Let’s face it, homes have always been a collection of areas for cooking, sleeping, and primping surrounding a common family or group dining and living area. Sometimes these functions occurred in a single room and sometimes a series of rooms. The more schmancy you get, the more specialized the rooms and the larger the rooms become. At some point, homes can become their own self-contained city like Barbra Streisand’s underground shopping center or overly task-specific like Candy Spelling’s gift wrapping room.
Yes, differing eras have sought to either open or close off rooms. Interestingly, in addition to overall wealth, it seems that what a society thinks of its women has something to do with interior spaces. When women were thought to be barefoot, pregnant and without meaningful opinions, homes were more closed off.
Kitchens were walled purgatories where women toiled while the menfolk spoke of important things. It’s like Downton Abbey except when the average person couldn’t afford servants, the women were dumped backstage rather than in their own drawing room. The exceptions to food-based segregation were bars and barbeques because these were places men showed off their talents.
I think today’s open concept living is silent witness to how women’s roles, opinions and personalities now matter.
Or course sometimes openness goes too far, breeding sentries. Episode after episode of House Hunters shows would-be mothers freaking out if little Mary and Mark Aria and Landon are out of sight for a second. It’s as though children rarely survived the last few hundred thousand years without helicopter parents. Sheesh! Weren’t we all happier when our mothers weren’t watching us all the time?
A Century of Changes
Beyond women’s influence, no matter how you measure it, the capabilities and comforts inside the home have changed radically. From the usage of electricity and its associated gadgets to the ubiquity of plumbing, first-world living has been revolutionized in the past 100 years.
Think about it, anyone renovating a 100-year-old house will always add electricity and plumbing. In the 19-teens, electricity was still scarce in many areas. Even in homes that were electrified, there were few outlets. Aside from lighting and the odd gadget, no one foresaw our overwhelming dependency on electricity.
My first apartment, built in the 19-teens had a “doggy-door” for block ice to be delivered for the icebox (pre-refrigerator for you tykes). There was a single pair of electrical sockets in the bedrooms, dining room and kitchen – two in the living room. The bathroom light was retrofitted for a plug that screwed into the light bulb socket.
Even now, when we think we have every gadget possible, new things keep popping up while others die. Today’s trendy renovators are installing nifty new USB charger outlets for phones and tablets. But unlike when older homes just needed more outlets, these purpose-built outlets are a fad that will quickly be abandoned as wireless charging pads supplant them. Unlike the built-in telephone stands seen in older homes that were useful for decades until the mobile phone, USB charger outlets will be datable to a single decade.
Interiors have kept pace with changing needs, but what about home exteriors?
Why do Home Exteriors Cling to the Past?
When was the last time you visited a tract-home development with modern homes. Notice I said “modern” not “new.” It’s probably been over 40 years.
The era from the late 1950s to the early 1970s, now hiply called “mid-century modern” was the last time there was a discernible style that wasn’t a mere copycat of a bygone era. Anyone worth their housing salt can identify “space age” mid-century ranches or the post-war streamlines of the 1940s. Before that there were Victorians, bungalows, and prairie (Wright’s). For their times, these were new, head-craning revolutionary designs attracting buyers excited about the era’s promise. Today they’re considered classics, defining an era.
The death of the “1970s split-level” gave way to today’s pastiche of “neo” everything (Georgian, Classical, Tudor, Farmhouse, etc). A jumbled mix of styles from bygone eras … a style I call “comfort food” architecture. In Texas, we have our own regional bland boxes with ground floor brick accented with Austin stone. Depending on your budget, the brick likely disappears into clapboard siding around the back and certainly the majority (or all) of the second floor is clapboard (supporting heavy brick costs money). If we lived in Arizona, we’d have faux adobe cribbing from Spanish and American Indian styles.
Don’t get me wrong, certainly other eras were not slaves to the modernity or the age. There have been neo-whatevers throughout history. What I am saying is that today, it’s the only off-the-rack choice. And that IS different.
Why are we Stuck?
It’s well-known psychologically that when animals and people (who yes, are animals) are stressed, returning to the familiar is calming. Without stress, macaroni and cheese would cease to exist instead of being elevated to haute cuisine.
