Monday, October 27, 2014


A while back, I had a chance to walk through a wonderful old villa designed by one of the top California architects of the 1920s. The house was a lyrical Spanish Revival design, carefully integrated into its hillside site, and surrounded by pools, gardens, and terraces designed by an equally famed landscape architect of the era. 

I’m being coy about names and dates (and omitting actual photos) only because, when I was there, the place was in the midst of a sweeeping “renovation” that I don’t have many kind words for.

Despite an apparently vast remodeling budget, the owners turned to a “designer”--that is, a person not legally qualified to use the term architect-- to carry out their project. Now, granted, I have an obvious bias toward hiring a licensed architect, especially when tampering with the work of an acknowledged master. But judge for yourself.

How some folks remodel a beautiful old home.
The designer had gutted an entire wing of the meticulously-detailed old mansion right down to the framing. He then commenced a remodeling program that managed to include every McMansion gimmick to be found this side of Las Vegas. In the “improved” kitchen, for instance, ceilings were riddled with recessed lighting fixtures, countertops slathered with glitzy granite, and cabinets lavishly custom built from acres of This Year’s Trendy Wood. Any space that was left over was crammed full of glaring stainless steel appliances.

In place of the original home’s understated elegance and subtly patinated finishes, the remodeled wing was transformed into a showcase of conspicuous consumption.

In design circles, there’s always been a debate about how an older house should be remodeled. Some argue that any changes should remain true to the original, right down to disguising modernities such as dishwashers and refrigerators. Others believe that since we no longer live in the past, it’s silly to be bound by its aesthetic. As a colleague of mine once put it: “Saying ‘My kitchen should look old,’ makes about as much sense as saying, ‘I must fly to Europe on a biplane.’” 

All the latest gadgets.  For this year, anyway.
Of course, neither of these viewpoints are necessarily the right answer--they’re just the two extremes on a spectrum of choices. Despite our fondness for the good old days, there were plenty of lousy houses built back then, just as there are today. And if an old house was carelessly designed in the first place, changing its original form, even substantially, can sometimes bring dramatic improvement. 

On the other hand, when an old house is masterfully designed and lacks only the contemporary niceties of efficient heating, ample electrical outlets, and modern appliances, a much more delicate touch is in order. Gutting a perfectly good house just to accomodate the latest gadgets and fad finishes is not just unnecessary, it’s flat-out stupid. In a few years, after the momentary sugar rush of “modernization”  wears off, both the architectural and monetary worth of the house are inevitably diminished. 

As our aforementioned designer friend was seemingly unaware, it’s important to exercise some judgement on how--and how much--we choose to remodel. It’s one thing to “improve” somebody’s paint-by-numbers effort. It’s another to vandalize a Rembrandt.

Monday, October 20, 2014


According to U.S. Census Bureau statistics, the size of the average American house more than doubled between 1950 and 1999.  Between 1982 to 2004 alone, new single-family homes grew some forty percent larger--from 1,690 square feet to 2,366 square feet.  In the meantime, the size of the average American household shrank from 3.3 to 2.6 people.  What’s going on?

Only in America.
The answer is, I think, that we Americans have fallen hook, line and sinker for the  Big Marketing Lie. For decades we’ve been pummeled by advertising urging us to buy more, more, more--a relentless drumbeat that carefully reinforces the idea that our happiness is directly proportional to the size, cost, and number of things we own. This mind-numbing message grew exponentially more shrill with the advent of television, and it’s being further amplified by the Internet, which makes it possible for us to shop our duffs off even while we’re still sitting on them. And not even the Great Big Ol’ Recession has put a serious damper on our mania for consumption.

Inevitably, the dual mantras of marketing--More is More, and Bigger is Better--have worked their way clear up to the single biggest purchase most consumers ever make: their homes. This is one reason why today’s smaller families still feel compelled to purchase ever-larger houses, even if they have to commute an extra fifty miles to afford them.
Yet whether we’re talking about televisions, cars, or houses, a moment’s reflection will quickly reveal who really benefits from rampant materialism--not those who buy consumer products, but rather those who make them. The reason is so obvious it’s almost funny: Owning two wide-screen TVs certainly doesn’t make us twice as happy, but it does quite plainly bring the seller twice the profit. Likewise, home buyers quickly learn that owning a gigantic house can be more of a headache than a pleasure, but by then the developer's profits are safely in the bank.

