Monday, October 14, 2019


Ayn Rand's Howard Roark character, here
portrayed by Gary Cooper in the Warner Bros.
film of 1949:
The poster boy for architectural ego.
“We had an architect draw an addition for us, and the bids came in at twice the budget!”  

That’s a complaint I hear all the time. When you look at how architects are trained, and how they go about seeking a reputation, it’s no surprise that we’re so lousy at pinching pennies.  The truth is that the very meaning of life for most architects is rooted in self-expression: we want our work to stand out from everyone else’s. Alas, since a unique design costs more than a generic one, that self-expression usually comes at the client’s expense. 

Why are architects so motivated to be different? One reason is intrinsic to humankind, not just to architects. For many of us, shaping a building in the intellect and then placing it in the physical world is our way of saying, “I was here.  This building is part of my legacy. It’s one reason my life mattered.” And obviously, we’d like our legacies to be memorable, not mundane.

Sydney Opera House, architect Jorn Utzon's undeniable
tour de force, was budgeted at $7 million in 1957. By the time
it opened in 1973, the cost had ballooned to $102 million,
an increase of more than 1400 percent. 
But there are some less spiritual reasons that architects feel compelled to be different. One of them has to do with the way we’re educated. Many architecture schools simply amplify the student’s egocentric motivations, rather than balancing them with an equal sense of responsibility to the client.  

From their first day in school, students are praised for coming up with the unique, the extraordinary, even the bizarre. Minimal emphasis is placed on budgets and other real-life encumbrances, on the theory that they might impinge on the student’s budding creativity.

A copy of Progressive Architecture magazine
dating from around the time I was a student
at UC Berkeley College of Environmental
Design. Getting onto this cover was the holy
grail of architectural practice,  and for many,
it still is.
“You’ll have enough worries about budget when you get into practice,” one professor told me.  “This is the time to let go of all that.” Imagine a medical school operating on the same principle:  “Never mind the diagnosis—this is college. Go in there and have some fun with that scalpel!”  

In the face of this relentless urging to be creative, most architecture students naturally come away with a sneaking guilt that any design that’s less than stunningly original isn’t worthy of the name architecture. The result is that, for the rest of their careers, many architects aren’t satisfied with a simple solution when a complex one will do. In other words, schooling teaches architects how to make buildings expensive, not how to make them affordable.    

A sure way to be forgotten: "Nice Little House
Comes In On Budget".
Architectural education isn’t the only culprit, however. We architects are also dupes to popular and trade publications that award extravagant architecture with the holy grail of publication, while work that’s more responsible to budget and function frequently goes unnoticed. Since few architects are anxious to labor in obscurity, extravagant design becomes the norm even when it’s uncalled for.  

Hence, a simple addition or even a garage is trumped up into the architect’s personal manifesto, driving up the client’s cost to no practical gain. 

It’s not hard to understand why architects overbuild, when publication provides the only real way to achieve a measure of notoriety. After all, it’s a rare architect who gets acclaim for designing something simple and inexpensive.

Picture the screaming headline:  “Nice Little House Comes In On Budget.”

Monday, October 7, 2019


What's this got to do with architecture?
Read on.
One of the simplest yet least understood concepts in architecture is that of positive versus negative space. However esoteric it may sound, its applications to home and landscape design are immediate and tangible.

The basic idea is simple. Imagine a rolled-out sheet of cookie dough. Think of positive space as being the cookies cut out from the dough, and negative space as the pointy scraps left behind.  

In planning, just as in cookie-cutting, the name of the game is to minimize the sharp-angled or unusable scraps of negative space that are left over. Alas, unlike baking, you can’t just gather them up and knead them into more dough--you have to figure out what to do with them ahead of time.  

The famed razor-sharp corner of architect
I.M. Pei's National Gallery of Art in
Washington, D.C.—it's cheap drama,
but that's about all.
The desirability of positive space is rooted in the fact that nature’s fundamental closed shape is the circle, or at least some approximation thereof. And regardless of how far man removes himself from his primitive beginnings, circular shapes remain the most psychologically comforting for human habitation. This is a fact borne out by the widespread persistence of circular dwellings—from mud huts to yurts to igloos to Buckminster Fuller's Dymaxion House—despite the fact that they are not necessarily the simplest shapes to construct.   

