Millennial Architecture

Traditionalism and The American Luxury Home

By: John Henry

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What of the future of the luxury residence? First some preliminaries. If the predictions of George Orwell, Stanley Kubrick, Buckminster Fuller or Frank Lloyd Wright had come to pass, we would presently be flying shuttles on a regular basis to outer space, while on earth living in portable polyhedral houses and personal helicopters would take us from remote suburban tracts (of one or more acres) to our work downtown littered with mile high skyscrapers entirely covered with domes to regulate our environments. Over us all would hang a dark psychological cloud: an omnipresent government authority controlling all aspects of our lives.

The latter should have happened in 1984. We are obviously free of Big Brother-type control. We can barely sustain the space program; Buck Rogers was wrong. Personal helicopters landing on roof pads are completely impractical except for an extreme minority; the congestion in the skies would be impossible to control. We have enlarged suburbia, but acre lots for the average family (the dream of America) seem out of reach as environmental consciousness and land-use legislation has kept the destruction of green fields somewhat in check.

As for our homes, we are building essentially as we did for thousands of years. Outside things seem to look the same. Inside there is a beehive of technology. The same parallel exists between our physical beings and our mental adventures into science, religion, and politics. There are no Dymaxion houses being built (sorry Bucky), extra high density megacities have never come to pass (unfortunately so Soleri), and our urban landscapes are being transformed at a painfully slow pace from soulless nihilistic agglomerations of developer driven glass/concrete/steel behemoths surrounded by concrete swaths of highways into articulated and detailed smaller scaled livable cities and towns (no apologies to Corbusier or Mies). New-Urbanism’s plastic small-town suburbs (see Disney’s Celebration) have proved to be on the whole cosmetic ‘feel-good’ marketing triumphs but exhibit little or no sustainability: commuting, pollution and infrastructure waste continues.

 

What is the fallout of the last half-century? The style of the Modern movement has lost its practical and hegemonic philosophy, unfortunately having won over the land planners and developers; traditionalism has regained a stronger foothold aesthetically; technological advance will continually permeate every aspect of our lives including the single family home; there is a return to smaller towns and denser suburbs; we are not completely dependent on the automobile to carry on our multifaceted lives; environmentalism is making a slow comeback.

What of the luxury home? In times of prosperity and peace (as we have now), history has given us Greece’s Golden Age, the European Renaissance, America’s Gilded Age, and finally, in the last near-century of the United States, unchecked expansion into our green fields littered by strip malls, tasteless and boring mid-rise office s, and tacky houses of every size and style --all characterized by debased art and architecture. We have had for inspiration during that time and now still: Palladio’s masterpieces, Louis IV’s Versailles, Oglethorpe’s Savannah, Hausmann’s Paris, Hunt’s Biltmore, Wright’s Falling Water, and even Johnson’s Glass House. Instead, we have gone for the practical, the expedient, and gotten the biggest bang for our buck relying on the machine for everything, the human hand for nearly nothing. During the last great economic surplus (the Industrial Age) our inspired mega-merchants and art patrons built the wonderfully detailed mansions at Palm Beach, Newport, St. Louis, San Francisco, and on Long Island. Where is the effort now?

In our seemingly generic quest for the practical and the accumulation of things, we have lost our appreciation of the aesthetic, the sublime. Our schools and universities have cut out completely from their more technically oriented curricula the study of the arts, especially the fine arts. "Art" now is dished out by the electronic media: entrancing television and film product has replaced an understanding or appreciation for the meaning of painting, sculpture, and architecture in our cities and homes. We have collectively lost our great artistic and architectural heritage, especially that of the Western Tradition (not Remington sculpture, but the Greco/ Roman tradition; we could even lump in the Gothic). We are having to painfully re-educate ourselves in the matters of architecture and building, architects and laypersons alike. There are no masters in the field or university to pass on classical tenets. The bane of post-modernism is a plurality that tends to level quality. Today’s mantra continues from the 60’s: everything goes, do not judge what I do, leave me alone. Therefore no standards -- aesthetically or formally.

These issues run through the minds of politicians, builders, architects, and the potential homeowner every time there is a decision to build. As for materials, we now build impermanently out of green sticks and thin stone and brick veneers. Walls that were once one to three feet thick of stone or brick are now only 6 to8 inches, heavy aged wood trusses and beamed floors are replaced by the lightest engineered pine members. PVC has replaced cast iron. On the other hand we have increased our use of energy-saving insulation, reveling in forced heated and cooled air conditioning, while taking full advantage of electricity for lighting and work-saving appliances, and obsessing over telephones, televisions, and internet appliances. A myriad of synthetic products are available for roofing, siding, trim and moldings, cabinets and counter tops, window shades, etc. We may build not only from wood framing but also out of steel, concrete , plastic hybrids, packed earth, etc. Our homes are the lightest ever per square foot. We enclose the maximum of space with the minimum of materials. Now recyclable and non-toxic materials are being offered, reducing pollution and energy, saving money in the long term (while keeping it in our communities as much as possible), but this direction may well turn into a fad.

