Monday, August 29, 2011


Channel surfing a while back, I happened across an old Joan Crawford movie called Mildred Pierce.  I won’t summarize the plot here--I couldn’t do it in the length of this blog anyway--but suffice it to say there were adequate histrionics to win Crawford an Oscar for best actress in 1945. What really caught my attention, though, was a scene in which her social-climbing character is about to buy a spectacular though long-empty half-timbered mansion.  As she surveys the ornate interior, she sighs resignedly and declares: “It’s not so bad, really...just tear down some of this gingerbread--”.

I puzzled over this line for a moment before realizing that, from the vantage point of 1945, the home’s design was supposed to be revolting. 

How far we’ve come--or rather, how far we’ve come around. Like everything else in history, architectural styles are cyclical:  every half-century or so, our idea of what constitutes good taste does a flip-flop. In Mildred Pierce’s time,  “gingerbread” was practically an epithet, and people tore it down if they had it. Today, people put up gingerbread if they haven’t got any, and it’s Modernism that’s down for the count.

The lesson is that, in architecture as in art, there are no hard and fast rules, no right answers, and ultimately, no such thing as good taste. I’m always amused at the astonished reactions I get when I make this statement. Some people bristle as if they’ve been personally insulted.  All of us think we know what good taste is, and--surprise surprise--it’s usually pretty close to our own. But like beauty, good taste is in the eye of the beholder. What passes for exquisite refinement in Dallas would draw yawns in Bombay or Manila. Moreover, there’s no reason to assume that our own ideas of good taste are any more valid than those of other cultures--they’re just more familiar, that’s all.  

What’s more, even within a particular culture, good taste is a prisoner of its own time. In 1889, a Swiss engineer constructed an enormous, riveted wrought-iron tower to serve as the centerpiece of the Paris Exhibition. The French considered it an abomination and demanded its prompt demolition after the fair closed. Rather than being destroyed, of course, the Eiffel Tower eventually became the very symbol of Paris.  

Likewise, at the dawn of the twentieth century, residents of the tony Chicago suburb of Oak Park were repeatedly outraged by the construction of a series of new homes which most of them considered monstrous. They were referring to Frank Lloyd Wright’s epoch-making Prairie houses. 

Some might argue that, apart from the temporal biases most of us are constrained by, there are still some absolutes of good taste that remain valid in any era or setting--rules based on classical proportions, color theory, respect for context, and the like.  But even this notion doesn’t hold water. Over the centuries, dozens of architects have changed the course of design history by flouting accepted “rules” of good taste, not the least of them Michaelangelo, Bernini, Richardson, Wright, and Venturi.

All this leads to a rather unsettling question. If there are no absolutes of taste--or, to put it more precisely, if our ideas of good taste are always prisoners of our own zeitgeist--how do we decide what our buildings should look like?  

Why, we rely on the infallible judgement of our local design review board, of course.

Just kidding. 

Tuesday, August 23, 2011


Halfway up one of the brick walls of my office, part of an old factory building dating from 1907, there’s a single brick that’s twisted slightly out of position.  Beneath it, a solidified ribbon of mortar hangs frozen in a drooping arc, attesting to the fact that the brick was bumped within a few minutes of the time it was placed, while the mortar was still wet.  

All told, there are about six thousand exposed bricks in the walls of my office and some half-million in the building altogether, most of them laid with ordinary accuracy.  That single brick, however, stands out both literally and figuratively.  

Why?  Because it gives an almost eerily direct temporal connection to the moment in 1907 when a mason, now long dead, placed--and then accidentally displaced--that single brick.  Perhaps he nudged it with his foot as he moved along the scaffold;  perhaps he had a few nips of whiskey with his lunch;  or perhaps it was just close to quitting time, and he was tired.  The possibilities are as vast as the likelihood of ever really knowing is small.  The brick can’t tell the story; it can only record the outcome of that moment over a century ago.

It may seem odd that imperfections are often the very things we find intriguing in our surroundings, but so it is.  Imperfections, which are the inevitable traces of human effort, are what put a premium on handcrafted objects over machine-made ones.  They tell us that someone--perhaps someone much like us--put heart and soul into making them.  

For this reason, architects have long admired brick, stone, carved wood, wrought iron, and other building materials that provide an obvious record of human effort.  If flaws seem like a strange thing to admire, the alternative is much worse.  Pursuing visual perfection, as some architects are wont to do, is a sure ticket to failure.  This is the inevitable flaw in the sort of frigid Minimalist work that appears ad nauseum in chic design magazines.  While such projects always look smashing in glossy photo spreads, the real test comes later, when time has inevitably begun to affect those “perfect” details and they start showing wear or simply fall to pieces.

For a time following the Industrial Revolution, machine-made objects were regarded as superior to handmade ones.  Yet eventually, social critics such as England’s John Ruskin managed to reawaken the public to the beauty of items fashioned by hand, whose innate sense of life no machine could ever match. 