We in the industrialized nations, however, live in a rectilinear world that’s chock full of negative space. Outdoors, common examples would include those useless slivers of side yard that zoning ordinances insist on having between houses--the house, in this case, being the “cookie”, and the setback land the scraps.  Inside, negative space could include that dust-catching wedge of space under a stair, or that inaccessible corner of the living room that always seems to gather dust bunnies.  

There are a few simple ways to avoid negative space in architecture:

Notice how the simple device of cutting the back corner
of this room intensifies its sense of comfortable enclosure.
•  Avoid shapes having acute angles, both in plan and elevation.  Modern architects were smitten with acute angles precisely because they’re rare in traditional architecture (and let's face it, many still are). But while razor-sharp angles make for cheap drama, they don’t make for comfortable living--a fact vernacular builders have recognized for centuries. Psychologically, converging surfaces are disconcerting, whether they’re in a sharp cornered room or a single-slope vaulted ceiling. Physically, they’re just plain impractical. Take a lesson from the past, and keep interior angles at ninety degrees or more.

•  Strive for areas with a circular sense of enclosure.  The closer a room arrangement approaches a circular shape, the more comfortable it’ll be.  This doesn’t mean the room itself should be rounded--just that the arrangement of the objects within it should be reasonably equidistant from a central focal point.  In a long, narrow living room, for example, a couple of more-or-less circular furniture arrangements would prove more comfortable for conversation than one long, stretched-out grouping.

Positive space in a garden is generated by the planting
that fills the corners, leaving the "cookie" for the occupants.
•  Apply these concepts to exterior design as well.  Take a typical rectangular plot of land with an ell-shaped house in the middle:  the structure’s presence necessarily subdivides the outdoor area into smaller rectangular pieces, many of them awkwardly proportioned.  What to do with these negative leftovers?  

The best solution is to break down awkward negative spaces into a series of organically-shaped positive spaces--as many as are useful--and fill the leftover negative space with planting.   Note that size doesn’t determine whether the space is positive or negative;  even a triangular scrap of land a few yards on a side could be transformed into positive space by adding, say, a garden bench comfortably surrounded by a cloak of plants. 

Monday, September 30, 2019


CCTV headquarters building in Beijing. Architect:
Rem Koolhaas. Many landmark Chinese buildings, such as the
"bird's nest" Olympic stadium and the 128-story Shanghai Tower,
are still designed by western architects—but maybe not for long.
China is a nation that’s never less than fascinating. I first visited in 1994, and have spent my summers here more or less yearly since 2000, when my wife and I bought a house in Suzhou, the region where she grew up.
In the ensuing nineteen years, I’ve written many, many thousands of words about China, whether for newspapers, for my syndicated column, or for my blog. Yet each time I return to the People’s Republic, I find a whole new China to talk about.
If there’s one thing that’s stood out in my last few visits—since America’s Great Recession, perhaps not coincidentally—is that the Chinese no longer view the West as its smarter big brother. After a century of humiliation at the hands of the West, after enduring Second World War atrocities by the Japanese, China closed its doors and turned turned its back on the world. Communism salvaged the nation’s sense of sovereignty, but ironically, it also further afflicted China by unnaturally suppressing the nation’s ancient mercantile instincts for thirty years.
One of the less nauseating images of Japan's
atrocities again the Chinese during the Nanjing Massacre,
which began December 13, 1937. During the next two months,
between 100,000 and 300,000 Chinese died at the hands of
Japanese soldiers, including uncounted women and children.
Only after the Opening in 1978 was the genie once again released from the bottle. In the scant thirty-eight years since—a mere heartbeat in the long history of this culture—China has regained its confidence, and perhaps, its sense of innate cultural superiority.
This wouldn’t trouble me in the least if China was not such a profoundly homogeneous nation, and also one that has not lost its equally ancient xenophobia, nor its incredible tenacity in holding a grudge. I’m speaking, of course, about China’s relationship with Japan—a nation that has undeniably inflicted unspeakable suffering on the Chinese people. Yet China had no monopoly on suffering during the Second World War. The United States was not occupied by Imperial Japan as China was, but given the course of the war following the attack on Pearl Harbor, Americans certainly had reason to hold a grudge. Yet within five years of the war’s end, Japan was under reconstruction, and within ten the antagonism of the war years was largely left behind.
Propaganda poster from the time of the Cultural Revolution,
which turned China's most learned citizens into political enemies
to be persecuted.
Not so China. Every Chinese grade school history book from the immediate postwar era to this very moment makes certain to instill in young Chinese students a hatred of the Japanese. This, not surprisingly, explains the instant indignation of young Chinese in the long running skirmish over some seemingly worthless islands in the South China Sea and any number of other conflicts we in the West may find trivial. 
As a frequent visitor to the People’s Republic, one thing that’s always in the back of my mind is the speed at which things can change there. In all the time I’ve spent there, I’ve seldom met a Chinese person who has been less than generous and hospitable—it’s an innate cultural trait. Yet it’s also true that it would only take a single edict from Beijing to change this benevolent attitude toward foreigners, much as Mao’s bizarre initiation of the Cultural Revolution sparked mayhem against China’s own most learned people.
Xi Jinping: One Belt, One Road, One Leader for the
foreseeable future. Which path will China choose?
In view of the near-certainty that China will draw abreast of the United States as a world superpower in the near future, one can only hope that the Buddhist cultural traits of kindness and generosity will continue to outweigh the periodic fevers of nationalism that wreak such destruction there,  just as they do everywhere else on earth.

