain, and stained rather than painted. Chimneys were built of rustic stone, or of “clinkers”—purplish, mishapen bricks that had been rejected due to overfiring.  

Nature figured prominently in Brown Shingle designs. Porches were often roofed with heavily beamed pergolas that were meant to carry vines. Pairs of French doors often led outdoors to give occupants direct access to the garden, which was ideally laid out in a rambling, informal manner. 
On the opposite coast, architect Bernard Maybeck used
redwood pergolas to bring nature into the design.
Guy Hyde Chick House, Oakland, 1914.
(Photo courtesy Daniella Thompson)

Fundamentally, however, the Brown Shingle was still similar to its Victorian predecessors—only the philosophy and the finishes had changed. In its verticality and bulk, it’s really just a late Victorian house with most of the gingerbread scraped off and a shingle siding put in its place. It would remain for the Craftsman Bungalow style of the Teens to make the final break from Victorian proportions.

Brown Shingles win kudos for their understatement and resistance to the vagaries of fashion. They’re not susceptible to color fads, for example, because they don’t really have a color—just a natural patina. For the same reason, maintenance is less of a headache than it is for houses with fussy, complex color schemes.  

Interiors are big and airy, just like those of their Victorian predecessors, but without the encrustations of moldings and their associated maintenance. Despite this basic simplicity, there’s still generous use of stained wood in floors, doors, trim, and staircases, as well as in built-in furniture such as sideboards, bookcases, and linen cabinets.
Brown Shingle interiors were still air like those of Victorians,
but used much simplified detailing of flat lumber in place of
elaborate moldings.
(Photo courtesy Sinnott and Co.)

The style's shortcomings are largely technical, not functional. These are big, bulky houses, so seismically, they’re just as susceptible to earthquake damage as their Victorian kin.  Foundations are generally on the iffy side by modern standards, so retrofitting of foundation bolts and crawlspace shearwalls is a must. And of course, those aging heating and plumbing systems often beg for modernization.

While the shingled exterior is remarkably durable—fifty years is not an uncommon lifespan for good quality shingles—when the time comes it’s a much more costly proposition than repainting. So it’s to your advantage to find a house that’s already been re-Brown Shingled.  

Monday, November 19, 2018


Ford's Nucleon: Just don't get rear ended.
In 1958, the Ford Motor Company built a prototype “car of the future” called the Nucleon. What looked like a spare tire on the trunk lid was actually a nuclear reactor, with fuel rods that could be adjusted to suit the driver’s appetite for horsepower. Ford didn’t mention what would happen to this rolling Chernobyl in a wreck, but I’m sure the results would have been spectacular.   

Like the unlamented Nucleon, predictions about the future of domestic design have also been way off the mark. From the strange ideals of the Italian Futurists—architects who waxed rhapsodic over high voltage transmission towers, the smell of engine exhaust, and ditches filled with factory waste—to today's techies ceaselessly extolling "the internet of things", the future is often a place we’d rather laugh about than live in. Want a few examples?  Here ya go:

Fillippo Marinetti, the leader of the
Futurist movement of the early 19th
Century, liked the smell of exhaust,
but was less keen on wood and fabrics.
•  In 1911, Fillipo Marinetti, founder of the Futurist movement, predicted that 21st century Italy would be controlled by a technocracy of engineers who “live in high tension chambers. . . between walls of iron and crystal. . .free at last from the examples of fragility and softness offered by wood and fabrics with their rural ornaments. . .” Marinetti would die twice if he could see what the future has actually brought us from Italy: the inspiration for countless ersatz Tuscan villas.

In New York's 1939 World's Fair Kitchen of the Future,
appliances operated by themselves, leaving the homemaker
more time to wear low-cut gowns.
•  The New York World’s Fair of 1939, with its renowned Futurama exhibit, also put tremendous faith in technology, though to a less terrifying extent than Marinetti. The Fair’s Kitchen of the Future was an antiseptic-looking cooking laboratory with white floors, white walls, and white steel cabinets. At the wave of a hand, various automatic appliances would miraculously descend from hidden places, eliciting a beatific smile from the pearl-clad housewife.

Today’s actual kitchens are a long way from this gee-whiz gadget worship. In fact, they’re so retrograde they’d make a ‘39 Fairgoer shiver: wooden cabinets remain the steadfast favorite of consumers, just as they always have been. And American appliance makers are now producing nostalgically-styled ranges, refrigerators, and washing machines that would look very much at home in the average prewar kitchen. In other words, back to the future.

Disneyland's House of Tomorrow. To its sponsor,
Monsanto, the home of the future would be 100% plastic.
And you thought their genetically modified foods were scary.
•  In 1957, M.I.T. and Monsanto Corp. jointly unveiled their House of Tomorrow at Disneyland. Its claim to the future? It was built entirely of plastic—walls, floors, chairs, dishes, everything. This was a time, remember, when man-made materials symbolized a whole new era, what with Bakelite radios, Nylon stockings, and Vinyl upholstery. So what could be more futuristic than a house that was 100% plastic?  Still, this was probably not the place for folks with environmental illness.