The resulting counterreaction ushered in the Arts and Crafts movement in England, as well as its American counterpart, the Craftsman style. Craftsman architecture showcased coarse materials such as rough stone, clinker brick, and carved wood that were pointedly worked by hand, directly refuting the Victorian machine aesthetic. Later on in the early 20th century, Spanish, Tudor, and other period revival styles provided an even bigger canvas for hand craftsmanship.

“Every time a man puts his hand down to cut or carve or chisel or build a house,” wrote the architect William R. Yelland during the period revival era, “he must express his own self.”  It is this self-expression, a record of human passing forever condensed out of evanescent time, that is architecture’s greatest gift.  

Monday, August 15, 2011

AFFORDABLE HOUSING: The Invisible Answer, Part Three

Believe it or not, prior to the late 1930s, people who lived in travel trailers full-time were hailed as adventurous, modern-day nomads, and were widely admired by the public. By the tail end of the Depression, however, vast numbers of impoverished families had resorted to living in broken-down homemade trailers, and the public perception of trailer dwellers completely reversed. Cities and towns passed laws barring them from entering city limits, or else imposed heavy fees to discourage them from staying overnight.  

Today, this sad legacy persists in the unkind treatment of mobile home dwellers as second-class citizens--people whom zoning laws still relegate to living beside tank farms or beneath runway approaches. Little wonder that even the most mortgage-enslaved Americans still recoil at the thought of dwelling in such places. 

Yet if and when America ever develops a true mass-produced form of housing--one that does for the cost of homes what the Model T did for the cost of cars--it will most likely be an outgrowth of the mobile home. For decades, and without the fanfare accompanying the many “affordable” housing solutions proposed by architects and visionaries, mobile homes (or, as the industry prefers to call them, “manufactured homes”) have been providing decent, mass-produced lodging for a fraction of the cost of site-built houses.  

The main reason for this difference is simple. While conventional homes use a few factory-built components such as roof trusses, doors, windows, and cabinets, the lion’s share of the structure remains entirely hand-built. By contrast, the manufactured home industry literally grew up with mass production, thanks to its prewar origins in building travel trailers.  From a modest start--few early trailers exceeded 160 square feet or so--the industry inexorably progressed to larger and more sophisticated units. By the late Sixties, huge, factory-built “doublewides” routinely enclosed areas of around a thousand square feet, which is about the size of an average bungalow home of the 1920s. Along the way, manufactured home builders quietly acquired the sort of mass production techniques that the site-built housing industry still considers revolutionary.

Why all  the fuss about mass production? What’s wrong with the way we build traditional houses? The answer is that, of America’s innumerable consumer products, homes are among the last that are predominantly handmade. This implies the same thing for houses that it does for any other handmade product: High cost. It’s one of several admittedly complex reasons that fewer and fewer middle-class Americans--let alone the poor--can achieve the dream of home ownership these days.  

Still, despite the thrashing we’ve gotten from five years of the Great Recession, many Americans still believe that a “real” house, whether affordable or otherwise, should be built onsite and not in a factory--a perception heartily supported by the building industry, whose livelihood depends upon it. Hence, it’s doubtful that manufactured homes will be accepted by mainstream home buyers until they can unflinchingly compete with site-built homes in appearance, construction quality, amenities, and safety.  

Up to now, the manufactured home industry hasn’t been up to this challenge. For the most part, it remains satisfied with often-haphazard planning and a dubious, two-dimensional aesthetic. Yet an industry that’s ridden out wildly changing fortunes, regulatory discrimination, and decades of public ridicule might still be counted on to provide a few surprises.

Monday, August 8, 2011

AFFORDABLE HOUSING: The Invisible Answer, Part Two

Architects love to start from a clean slate.  It’s inherent in our training, and often, it’s for the best--after all, clean-slate thinking has given us Falling Water, Ronchamps, and countless other architectural triumphs. 

Yet sometimes, incremental improvements on a humble concept are more useful than the grandest plans made from scratch.  This is the case with affordable housing. Consider what architects have done to make homes more affordable during the past eighty years--in practical terms, next to nothing--and compare this with the erstwhile trailer industry, that paragon of gauche design, which has stumbled along unceremoniously only to arrive at affordable housing that really works.   

The trailer story begins in the late Teens, when Americans first piled into their flivvers to go “autocamping” along the nation’s scenic new roads.  At first, campers simply carried tents, but by the early Twenties, many were towing tiny trailers that cleverly unfolded into roomy canvas cabins.  Meanwhile, towns throughout the country opened auto camps--later known as trailer parks--to attract tourist dollars.  