Like I was saying.

Perhaps there is a point when too much really is too much.  We’ve all seen that bumper sticker beloved by the terminally empty-headed: “He Who Dies With the Most Toys Wins.” It’s a testament to the thoroughness with which Madison Avenue has brainwashed consumers into equating material goods with happiness. Yet few intelligent Americans would profess that owning a huge house, a boat and a couple of Escalades has made their lives any happier. Some might even confess to the opposite effect. Still, we seem unable to shake off the siren song of materialism and see it for the profiteering sham it is.

There was a time, long ago, when Americans were frugal, inventive, and could do a lot with very little. But years of prosperity, coupled with the relentless urging to buy more, more, more, have made too many of us complacent, over-entitled, and obsessed by material goods beyond all else. 

Frank Lloyd Wright once observed:  “Many wealthy people are little more than janitors of their possessions.”  Today, it’s not just the top 1 percent who are so afflicted.  Rich and poor, left and right, in good times and bad--we Americans are fast becoming little more than serfs to our limitless craving for stuff.

Monday, October 13, 2014


The other morning I stopped at a local mom-and-pop coffee stand to grab some breakfast. I was about to settle for a toasted bagel when a charmingly hand-lettered sign near the register caught my eye. 

“Homemade Breakfast Sandwich,” it read. “A toasted english muffin with crispy bacon, fresh eggs, and medium cheddar cheese.”

Although I wouldn’t dream of ordering such a thing from the typical fast-food joint, the handwritten sign and homey locale made it sound pretty enticing. Visions of bacon and eggs sizzling on the griddle wafted into my head.

Breakfast, from Mrs. Monsanto to you.
Imagine my reaction when, perhaps thirty seconds after I’d ordered it, the proprietor handed me a scalding hot yet soggy something-or-other straight from the microwave. The “fresh eggs” were some sort of prefabricated, pale-yellow patty, the bacon a pre-fried strip of salt, and the “medium cheddar” a glossy orange square of Velveeta. So much for a “homemade” sandwich.

Now, it happens that this shop’s owners were recent immigrants from an Asian country famous for its fresh, healthy cuisine. Why, I wondered, would they even offer greasy, salty, precooked American pap that’s just a simulation of actual food? 
I think the answer is that we Americans, old and new alike, are slowly but surely resigning ourselves to accept fakery in everything we buy--even those of us who, like the coffee shop folks, ought to know better. 

The construction field is no exception. Wannabe building materials--the architectural equivalent of junk food--are rapidly becoming the default standard in remodeling and new construction alike. Consider the typical building project: On the outside are Styrofoam moldings meant to look like cement, or cement moldings meant to look like stone, or plastic moldings meant to look like wood. On the roof you may variously find asphalt shingles masquerading as cedar, concrete ones masquerading as clay, or rubber ones pretending to be slate.
Mom told me if you can't say anything nice, then just shut up. 

Exterior walls are liable to be dressed up in vinyl or pressed sawdust siding, usually embossed with an outrageous caricature of wood grain. Windows, more often than not made of polyvinyl chloride plastic, will have fake grids thrown in to make them look more like the genuine wooden kind. 

Inside you’ll find pressed sawdust doors also straining mightily to look like wood. Underfoot are “hardwood” floors that are actually plastic laminated over a photograph of the real article, or perhaps “linoleum” flooring that’s made out of yet more PVC. The kitchen countertops might be “stone” conjured out of polymethyl methacrylate and aluminum trihydrate.

Now, many of these wannabe materials are ostensibly used to save money, and granted,they may sometimes be cheaper than the genuine article. Yet if you figure in theall-important cost of labor, there are plenty of fakes--imitation stone countertops and artificial slate roofing are good examples--whose price just barely undercuts the real thing, if at all. Not to mention that the lion’s share of imitation materials, many of which are petroleum based, are inherently less green than the things they seek to imitate. Which ought to make us think twice about what we choose to build with. Put another way: Do we hold out for genuine cheddar, or just settle for Velveeta?

