Monday, November 29, 2010


Form Follows Function.  So wrote the renowned architect Louis Sullivan over a century ago.  But oh, how he might regret coining that phrase today.   Time and again, it’s been invoked to justify design that’s the furthest thing from functional.  
Despite his role as a founding father of Modernism, Sullivan lovingly adorned his buildings with great swaths of the most sinuous and delicate ornament.  He’d be aghast at the bristly, hard-edged stuff so many designers call “functional” these days. 

To see the dishonesty in passing off haphazard design under the rubric of functionality, we need only consider the beauty and simplicity of a truly functional object.  Take an ordinary, dime-store bottle opener:  Stamped out of a mere scrap of steel, it could hardly be simpler or cheaper to make.  And as if opening bottles flawlessly weren’t enough for such a humble tool, the other end opens cans as well.  

Other examples of truly functional design spring easily to mind:  a pencil; a violin; a pair of blue jeans; a spoon.  What makes these objects paragons of functionality is that they’re as simple as they can be while still perfectly fulfilling their tasks.  

But what architects and designers term “functional” is often something else again.  For instance, I recently received a brochure for ultra-high-end bathroom fixtures designed by an artisan with truly impeccable taste.  As works of art, they’re stunning.  As usable objects, however, they sorely flunk the test.  

The lavatory sink, for example, resembles a kitchen funnel, and is in fact hardly bigger than one.  It would require utmost caution to keep water inside it instead of all over the floor.  This funnel is in turn is supported by an elaborate network of rods and braces that, for all their complexity, don’t look terribly sturdy.  The whole assemblage is executed in high-polish stainless steel, a material that sounds easy to keep clean, but most assuredly isn’t.  In short, this “functional” lavatory isn’t the kind you’d buy to brush your teeth at.  It’s the kind you’d buy to stun the neighbors.

A genuinely functional sink, on the other hand, would probably look pretty much like the one you’ve got in your bathroom:  a generous surface area to catch splashes, an absence of exposed pipes or brackets, and a finish that’s durable and easy to keep clean.  Yeah, I know—that’s the way sinks have looked for the past hundred years.  Boring?  Maybe.  Functional?  Definitely.  

Functionality is a quality that evolves over decades--and sometimes centuries--of continual refinement, not during some overnight design catharsis.  This evolutionary process eventually brings an object asymptotically close to its ideal form, after which it doesn’t have to change much any more.  Would a spoon be improved by adding some “functional” rivets?  Would that bottle opener be better if it had a digital readout showing how many beers you’ve drunk?

Okay, maybe.

Domestic designs evolve toward ideal forms, just as other objects do.  Functionalism has more to do with history, evolution and a timeless way of building, than it does with trendoid malarkey.   

Monday, November 22, 2010


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.

So much for a warm patina. 

Still, I can hardly blame my client for wanting to make his little cottage sparkle.  Us Yanks 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.  

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 prewar homes—whether hardware, flooring, or light fixtures—is generally higher 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 rinkydink goods that’ll briefly look brand-new.   

•  Use that paintbrush sparingly!  The nature of today’s paint formulas makes repainting an iffy improvement.  Therefore, if you have a reasonably intact coat of oil-base paint on your doors, for example, you’re far better off living with it than covering it with a latex paint, which won’t have the same shine or durability. 

•  Learn to live with a few scratches here and there.  Americans are obsessed with keeping their homes pristine;  unfortunately, the nature of the universe puts them forever on the losing side of the battle.  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. 

Tuesday, November 16, 2010


What kind of horrible person could find fault with a home improvement that saves energy?

You guessed it.  Me.

The improvement I’m talking about is window replacement.  Some folks do it to reduce maintenance, others to update their home’s appearance.  Most people replace their windows in an effort to lower their energy bills.  If that’s your main motivation, take a clear-eyed look at the benefits first.  Then, if replacement still makes sense, be absolutely sure to choose new windows that’ll suit the style of your house.  

First, an acknowledgement:  There’s no question that replacing single-glazed windows with new double-glazed ones will substantially cut heat loss through windows--usually by around 50%.  What’s more, if your old windows are poorly weatherstripped, it’ll also greatly reduce the infiltration of cold air.  

Here’s the catch, however:  In the average tract house, windows are not the major culprit behind heat loss--ceilings are.  So if saving energy is your main objective, you’ll get more benefit from adding (or increasing) attic insulation.  Even incremental improvements such as upgrading duct insulation, replacing an obsolete furnace or swapping out an inefficient refrigerator are likely to pay back your investment faster, because the modest energy savings you’ll realize from new windows will be wiped out by the initial cost for years to come.