In 1929, a Michigan man named Arthur Sherman got tired of wrestling with his tent trailer and built himself a solid-walled masonite version that didn’t need setting up.  The idea caught on, and Sherman wound up in the trailer business, with hundreds of others soon following.  By the mid-Thirties, trailering and trailer parks were such a huge phenomenon that one expert foresaw half of all Americans living in trailers by 1955.  

Yet by 1937 the trailer boom had collapsed, the victim of a saturated market and its own overheated rhetoric.  Meanwhile, broken-down trailers became the only homes many Depression-bound Americans could afford, changing the public’s original perception of trailer dwellers as wholesome, fun-living nomads to the more familiar stereotype presuming shiftlessness and poverty.  

World War II  briefly redeemed the trailer’s image.  Faced with an urgent need to house defense workers, the government ordered some one hundred thousand trailers during the course of the war, and in the process helped demonstrate the lowly trailer’s value as a year-round dwelling.

The postwar housing shortage brought many novel ideas for affordable, mass-produced housing, from the all-steel Lustron home to Buckminster Fuller’s aircraft-based Wichita House.  Once again, however, the clean-slate approach created spiraling costs that premempted any chance of affordability.

The trailer industry, on the other hand, simply picked up where it left off, adding homey touches and increasing size, until by the early 1950s some models were over 25 feet long.  These units were now clearly designed for year-round living, though in light of the trailer dweller’s shady reputation, the industry remained loathe to concede this.  

Only in 1954, when a Wisconsin firm introduced a trailer so large it required a special permit to transport, did the industry finally begin to acknowledge that year-round trailer dwellers were its real market.  Twelve-foot-wide, fourteen-foot-wide, and double-twelve-foot wide trailers eventually followed, at prices that nevertheless were a fraction of conventional site-built homes.

Today, the travel trailer’s descendants--now known as manufactured homes--have quietly fulfilled the whole gamut of affordable housing requirements, and have done so through evolution and not revolution.  They are mass-produced and hence affordable; they can be easily customized and rapidly deployed, and they provide the familiar domestic imagery so many homeowners take comfort in.

Yet despite these attributes, manufactured homes remain largely invisible to the architectural profession.  Hence, the question is not whether such homes can provide an affordable housing solution--they already have, and for decades.  The real question is why architects, and much of the public, still seem to wish they hadn’t.  

Monday, August 1, 2011

AFFORDABLE HOUSING: The Invisibile Answer

A while back, I wrote a column on why architects have so often failed at designing affordable housing. It drew a flurry of responses from my colleagues--some thoughtful, some merely huffy and self-righteous. A few architects who’ve spent a good portion of their careers developing affordable housing were understandably offended at being lumped in with the rest of us. Many others missed the point altogether, which was that traditional architectural schooling all but guarantees an architect who’ll design expensive buildings, not affordable ones.

Many respondents cited examples of successful, high-profile affordable housing projects aimed at low income groups. Few acknowledged that the need for affordable housing is no longer limited to the poor--increasingly, it applies to the middle class as well. Over the past ten years, aspiring middle-class home owners have been doubly hammered--early in the decade by the ballooning cost of single family homes, and now, in the midst of the Recession, by declining income. 

In fact, through feast and famine, the median price of homes has continued to rise ahead of any increase in family earnings, despite the increasing reliance today’s families place on dual incomes. Simple arithmetic will reveal the result: More people than ever are now deprived of the American dream of home ownership.  

How can any nation expect to provide affordable housing for its poor when, increasingly, it can’t even house its middle class? And can any place really be called a “community” when its own teachers, firefighters, cops, and librarians can’t afford to live there?  

The reasons behind the rising cost of homes are manifold, as many correspondents pointed out. By heavily favoring loans for conventional housing types, conservative lending institutions help enforce formulaic, cookie-cutter development, while quashing promising housing ideas that fall outside the usual bounds.  

Our nation’s moribund zoning laws have had a similar effect, though they do it by segregating usages and doggedly insisting on low densities and land-squandering building setbacks. Developers--the few that still dare to build in this  economic climate--respond to these limitations by sticking to well-tried formulas, concentrating on the sort of huge, overblown tract homes that used to yield the highest profits.  

Architects have bills to pay too, and perhaps that’s why so many of us in the profession seem unwilling to raise our voices against the idiocies of hyperrestrictive zoning, meddlesome design review boards, and the national appetite for pointlessly oversized home designs.       

Strangely, though, despite the many architects who voiced an opinion on the subject of affordable housing, not one cited the most successful and ubiquitous form of affordable housing there is--possibly because architects have had virtually nothing to do with its development. 

I’m talking, of course, about manufactured homes, those boxy, prefabricated units that used to be known as mobile homes and, before that, as trailers.  Despite garnering little more than contempt from the architectural profession during their fifty-plus years of existence, manufactured homes are among the few housing types that actually deliver on the promise of affordability, every day, and in every state of the union.  

Scourge or solution?  We’ll take a closer look next time around.