Monday, October 6, 2014


I always cringe at those real estate listings for older homes that read, “Completely renovated,” “freshly modernized,” or even “restored from top to bottom”.  What this usually means is that the seller has slapped up a truckload of flimsy crap from the local home improvement emporium--maybe some vinyl windows, a kitchen full of particleboard cabinets, and a quick coat of paint--and walked away whistling. This, for some people, constitutes a “complete renovation”.

While it’s sometimes hard to distinguish faddish design choices from timeless ones in the context of one’s own time, it’s easy enough to pick out the future offenders that are disfiguring perfectly good houses right now. Leading the pack are vinyl replacement windows--those bright-white, clumsily proportioned abominations that afflict so many houses these days, whether modern or traditional. 

Anyone who’s ever groaned at the sight of a fine old Victorian house refitted with shiny aluminum windows can well understand how these vinyl units will be regarded in a decade or two. They’re an especially ill-suited replacement for the intentionally slender and delicate aluminum windows found in most Ranch-style and modernist houses from the postwar years through the Eighties.

Clumsy, doughy, and white--vinyl is a far cry
from the slim-lined windows Rancher architects
had in mind.
It may sound strange to lament the loss of aluminum windows in an old Rancher, but then again, during the 1950s and 60s, it seemed inconceivable that someone might want to preserve the old wooden windows in a Victorian houses. This was, after all, a style of architecture then just barely above contempt, and nothing about it seemed to warrant the slightest effort toward preservation. Today, save for a minority of mid-century design aficionados, many people ironically hold postwar houses in the same regard. 

If energy conservation is the motivation for replacing original windows (and note that it’s practically never cost-effective to do so for energy reasons alone), it’s still better to replace window types like for like--double-glazed aluminum for single glazed aluminum, and so on. Better yet, put a fraction of this money into insulating your attic, and you’ll get a much bigger payback.

Vinyl windows aren’t the only glaring anachronism being foisted on older postwar homes these days, though. It’s just as shortsighted to “upgrade” older, modernist-era homes with molded six-panel doors, elaborate door casing, crown molding, ornate kitchen cabinetry, or rustic Italian tile. All of these materials have a proper place, but seldom will that place be found in a mid-century home, whose very aesthetic was based on clean-lined simplicity. 

Yes, this used to be a Rancher.
In any house, from any era, it’s all the disparate original bits and pieces--doors, windows, moldings, lighting fixtures, finishes--that add up to the integral whole which we call a period style. And experience proves beyond a doubt that an older house whose original style remains intact ultimately retains more value than one that’s been “renovated”, “modernized”, “upgraded”, or otherwise molested.

 Is all this just academic nitpicking? These days, a reasonably well-informed consumer won’t think so. Thanks to the vast wealth of design knowledge only seconds away on the Internet, home buyers are becoming ever more sophisticated about what constitutes a quality improvement, and what’s just trendoid rubbish.

Monday, September 29, 2014


If you’re ever up for a slightly depressing tour of yesterday’s design fads, mosey on over to your local architectural salvage yard. There you’ll find a whole galaxy of onetime architectural must-haves, from stoneware sinks, pinstriped toilets, and gold-plated faucets, to elaborate wet bar cabinets and heaven knows what else.  

At one time, somebody somewhere paid dearly for each of these moldering castoffs in order to  be at the forefront of architectural fashion. Fast forward a decade or two: Since the fads that originally impelled homeowners are now stone dead, and since there’s nothing quite as dated as a formerly hot fashion, these once-coveted items are unceremoniously ripped out and demoted to scrap.