Wednesday, August 28, 2019


Mission style table by Gustav Stickley, c 1910.
(Image copyright Metropolitan Museum of Art)
When I was a kid, the height of furniture fashion was a style called “Danish Modern”.  It wasn’t very comfortable—nor, it turns out, was it even all that Danish.  The chairs were linear, with big slab-like cushions that did a lousy job of conforming to your gluteus maximus. The tables had a lot of nasty, smack-your-knee-and-see-stars kinds of corners.  But we gladly put up with such discomforts because the stuff was “modern”, and in the 1960s, modern was the only way to be.

Today, of course, we’re much more discriminating. We admire furniture of the 60s as an appealingly naive emblem of the Jet Age, but by and large we’ve concluded that an older, more storied style is the way to go. So what do we do?  We adopt a style that’s linear, uncomfortable, and not all that good-looking, and which, even though it’s called Mission, has nothing whatever to do with missions. But it’s got  a hundred-odd years of history behind it, and that's no doubt comforting in these mad times. 

An original Mission style lamp by Tiffany?
No—it's a copy offered by Home Depot.
Mission furniture has more to do with the late-19th century English Arts and Crafts movement and such proponents as Gustav Stickley and William Morris than it does with the California Missions or Mission Revival architecture.  Early mass marketers of the style, however, preferred to present it as a rough-and-tumble American phenomenon rather than a snooty British one.  

Regardless of Mission’s murky heritage, one thing is crystal clear:  With its sharp corners and church-pew surfaces, it’s certainly among the most uncomfortable furniture styles of the last ten centuries.  It gives Danish Modern and even Frank Lloyd Wright’s chairs a run for the money.  

Arts & Crafts fans even have their very own font.
(Image courtesy 
I know that at this point a lot of designer types will start sputtering in their lattes about what a pioneering concept the Mission style was, what geniuses the Arts and Crafts folks were, and how dare I, a lowly architect and even lowlier writer, criticize such brilliance? Actually, I agree—the Arts and Crafts folks were indeed geniuses, and if you’ve ever seen the refined artistry of an original Morris or Stickley piece, you’re no doubt as certain as I am.  

Trouble is, the vast majority of Arts and Crafts, er, rather, Mission furniture was not made by Morris, Stickley, or any of the other craft studios whose work is rightly coveted these days. Adhering to the highest standards of craftsmanship naturally made for miniscule production, which in turn ensured that only the wealthy could afford their work.  

Latter-day Mission style cabinet, also available at
Home Depot. You may well find one of these
in your next motel room.
At any rate, by the time Mission furniture caught on with the masses, the craft studios had already moved on to other things, leaving the ordinary Joes and Josephines of the early century to settle for knockoffs from Sears and Roebuck. Now, while using mass production to make products more affordable is a great American tradition, it also brings about an inevitable dilution of quality that eventually saps the artistry from any design. That’s why a Model T is not a Rolls-Royce. For the same reason, most of the Mission furniture that’s come down to us is clunky, pedestrian, and literally run-of-the-mill.  