Facebook may still exist in the future,
but will you still like it?
Clearly, most of the predicted revolutions in America’s lifestyle have amounted to diddly. There’s nothing sad about that—it simply reassures us that the future will look pretty much like the present.  Sure, we’ll have electric cars, space travel, and a social media up the wazoo. But it’s a good bet those cars will still have old tortilla chip crumbs under the seats, the bus to Mars will run late, and there’ll still be nothing worth seeing on Facebook.

Because even in the future, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Tuesday, November 13, 2018


When all the senses are at ease. . .
(Image courtesy
In all the works I’ve read by Modernist architects—and mind you, they had plenty to say—I don’t think I’ve ever seen the word “comfort” mentioned even once. Most Modernist writing attempted to distill architecture down to some kind of academic essence, with the human part of the equation boiled away completely. Whether ordinary people could understand such Modernist architecture, let alone feel comfortable in it, didn’t seem to matter a wit.  

But exactly how do we define "comfort"? Can we? Or do architects ignore it precisely because it’s too subjective? Clearly, comfort is founded on a few basic needs which must be satisfied before all others: We must be warm, dry, secure from danger, and adequately fed to feel any higher degree of comfort. But there’s more to it than that.

A contemporary Modernist interior:
Aesthetically stunning, but cozy, it isn't.
(Image courtesy of Web Urbanist)
For me, comfort is that state of being in which all the senses are at ease, not just one or two of them. If you ask people where they feel most comfortable, many will tell you, “In bed”—no, not making love, just physically in bed, perhaps reading on a rainy night, with a good lamp and a hot cup of tea on the nightstand. This squares fairly well with my personal definition of the senses being satisfied: In bed, we’re warm, dry, secure, and presumably well-fed; but our senses are also at ease. We have a well-lit book to read, the sound of rain drumming overhead, a soft blanket against our skin, and even the aroma and taste of tea to soothe the palate.

Of course, psychologists would have a field day here drawing analogies to the womb. But the fact remains that the sentient among us are not in the womb—we’re out here being battered in an often-harsh world, and as humans we quite naturally long to make our lives as comfortable as possible.      

The Barcelona chair, designed by Mies van der Rohe
and beloved by architect Philip Johson, who had them
prominently displayed in his famed "Glass Box" house.
So why do twentieth century architects have such a dismal record designing buildings that are comfortable for people? Many a medieval cottage feels more snug than the typical Modernist glass box.  In fact, “vernacular architecture”—a condescending term we architects use for anything not designed by us—often does a better job of providing comfort than our own esteemed efforts. Has architecture regressed?  Or have architects just gotten so wrapped up in theory that they’ve lost sight of what really matters to the human being? 

The Modernists, who were obsessed with the look of things to the exclusion of most everything else, never seemed to give comfort any thought whatever.  A few moments in any textbook-Modernist building makes this abundantly clear, not to mention sitting in a Modernist-designed chair. But the problem didn’t die with Modernism.  Even today, the architectural works most adored by critics are often just tolerated good-naturedly by the people who have to occupy them.  

Philip Johnson: Ow, my butt.
Architecture doesn’t—and shouldn’t—have to be this way.  Theoretical palaver won’t make your home a better place to live, not by itself, anyway. You have a right to comfort, whatever your personal definition of it, and a good architect should support that aim, not hinder it. 

By the way, I take back what I said about “comfort” not being mentioned in Modernist writing:  The late Philip Johnson once defended Barcelona chairs, those slippery Modernist slabs of leather, by asserting: “I think comfort is a function of whether a chair is good-looking or not.”

Somehow I doubt that his butt would've agreed.

Monday, November 5, 2018


"Real power is through respect. Real power is,
I don't even want to use the word, fear."
—Donald J. Trump

Yes, I’m an architect, and this is a blog about architecture and the built environment. Over the past two years, I’ve done my best to exclude my feelings about the nation’s current political situation. Today’s blog is different, however, and here’s why: I’m quite certain that tomorrow’s midterm election will be the most consequential in my lifetime. I was born in 1959, so that’s really saying something.

Tomorrow we will either reaffirm a coarse, hateful, and divisive President, or refute him and all he stands for. But there’s more at stake than rejecting the actions of one self-absorbed, money-obsessed billionaire. This election will also decide whether we continue to abide a Congress intent on methodically dismantling our democracy and selling it off piece by piece to corporate boards and the One Percent.