Whirlpool tub and fireplace: Two fads in one,
now playing at your local salvage yard.
 It’s surprising how quickly a design fad can make the transition from emblem of taste to architectural albatross. Case in point: Think back to one of the popular trends of the ‘90s, concrete countertops. Made with indisputable artistry, often with sinks or lavatories beautifully integrated, these were strictly custom items commanding astronomical prices in their heyday. Yet on a recent visit to my local salvage yard, concrete countertops seemed to be lying about in every corner, complete with their six-hundred dollar faucets.

Granite countertops--ironically just about the most durable items found in the average home--often suffer an equally ignominious fate. The material itself is timeless enough, to be sure, but the favored colors of the moment aren’t. Once those mirror-polished pink slabs have joined the ranks of yesterday’s high-end kitsch, another topnotch product ends up as scrap.

Whirlpool tubs were another architectural fad with a high price tag and a short life. Like so many fashion items, architectural and otherwise, they were sold using the classic materialist ploy of selling the sizzle and not the steak--hence the romantic advertising images of couples lounging under discretely chest-high bubbles, with glasses of white wine perched beside them. Back in the day, tub makers even offered remote controls that let you turn on your tub before leaving work, ostensibly ready for a steamy rendezvous when you got home. 

Real life: Who would even think of bathing
without a candelabra nearby?
Or those pointy things?
These kinds of fads present appealing images, yet they fly in the face of how real people actually live. We may well aspire to sitting around soaking and getting plastered, yet how many of us can actually manage this in lives already harried beyond belief? The manifestly impractical whirlpool tub, like so many other architectural fads, owes its success mainly to advertising-induced fantasies of the good life and our cravings for status. Yet all this idyllic marketing is sooner or later exposed as a pipe dream, explaining why countless whirlpool tubs are ripped out and end up you-know-where. 

There are two lessons in this unending cycle of aesthetic boom and bust. First, it’s a virtual certainty that the hotter a design trend is, the less real substance there is behind it, and the harder it’s going to fall. 

Second, and perhaps more useful: Your local architectural salvage yard is a great place to pick up yesteryear’s most extravagant fads for pennies on the dollar. You just have to wait until the trendoids are done with them.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014


 In 1913, Walter Gropius completed an unusual shoe-last factory in the sleepy German town of Alfeld-an-der-Leine, and ever since, architects have been obsessed with building glass boxes. Alfeld is where glass-wall architecture quite literally turned the corner, dematerializing what had always been the sturdiest part of a building into ethereal lightness (<>). 

The famous glass corner of Walter Gropius's
Fagus shoe-last factory in Alfeld, Germany--first
of the Modernist-era glass boxes.
Gropius’s factory wasn’t the first glass box, of course. Long before came London’s vast Crystal Palace, built at Hyde Park for the Great Exposition of 1851. Its designer, Joseph Paxton, was a landscape gardener already known for his innovative cast-iron framed conservatories. With the Exposition short on time, Paxton ingeniously conceived the 990,000 square foot building as a gigantic prefabricated greenhouse.

Thereafter, others used glass in innovative ways. But it was Gropius who showed architects just how much fun they could have with it. Alas, the real brilliance of his design--its elegant juxtaposition of solid mass and transparent membrane--was lost on the many who simply declared glass the quintessential modern material and began using it by reflex.

The postwar era brought many more famous glass boxes. In Chicago there was Mies van der Rohe’s Lake Shore Drive Apartments of 1949, and nearby his Farnsworth House of 1951. There was Philip Johnson’s own glass house of 1949 in New Canaan, Connecticut. Glass boxes took commercial architecture by storm with two New York office towers, Skidmore, Owings and Merrill’s Lever House (1952) and Mies’s Seagram Building (1958). Thereafter, it became the accepted norm that a modern highrise building should be sheathed in glass.
Crown Hall on the Illinois Institute of Technology
campus: A classic Mies van der Rohe glass box. Before
IIT began air conditioning its buildings in the 1960s,
architecture students frequently sweltered in its
hothouse interior.

The trouble is that, as much as architects adore glass boxes, they simply don’t work as buildings. There are many subtle reasons--privacy, maintenance, people throwing stones--but the most obvious one is the sun, which rather unavoidably warms up our world in the daytime and lets it cool off at night. This makes it impossible to comfortably live or work in a glass box without having to pump in or out huge amounts of energy in the form of heating or cooling. 