Which brings me back to the current encore of Mission mania. The style has already become ubiquitous in the media, appearing not only in print but in movies, commercials and sitcoms.  Mission knockoffs are now standard fare in those giant discount furniture stores.  

You may wonder how long this can last. For me, the sure sign that a style is on its last legs is when it starts appearing in chain motels. Well, guess what? Have a seat in the lobby, folks. Just mind those sharp corners. 

Monday, June 24, 2019


Author's Note: I'll be at my home-away-from-home in Suzhou, China for the months of July and August, and because those big bad socialists block Google and therefore Blogger, I won't be able to post new Architext blogs while I'm there  So, dear readers, I'm choosing a few of my favorite past blogs for an encore presentation. Hopefully you'll find them worth a repeat or, if you haven't read them before, an interesting first.  —Arrol Gellner

What’s the greenest way to build? Using natural, renewable resources? Using salvaged building materials? Or using the same old stuff you’ve always used, which some corporate PR firm has now managed to repackage as “green”?

These are all ways to profess greenness, some effective, some merely gestural. But by far the greenest approach to construction is to adapt buildings that already exist--and that’s one avenue in which we Americans still fall woefully short.
This building was demolished to make room for—
no kidding—a casino parking lot.
(Columbia Building, Pittsburgh, destroyed 2011;
courtesy of

We are, after all, a young nation built largely from scratch, and we consider it normal for our built environment to be in a constant state of upheaval. Here, it’s common for buildings to be demolished after fifty, thirty, or even ten years of use--and the expected life of buildings is getting shorter, not longer.

One study has pegged the average lifespan of American buildings at just shy of fifty years. Compare this to Europe, where a building’s life is measured in centuries rather than decades. The average life of an English building, for example, is 132 years. The typical lifespan of buildings on the Continent is probably even longer if we discount the effects of two World Wars. 

San Francisco's Ghirardelli Square—
a repurposed chocolate factory—
was among the first great
examples of "adaptive reuse".
America’s obsession with change, however, leads us to build quickly and on the cheap, since it’s assumed that buildings will be obsolete in a few decades anyway. Such thinking naturally leads to a vicious cycle of wastefulness: Because permananence is considered irrelevant, buildings are worn out in a few decades whether they’re actually obsolete or not. These, in turn, are typically replaced by structures that are even shoddier and more temporary--whether theoretically green or otherwise. 

Preserving and reusing older, well-built existing structures, on the other hand, is the ultimate expression of true green design, since it requires relatively little additional expenditure of energy when adaptation is required, and occasionally, none at all when it isn’t. 

The average old building represents a vast investment of energy--not only in the form of materials, but more importantly, in the form of labor (and by “old”, let’s assume we mean those built before World War II). It’s self evident that old buildings typically used more opulent finishes than their modern counterparts; they were, after all, built at a time when high quality materials had not been depleted and were still used generously. 
The crafts that built interiors like this one—
the Los Angeles Theater—are not coming back at
prices anyone can afford. 

What is less seldom appreciated, however, is that an old building also embodies an enormous storehouse of labor--much of it of a kind modern society can no longer afford. Many once-ubiquitous building trades have all but disappeared over the last century--from stonemasons to stained-glass makers, from plasterers to gilders--and the fruits of their labors remain in every extant building, essentially frozen in time. 

These skills won’t be coming back, except in their current status as boutique trades carrying astronomical costs. Hence, destroying an old building doesn’t just squander physical resources--it also negates forever a huge investment of skilled work that’s no longer affordable and sometimes no longer even obtainable. To my mind, this is a waste of nonrenewable resources more tragic than that of any precious material.


Author's Note: I'll be at my home-away-from-home in Suzhou, China for the months of July and August, and because those big bad socialists block Google and therefore Blogger, I won't be able to post new Architext blogs while I'm there  So, dear readers, I'm choosing a few of my favorite past blogs for an encore presentation. Hopefully you'll find them worth a repeat or, if you haven't read them before, an interesting first.  —Arrol Gellner

La Maîtrise Pavillon for Galeries Lafayette, among the
fantastical structures that introduced the public to Art Deco
at the Paris Exposition in 1925.
In April 1925, an exposition opened in Paris that was to influence American design for the next twenty years. It carried the unwieldy moniker: L’Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes . However, the name of the style it gave birth to is short and sweet: Art Deco.