Architecturally, it’s been going on for centuries. Marie Antoinette even built her own fake peasant town at Versailles (Hameau de la Reine) to escape the stress of the royal court. Of course her stylized version of peasant living bore no resemblance to the squalor of the era (but then, the rich rarely see poverty with accuracy – which partly explains Marie’s date with the guillotine). Look below. Would these centuries-old buildings be out of place in any new Dallas neighborhood?
Certainly the technology revolution of the past 40 years has stressed us out with its rapid changes. And I don’t just mean the technology itself. Sure, communications have gone from passive Bakelite to always-on smartphones, but it’s the globality of media coupled with a fear-mongering 24/7 news cycle and non-stop advertising that has sent first-world humanity in an unending chase for the “upgrade.” (“Why do you need an iPhone 6?” “Because it’s not a 5.”)
This has retreated us into the comfortable homes and pretend villages of the past. This pastiche of banality can be seen everywhere. From West Village’s fake town to every housing development north of LBJ they’re all stuffed with faux style and enough Austin stone to turn Austin itself into a crater.
This 40-year trend shows no signs of letting up and is not limited to the tract developments and their unendingly derivative, relentlessly similar homes. Walk through the McMansion-ed areas of tony Dallas from Park Cities to Preston Hollow and you’ll see a plethora of unimaginative pastiche five-six-eight-thousand square foot wonderboxes all cribbing from the past. The wealthy are stressed too, they just have a bigger budget.
What is Modern Today?
It’s been a long time since housing modernity has been celebrated. Most of you may assume by “modern” I mean stark white sugar-cube designs that were the home of choice for Miami Vice drug lords. I’m not. In many respects, even those 1980’s queues have fallen into the past.
Modern, above all is the use of engineering – think Frank Gehry or Calatrava. It’s showing off what can be done today that couldn’t be done yesterday. There was a time when two-stories was showing off, then is was cantilevering and pillar-less expanses. Modern will always be using materials in new ways enabled by engineering.
I see today’s modern as using glass to drop the barrier separating the indoors from the outdoors. Glass is a shameless celebration. It uses a material that has matured from its origins as rare, expensive and energy inefficient. Until recently, expanses of glass equated to swampy greenhouses in summer and frigid igloos in the winter.
In Chicago, the State of Illinois building was designed as a curving post-modern temple of glass by then starchitect Helmut Jahn. It opened in 1985, and even with a beefed-up air conditioner, on hot summer days internal temperatures have reached 90 degrees while in winter ice formed on some interior walls. (The solution is to re-glaze the building with glass benefitting from 30-years of innovation, but Illinois is broke).
I see today’s modern home as a frame for swathes of energy-efficient glass to blur indoor and outdoor space. We’re already seeing outdoor living areas and kitchens, glass is the connection.
Of course there are other technologies that make up a modern home, but many are things that could be installed anywhere for energy efficiency or personal style. But glass walls can’t be slapped on a mock Tudor.
What Modern Isn’t – Expensive
Sure you can spend millions for that look (especially if you hire Gehry). But these technologies and designs could be mass-produced if builders mass produced them. The one-off is always expensive, but build enough of anything and the price drops. Clearly we have miles of 1960s ranches in Dallas with their unique soaring ceilings that were built for average buyers.
Unfortunately today it’s the rare custom home that breaks the mold, vividly, unabashedly showing the world its owners are happy to live in the 21st century. So why don’t builders build homes that show the 21st century is an era people can feel at home in?
Is This What we Want?
Most developers say they build what people want. But I find that circular. If it’s all you build, how do you know that’s what buyers want, and not just the liver they’ve been left at the table to finish? Certainly other eras prove that people embrace new housing styles.
Looking outside single-family homes, things begin to look different. With few exceptions, high-rises seem to demand modern architecture with their glass curtain walls and bright white interiors mimicking the swanky modern hotels they’re built to evoke. Townhouses are another segment where peeps (and only peeps) of external modernity exist. Certainly these modern structures have buyers. Why must today’s sub-urbs abandon the joys of the modern age?
The alternative is that single-family builders are correct. What if they’re building these banal pastiche homes to ease the fears and calm the nerves of this modern era for families lacking confidence in the age in which they live? They’re the sticks and bricks version of tuna noodle casserole?
That’s not a very “comforting” thought, is it?
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