Ancient cultures, who lacked our modern expedient of mechanical air conditioning, had the good sense to design and orient buildings in passive synergy with the sun--a basic intelligence that many of today’s architects seem to lack. Flying in the face of the green movement, they remain obsessed with building glass boxes. What’s more, computer-aided design has actually made the problem worse: Slick digital renderings of buildings with acres of sparkling glass invariably look stunning in renderings, where they’re forever immune from the exactions of actual use. For eventual occupants, however, the reality is quite different. 

Not far from my office is a civic building recently designed by a prominent modernist firm. It’s yet another iteration of the tired glass box formula, devoid of any architectural response to solar orientation or practical comfort. The predictable result: On the south face of the building, hapless employees tape newspapers to the windows to avoid being broiled at their desks, while on the north side, which faces the street, they do the same to avoid being displayed like dummies in a shop window. 

Modernism may claim the phrase “form follows function”, but for any kind of life beyond the vegetal, the typical modernist glass box is the least functional form possible.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

CHINA: Today, Yesterday, and Tomorrow

(Note: This is the final piece in a series of reflections on China, where I spent this past summer).

China is a nation of baffling contrasts. It’s a place that practically defines the notions of culture and permanence: consider the Great Wall, or the ancient garden residences of my adopted home town, Suzhou. And yet today’s China is better known by its mad scramble for status and wealth, its penchant for superficial glitz, and its monumental indifference to quality.

Jichang Garden in Wuxi, not far from my
summer home-away-from home
in Suzhou, China. The garden was designed
and built between 1506 and 1521.
In Nanjing, a glittering new railway station unveiled six years ago is already falling apart, thanks to modern China’s typically hasty workmanship. Another station just recently completed in my adopted hometown of Suzhou no doubt awaits the same fate. The main reason for the dismal quality of China’s built environment is the invariably breakneck construction schedules imposed by local governments, which serves to aggrandize the officials in charge, but at the cost of both careful planning and decent quality. The quality of commercial work is even worse, though in this case it’s because investors want their profits and don’t much care what happens afterward.

Still, a visit to any one of Suzhou’s many ancient garden residences--four of them are World Heritage sites--should convince even a hardened skeptic that China’s current deficiencies are just a momentary blip in its astonishing history (<>. Most of these gardens date from the late Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), and they exhibit sensibilities so refined that, truth be told, the West has yet to equal them in beauty and livability. Here, landscape and shelter are so artfully joined that it’s often difficult to tell where indoors begins and outdoors ends. 

Shanghai Tower, soon to be China's tallest
building, and the world's second tallest at
121 stories and 2,073 feet. The design
is by American architects Gensler Associates. 
Like most traditional Chinese buildings, these garden residences are designed with fastidious attention to both solar orientation and sensual experience. Often, I’ve visited them on ferociously hot and humid days, only to find myself almost supernaturally transported into a cool realm of shade, fragrance, and beauty the moment I passed through their portals. 

Granted, in ancient China, as in the Old World, only an elite few had the privilege of such gracious living--but that is, alas, how we measure culture’s high water marks. Nevertheless, the elevated living standard of China’s most fortunate ancients makes the lives of their European counterparts, miserably hunkered down in their dank castles, seem downright barbaric.

To keep China’s current situation in perspective, Suzhou has three thousand years of recorded culture. By contrast, a mere six decades have passed since China’s Maoist revolution, and only half that many since China reopened to the world. One can endlessly argue the present government’s strengths and weaknesses, but one thing is certain: China is no worse off under Communism than it was under the humiliating subjugation of its prior colonial masters--a time when the entrance to a public park in Shanghai’s British quarter could freely post the advisory, “NO DOGS OR CHINESE.”

Sixty years is just a heartbeat in the history of such a proud and ancient culture, and it would be a mistake to presume that tomorrow’s China will resemble the peculiar socialist/materialist hybrid we know today. Though we can only infer what lies ahead for China, the brilliance of its past is crystal clear.