The Exposition was meant to showcase only the most modern European design, whether in architecture or consumer products, so no historically-based decoration was allowed.  Instead one found a gaggle of fresh new motifs based on simple geometry: chevrons, flutes, zigzags and rays, as well as some highly stylized floral forms.

 William Van Alen's Chrysler
Building of 1930, whose pinnacle
is perhaps the best known
Art Deco structure in America.
By 1926, such design—which would not be called Art Deco until long after the fact—was already filtering into the American psyche via shop displays and movie sets. Also that year, architect Timothy Pfleuger wowed San Franciscans with his pointedly non-traditional Pacific Telephone Company building, thereby putting the style on the architectural map as well. In 1930, architect William Van Alen completed perhaps the most famous Art Deco structure around, the Chrysler building. In 1931, Pfleuger doubled down with his spectacular Paramount Theater in Oakland, another acknowledged masterpiece of the Art Deco era.

Art Deco remained a commercial style for the most part, yet residential architecture couldn’t help but be affected by it. For those architects and builders brave enough to break away from the traditional styles of the day, Art Deco brought a whole new look to housing. In many ways, it emulated Bauhaus design, with its flat roofs, curved walls, and bands of windows; yet true Bauhaus adherents would have been aghast at the further addition of strident colors and wild geometric motifs such as ziggurats, sunbursts, and lightning bolts.

The lobby of the Oakland Paramount Theater, designed by
Timothy Pfleuger and completed in 1931,
features the ultra-Deco "Fountain of Light".
In the mid 1930s, Art Deco branched into a related style known as Streamline Moderne. Its features were derived less from the Paris exposition than from industrial designers such as Raymond Leowy, who throughout the decade had been madly reshaping everything from typewriters to steam locomotives to mimic the fluid lines of modern aircraft. In 1935, Leowy painted “speed lines”on the nose of the Pennsylvania Railroad’s new streamlined S1 locomotives, suggesting the streaking of an object in motion. Ironically, this decorative device became a favorite motif on Deco and Moderne homes as well, despite the fact that these houses clearly weren’t going anywhere.

Raymond Loewy poses on the Pennsylvania Railroad's
S1 locomotive of 1939, whose heavily speedlined cowling
gave it a look of motion even when standing still.
By the eve of World War II, the palette of Deco/Moderne was well defined: stucco walls (often curved); glass block (often curved as well); steel casement windows; vitreous tile (an opaque glass wall finish available in various colors, though most commonly found in black);  stainless steel and chrome accents; and the now-familiar geometric ornament in low relief.

In years after World War II, a renewed sense of American pride led buyers back to the more home-grown look of Colonials and Ranchers, and the high-voltage era of Deco/Moderne quietly faded out like a dying battery. Since the style never really caught on with tract builders, Art Deco residences are quite rare, often appearing singly among the more popular bungalows and cottages of the era.

A small Art Deco jewel in San Franciso, circa
the late 1930s.
(Image courtesy of
The unique design of Art Deco and Moderne homes brings with it a number of characteristic troubles. The flat roofs and lack of overhangs beloved by this style often translate into maddeningly persistent leaks, as do the often poorly-waterproofed stucco details. Also, the  ubiquitous steel sash found in these houses—the leading-edge window technology of the 1930s—has a propensity to both rusting and sticking shut due to accumulated layers of paint.  

But hey, a Deco jewel is worth a little trouble, oui?

EICHLER HOMES: The Ultimate In Mid-Century Modern

Author's Note: I'll be at my home-away-from-home in Suzhou, China for the months of July and August, and because those big bad socialists block Google and therefore Blogger, I won't be able to post new Architext blogs while I'm there  So, dear readers, I'm choosing a few of my favorite past blogs for an encore presentation. Hopefully you'll find them worth a repeat or, if you haven't read them before, an interesting first.  —Arrol Gellner

Back in 1963, a reporter asked developer Joseph Eichler, "What do you call your homes, contemporary or modern or what?”

“I call them Eichler homes,” he responded. “There’s nothing else like them.”

With their dramatic facades, breezy interiors and Californian focus on patio living, Eichlers are still standouts today, a half-century after their inception.