On the other hand, if your windows have other problems--balky hardware, flimsy construction, or whatever--window replacement may be the right move.  However, choose the replacements very carefully.  If you have a prewar home with wood windows, and you want to replace them with new color-coated aluminum or vinyl ones, make sure the replacements have the same hefty frame thickness and a similar finish.  And unless your old windows are already white, avoid the tell-tale bright-white frames that are typically seen in replacement work.  Instead, choose a color that’ll complement your home’s existing color scheme, and ideally, any possible future scheme as well.  

Postwar homes with aluminum windows pose a special problem.  For some reason, people who wouldn’t dream of ripping the wood windows out of a Victorian think nothing of scrapping their postwar home’s aluminum windows and substituting clunky white vinyl ones with fake muntins.  That’s a mistake.  If the original windows are natural or bronze-anodized aluminum, insist on the same finish for the replacements.  Don’t arbitrarily “upgrade” to some other window type because it happens to be in fashion at the moment.  

The slender, flat, and unashamedly metallic look of aluminum windows is an integral part of many postwar homes designs.  While it may not seem like it from such a close vantage point in history, these houses have a style as valid as any other, and they deserve the same respect you’d accord their more popular predecessors.   

In sum, two suggestions:  Ixnay on replacing your old windows solely for energy savings alone--put the money into more effective measures first.  And if you’ve got some other good reason to scrap your old windows, do your home a favor and replace them with double-glazed versions in the same material, finish and frame thickness. 

Monday, November 8, 2010


Picture this intersection in a middle-class residential neighborhood:  On one corner stands an aging fast-food joint; on another a ramshackle grocer.  On the third corner is—surprise!—an ill-kept liquor store.  On the fourth corner there’s nothing at all—just a weed-choked empty lot.  Ugly?  You said it.  Yet in the past, whenever I’d drive through this dreary crossroads, I’d excuse it with, “Well, you can’t expect to find beauty everywhere.”

But you know what?  Not only should expect to find beauty everywhere--if you don’t find it, by thunder, you should demand it.   

Nowadays, it’s become somehow sissified to insist that one’s built environment be beautiful--not just decent and functional, but inspiring to look at.  Yet rather than being a quality that everyone can expect, beauty has become the exclusive franchise of architects, planners, and decorators—professionals who, let’s face it, are generally perceived as a bunch of wimpy prima donnas.  We leave it to this lonely bunch to harp about the way things ought to look.  

History tells us it wasn’t always so.  The Greeks, those aesthetic rascals, sought beauty at every turn, and they weren’t embarrassed about it either—their prose alone makes that perfectly clear.  Their successors, the Romans, may have lowered the hallowed Greek standards a notch or two, but they could still appreciate a well-turned arch of triumph when they saw one. 

The Japanese obsession with beauty is legendary, as evidenced by that culture’s art, architecture, landscape design, and even by its ritual tea ceremony.  Nor is this eye for beauty confined to the wealthy--even the humblest Japanese home shows a fastidious concern for the pleasing arrangement of furniture, flowers, and food on a plate.      

In the United States of the late-19th century, concern with the declining quality of life in urban centers led to grass-roots improvement societies aimed at beautifying neighborhoods and creating public parks and amenities.  By the turn of the century, such concerns were galvanized under the rubric of the City Beautiful movement, led by architects such as Daniel H. Burnham.

“Make no little plans,” said Burnham, “they have no magic to stir men’s blood.  Make big plans, aim high in hope and work, remembering that a noble, logical diagram once recorded will never die.” 

How sad, then, that we’re willing to settle for so much less today:  lookalike strip malls; acres of asphalt; crackerbox housing.  I believe it’s not so much a shortcoming of the American character as a general sense that, with all the troubles we have as a nation, a beautiful built environment is just too much to expect.  

That’s a pity.  Perhaps, like the Greeks, the Japanese, and even our own 19th-century forebears, we should consider the possibility that beauty is actually an integral part of a healthy society, and not just so much window dressing.  

The search for beauty begins with the individual, however.  It isn’t something to be ceded to blundering bureaucracies—the jolly folks who brought us the blight of downtown freeways, cheerless housing projects, and retrograde design review boards.
Don’t hang your hopes on a change from without.  Take a look around you.  A more beautiful world could begin on a street like yours.