"Human kindness has never weakened the stamina
 or softened the fiber of a free people. A nation
does not have to be cruel to be tough.'
—Franklin D. Roosevelt
Since I fit the demographic of “old white male”, I feel fully entitled to likewise describe the current majority in Congress. They are a fading cadre of privileged men desperately clinging to power in the face of a changing United States of America. These are men long accustomed to having power. They feel entitled to it, and they seem willing to do anything to retain it, even to the detriment of our democracy. So desperate are they, in fact, that they now routinely put the good of their party before the good of our country.

However, nothing these men do can change the fact that we are an increasingly diverse nation—no longer one in which wealthy white men can run the show and expect everyone else to tag along—but one in which every person deserves a chance to take part. This is, after all, the meaning of democracy, despite our President's evident confusion in this regard.

What does this flag mean
to you and your children?
The news media speaks of the “polarization” of America as a struggle between Democrat and Republican. But I don’t see tomorrow’s vote as a competition between the Red team and the Blue team. Rather, it's a struggle between those desperately clinging to fading power—who invoke democracy only when it suits their purposes—and those who believe democracy really is for all of us.

This United States is a nation founded and then populated by dissatisfied immigrants, and we are a nation made infinitely greater by them over the past 242 years. We remain a place of imperfect equality and imperfect justice, but one which at least has always had the courage and decency to grapple with these shortcomings. No such tendency, however, has been apparent during this administration.

Tomorrow’s vote will determine whether we accept the idea of America as a gerontocracy run by billionaires and corporate boards, or whether we actually believe in that Pledge of Allegiance line I had to memorize in grade school:

“With liberty and justice for all.”

Whatever else you do tomorrow, please VOTE.

Monday, October 29, 2018


The metaphorical equivalent to how we build buildings,
even today.
Incredibly, amid the dazzling advances of so many other technologies, the way we build houses remains essentially medieval.  If transportation progressed at the same pace, you’d still be riding in an oxcart.  

One reason construction methods haven’t changed much in a thousand years is plain old fear:  Architects and contractors are slow to adopt new ideas because the consequences of failure are expensive. While a flaw in a car or even a computer are easily rectified, a mistake made on the scale of a whole building can be catastrophic. Or, as Frank Lloyd Wright put it, “The sins of the architect are permanent sins.”  

Frank Lloyd Wright's S.C. Johnson Administration Building
in Racine, Wisconsin (1948): Brilliant, but those spectacular
skylights leaked like a sieve. (Image: S.C. Johnson)
Because of the high stakes involved in trying out new technologies, most architects and contractors prefer to stay well clear of the cutting edge. Time pressure, and the fear of litigation, usually make the known product more expedient than the gamble. So, perhaps understandably, they play a game of you-go-first with new technology. They’re not willing to have their buildings, and hence their reputations, serve as guinea pigs for untried building methods or products.    

The Catch-22 of this situation is obvious, however:  New products can never become proven if people are afraid to use them.    

Modernist architects were among the notable few who were truly gung-ho on cutting-edge materials, but unfortunately, their trust in the emerging miracles of modern technology usually wasn’t repaid: their flat roofs and skylights inevitably leaked; their glued-laminated beams rotted; their steel sash rusted. 

Hot and cold water supply system using
PEX high-density polyethylene tubing.
which features a central manifold for
shutting off plumbing fixtures. A great
idea, but it sure had a rough start.
But it’s not just the failure of new products that makes architects and builders cling to the tried and true. Even products with decades-long track records can develop unexpected shortcomings. Who, for example, could have predicted that problems with outgassing would affect a longtime staple of construction such as particle board? Or that health concerns would banish that longtime standard of fireproofing materials, asbestos?  

It took almost a hundred years—
and the Second World War—to get
builders to switch from lath and
plaster to gypsum board ("drywall").
Today, as ever, there are a host of new products trying to shoulder their way into the hidebound building industry. But it’s an uphill battle. One example: flexible polyethylene tubing, which was designed to replace rigid copper water pipe and its fittings. Cheaper and simpler to install than copper, it had just started catching on during the 80s when leaky fittings brought a spate of lawsuits and a hasty retreat from the market.  

I-Joists are extremely strong and always straight and true,
but only the skyrocketing price of solid lumber has
convinced builders use them in place of good old sawn joists.
Today, flexible tubing is back, apparently leak-free, but it’s a brave contractor or architect who’ll stake his reputation on it a second time. And more’s the pity: the idea, in theory, is an excellent one. Instead of soldering dozens of copper fittings, one simply snakes a single flexible hose to each fixture—one of the first real plumbing advances in centuries. Still, as is usually the case with new building materials, it will take decades for the building industry to adopt it wholeheartedly.  

When new products do manage to prevail, it’s usually due to inescapable  economic pressures. This is what led to the adoption of drywall in place of plaster after World War II, for example. More recently, skyrocketing lumber prices have finally brought engineered wood products such as I-joists and laminated beams—at the fringes of the market for decades now—into mainstream use for home construction. I’m happy to report that they’re rapidly gaining the trust of architects and builders.

And it only took fifty years.