Joseph Eichler, dairy executive turned
developer and architectural visionary.
Between 1949 and 1967, over ten thousand Eichler homes were built in San Francisco Bay Area suburbs such as Sunnyvale and Palo Alto, along with 900 or so more in Southern California. They were the brainchild of Joseph Eichler, a wealthy dairy executive with no background in design. However, Eichler had briefly lived in a home designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, and wondered why such houses couldn’t be made affordable to everyone. He was finally inspired to take on the task himself. He hired the respected architect and Wright disciple Robert Anshen of the Los Angeles firm of Jones & Emmons to design the initial Eichlers, and the first prototypes were built in 1949. During the next eighteen years, a whole range of uncommon Eichler designs emerged, including later versions designed by the San Francisco firm of Claude Oakland & Associates and the

In Eichler homes, acres of full-height glass
reflect a time when energy was dirt cheap.
(Image courtesy of
Eichler homes had a host of unorthodox features, including post-and-beam construction, slab floors with integral radiant heating, and a standard second bathroom. Later models introduced the unforgettable Eichler atrium, an entrance foyer that daringly straddled the line between indoors and out. Exteriors featured vertical siding, flat or very low-sloped roofs, and shockingly blank street facades. At the side and rear walls, however, great sweeps of glass brought the outdoors in, without so much as a step to interrupt it.

The daring Eichler atrium straddled
the line between indoors and out.
Everything about Eichlers seemed light, fresh and modern in comparison to the dowdy postwar homes that glutted the market, and the houses quickly became a sales success. Yet they never garnered more than modest profits for their developer, due mainly to their unusual design. Although his associates urged him to make the houses more conventional, Eichler refused. Sadly, the realities of the housing market eventually caught up with him, and Eichler Homes filed for bankruptcy in 1967.  Joseph Eichler continued building custom homes for another five years until the 1973 recession made that, too, untenable. He died in 1974.

Eichler's modular post and beam system
looked spectacular, but could make adding on
a real challenge.
Since then, time has brought a number of Eichler shortcomings to light. Bedrooms are cramped by modern standards, and the thin, mahogany-paneled walls, hollow doors, and free-standing partitions make the interiors unusually noisy. The innovative radiant heating system proved troublesome, and the modular post-and-beam framing can make sensitive remodeling a challenge.

However, the home’s single greatest shortcoming couldn’t have been anticipated by Eichler or by his architects: Designed during an era of dirt-cheap energy, Eichlers made extravagant use of glass and were poorly insulated. As energy costs soared during the 70s, Eichlers proved disastrously inefficient—and unlike homes with attics and conventional windows, there was no quick retrofit available.

For these reasons, as well as Modernism’s fall from favor, the Eichler will forever remain emblematic of the 1950s and 60s. But what an emblem! Though Joseph Eichler’s uncompromising vision may have brought him financial ruin, his legacy has proved more permanent.


Author's Note: I'll be at my home-away-from-home in Suzhou, China for the months of July and August, and because those big bad socialists block Google and therefore Blogger, I won't be able to post new Architext blogs while I'm there  So, dear readers, I'm choosing a few of my favorite past blogs for an encore presentation. Hopefully you'll find them worth a repeat or, if you haven't read them before, an interesting first.  —Arrol Gellner

A while back, driving through an old and well-to-do suburb of San Francisco, I came upon a charming street flanked by swaying palm trees and lined with classic Craftsman bungalows. Practically all of them had stout columns of river rock, massive beamed porches, and lovely leaded glass windows--in short, all the attributes today’s bungalow connoisseurs covet.

Classic bungalow in Alameda, California, circa 1911.
There was just one problem: Although the original architecture of those homes had been remarkably consistent, at least half of the them had been badly mauled by inept modernizations or ham-handed expansions that had taken place in earlier years--erstwhile ”improvements” that in the long run destroyed their architectural value.

By far the most common transgression was the replacement of the original wooden windows with clumsy, glaring white vinyl windows ones. These windows are today’s equivalent of the cheap aluminum sliders that defaced so many fine old Victorians during the postwar era. Regardless of what vinyl window sellers may claim, and regardless of what kind of “historical” muntin patterns they may offer, these windows are not suitable for installation in any vintage home style--least of all the emphatically woodsy bungalow. 

Another great bungalow, this one with not-so-classic
vinyl replacement windows.
But a nasty outbreak of tacky windows wasn’t all that had gone wrong on this erstwhile remarkable little street. Some homeowners had apparently found their premises a little too cramped and, lacking enough property to add to the back of their homes, instead built enormous, looming second story additions that were the visual equivalent of a jackboot stomping on Bambi.

Other less egregious but equally irreversible damage was done by owners who, in an apparent attempt to keep up with some color fad or other, had painted over their bungalows’ natural river rock on columns and chimneys.

The sad thing about these various desecrations is that they were all unnecessary. Old wood windows, for example, can generally be repaired for less money than it costs to install second-rate vinyl replacements. Moreover, the energy savings gleaned by switching to double glazing--the motivation for many replacement projects using vinyl windows--is trivial compared to the same investment made in a more efficient furnace or higher insulation levels.

A bungalow addition gets off to a bad start.
Note the overpowering mass, uncharacteristic hip roof,
 and the means of extending the chimney.
Additions, even on a tight site, needn’t detract from a home’s architecture. Even second story additions can be designed to minimize their visual presence, with detailing that blends in with the original architecture rather than clashing with it.

Neither should the foregoing suggest that it takes a big budget to thoroughly wreck a vintage house--all it really takes is one trendoid fool with a paint brush. While painting a house solely in to keep up with color trends is merely a waste of time and money, painting over natural stone or brick for the same purpose is self-inflicted sabotage. The damage is, for practical purposes, irreversible, and the punishment is inevitably meted out when it comes time to sell.

Take that lovely little palm-lined street, for example. The very owners who refrained from “modernizing” are the ones whose homes will be valued most highly at sale time. The ones who made inadvisable and half-baked “improvements” end up the losers.

DESIGN REVIEW: A Jab In The Eye of the Beholder

Author's Note: I'll be at my home-away-from-home in Suzhou, China for the months of July and August, and because those big bad socialists block Google and therefore Blogger, I won't be able to post new Architext blogs while I'm there  So, dear readers, I'm choosing a few of my favorite past blogs for an encore presentation. Hopefully you'll find them worth a repeat or, if you haven't read them before, an interesting first.  —Arrol Gellner

How would you like a committee deciding what clothes you could wear each day?

Frank Lloyd Wright's famed Robie House of 1909:
If design review boards had existed at the time,
it would never have been built.
One member might say,  “Sorry—those pants don’t match the surroundings. We think you should try another pair.” Another would add,  “We don’t care for that jacket. It attracts too much attention.”
A third would pipe in with,  “We’d prefer to see a blue shirt, okay?”

There’s a similar institution in many of our city planning departments. It’s called a design review board, and it presumes to tell architects and homeowners what “clothes” their homes are allowed to wear. In many cities, design review is required whenever a set of residential plans is submitted for approval.

Harry Oliver's Spadena House, Beverly Hills (1926):
Would it pass the Design Review Board
in your town? Not bloody likely.
Over the past thirty years, the design review process has exerted an ever-expanding influence on architects and homeowners. But in all that time, no one has really been able to demonstrate its value in making our surroundings more “beautiful”—whatever that really means.

Design review is based on the shaky premise that a panel of city appointees can judge aesthetics better than anyone else, and should therefore have the final say on what your project should look like—more of a say, even, than you or your architect.

Beauty is a highly individual perception, however. What’s more, our judgment of aesthetics is inextricably rooted in the context of our own time. Architecture that we find ugly or shocking today may well be perfectly acceptable in twenty years. Conversely, the features design review boards love to see nowadays may be considered schlock in a few decades. You se always on shaky ground simply can’t presume to make airtight aesthetic judgments from the vantage point of the present.

Bruce Goff's Bavinger House (Norman, Oklanhoma,
1955—now destroyed): Another non-starter
if Design Review Boards had had anything to do with it.
If design review boards had existed during the time of Frank Lloyd Wright, for example, his most brilliant works would undoubtedly have been muddled beyond recognition, if they were allowed to be built at all. Why? Because Wright’s designs were considered shocking and even ugly in the context of their time, and were generally disliked by the status quo. The same holds true for any number of our country’s most brilliant architects.

And as you might guess, design review boards are composed of ordinary humans with ordinary aesthetic prejudices. That’s why it’s so dangerous for them to decide what is “appropriate” design and what isn't.

Frank Gehry's Venice, CA Beach House (1984):
A Design Review Board might have
approved this design—but only if Gehry
had already been world famous.
Moreover, design review is an infringement on a highly personal freedom: one’s individual sense of aesthetics. You may want to wear a purple shirt—or you may want to live in a purple house. Why should the city government intrude in either of these highly personal choices?

Right about here, I usually get this rejoinder:  “So you’d let people build any old piece of junk, anywhere they want?”

Hardly. For well over a hundred years, cities have had a means of enforcing regulations affecting public health and safety, and rightly so. That instrument is the zoning code, and it’s the proper place for the city to wield its authority. It’s the zoning code, for example, that prevents your neighbor from building right up to your fence line, or locating a gunpowder factory next to your house. No one argues with the need to regulate matters of public safety.

But enforcing public safety is a very different thing from enforcing taste. A purple house doesn’t present any risk to the public.  Or does it, design review officials?  Responses are invited.


Author's Note: I'll be at my home-away-from-home in Suzhou, China for the months of July and August, and because those big bad socialists block Google and therefore Blogger, I won't be able to post new Architext blogs while I'm there  So, dear readers, I'm choosing a few of my favorite past blogs for an encore presentation. Hopefully you'll find them worth a repeat or, if you haven't read them before, an interesting first.  —Arrol Gellner

As Alfred Hitchcock well knew, nothing sets a mood of suspense better than a spooky old house. The brooding Mansard-roofed Victorian in Hitchcock’s 1960 film Psycho, which still stands on the Universal Studios backlot, is probably the best known creepy old house in pop culture. But there are plenty of others: For instance, the eerily rendered Xanadu, home of Charles Foster Kane in Orson Welles’s milestone 1941 film Citizen Kane. The hauntingly composed images of Xanadu are so central to the story that they’re used both to open and close the film. 

More recently, there was the anthropomorphic house featured in 1979’s The Amityville Horror, perhaps the world’s only frightening Dutch Colonial. On the lighter side was the Addams Family’s eccentric television abode (another Mansarded and iron-crested Victorian, although, like Kane’s Xanadu, it was actually just a matte painting). 

Just what makes for an unnervingly spooky house? And mind you, we’re talking aesthetic creepiness, not pulp-novel style haunting. Back in the 1960s, old Victorian houses of the Gothic or Mansard variety were Hollywood’s standard issue for spookiness, probably because they were decaying and far out of fashion at the time. After their popular renaissance in the 1970s, however, those gaily-colored gingerbread houses had a much less sinister effect in the public mind, and hence Hollywood moved on to other archetypes.
Is this the world's creepiest Dutch Colonial?

A really creepy house usually has some anthropomorphic character--the vaguely hunchbacked, head-and-shoulders silhouette of Mrs. Bates’s house in Psycho, for example, or the diabolical, eye-like attic windows seen in promotions for The Amityville Horror, or the gaping mouth-like porch of Freddy Krueger’s house in Wes Craven’s Nightmare on Elm Street (1984).

Anthropomorphism plays an even bigger role in one of the scariest spooky-house films of all time, Robert Wise’s The Haunting (1963). Here, the gloomy stone pile known as Hill House features rearing Gothic towers and cavernous window openings that eerily recall the empty eye sockets of a skull. In this case, Hill House was not just a matte painting but an actual English manor house called Ettington Hall near Stratford-upon-Avon. To get the eye-socket effect, director Wise used a special high contrast film to make the house's window openings seem black and empty (Ettington Hall seen in normal light looks considerably less diabolical, and in fact is now a popular hotel).

The Addams Family lived here—well, sort of.
It's only a painting, though based on a real
house in Los Angeles
What makes Hill House so deliciously spooky is the fact that we never see anything more explicit than mundane parts of the house itself: a door swelling and bending as if under pressure from some terrible force beyond, or malevolent faces creepily emerging from the patterns in ordinary wallpaper. These nightmarish inversions of the ordinary, unlike the explicit fare of slasher films, are all the more frightening precisely because they’re so domestic and familiar. How many of us, as children, didn’t see faces in the wallpaper? 

The fact that we never learn just what malevelent force stalks Hill House in The Haunting only heightens its stature as one of the spookiest houses in pop culture. Just as in real life, we aren’t presented with neat conclusions--only more unnerving questions. 

Ettington Hall: Not so scary in the daytime.

As Alfred Hitchcock once put it: “There is no terror in a bang, only in the anticipation of it.”