We build as quickly, efficiently and economically as market forces will allow. However, the Vitruvian dictate has collapsed on the two legs of its tripod. The famous first architectural historian to the Caesars insisted that architecture consist of ‘firmness, commodity, and delight’, a paraphrase by Wooten. We have managed fairly well on the fist two points but have erred on the last. Delight deals not only with aesthetics of the eye, but the philosophical nature of design and the spiritual effect on the mind and body. For those who mind the bottom line, do aesthetics sell? Look at the marketing triumph of Apple’s newest breed of computers. They are not necessarily faster or more gizmo-gadgeted; they are a treat for the eye. Apple’s stock is beating competitors by a wide margin. Newer is not always better though. Ugliness must be fought at every level. And just because someone attempts retro or revival styles (Deco, Classicism, Modernism, etc.) doesn’t mean that its outcome will be superior to ‘contemporary’ styles unless a great effort has been taken to keep the integrity of the design intact.

Yes, architects have been trying hard to re-invent themselves as traditionalists, but the problem is that we all were taught to ignore the decorative past and concentrate on only the newest and latest materials "expressing our current age". Many pundits have shred this philosophy -- the proof of the fallacy is simply in the built record: a vast desert of nihilism the modern legacy has shoveled up in our faces. Perhaps the new millennium will allow us time to reassess our immediate and past glories and retrieve the elements most lacking. We should all reexamine

 

and study the art of architecture and travel to those places that inspire most. I see another American Renaissance coming, a return to tradition. But is all contemporary design bad? Only a rare genius like Frank Lloyd Wright can improvise exceedingly well. No doubt there are great buildings left by the Modern Masters. But the torch was blown out long ago. Revivalism of every style will proliferate, including neo-Modernism. As for Deconstruction, only a few will wish to live in a residence of crumpled heaps and distorted piles of zinc, glass and concrete.

Which brings us again to the American Luxury Home. Here are some details and a recap. On the whole, new money is forcing hurried design. Bigger is not always better. Many "marble barns" -- little quality design. Quality finishes and interior decorations tend to mask unstudied period style or "contemporary" styles. All new luxury homes are fitted with the latest home automation equipment: fully wired for internet, phone and video, connected to security networks which monitor movement and illegal entry via sensors and record on video-cams. Handheld controllers and cell phones are used to activate anything from hot tubs to coffee brewers while programming lighting, HVAC, audio, TV, and computing. New computer chips will be finding their way into refrigerators, toilet seats, and dishwashers and clothes washers. The result is to monitor all aspects of home affairs and individual health, with immediate internet connections to doctors, food and household suppliers and lawn care services.

The overall result is technology masking architecture. The latter becomes the maidservant of the former. Another note to guard against: the younger and inexperienced practitioner is promising quality and integrity while underbidding the seasoned offices with questionable results. This is one of the salient reasons that the overall built environment is poorly imagined: good money chasing cheap design. The immediate future is a continual downgrading of the art while only the smallest segment of the upscale market insists on design integrity. Rambling sheetrock palaces are being erected by floor plan-obsessed architects who emphasize geometrical dilettantism: the plan diagram is the basis for wall extrusion and extremely complex (leak-prone) roofs. Since a separate professional will come in to ‘do the interiors’ the inside and outside often have little in common and the architect’s pride becomes simply the degree of invention applied to the basic plan and elevation. The largest part of the luxury home budget continues to be spent on interior finishes and furnishings/ art, with the addition of the most sophisticated electronic systems. Plumbing and electrical fixtures, flooring, fireplace design, trim and moldings, cabinets and counter tops get the highest quality specifications while windows/ doors, roofing, etc. are not top grade.

Other trends: detached guest houses complete with kitchen, nanny and maid’s bedrooms or quarters, indoor swimming pools, bowling alleys, firing ranges, large aquariums, fountains, basketball and handball courts, antique car garages, trophy rooms, taller rooms and more detailed ceiling treatments, period interiors, inlaid wood and stone floors, larger glass viewing window walls, and fancier media/ film screening rooms. Period Style continues to proliferate in all price categories and predominates especially in particular markets with historical precedent. Ultra contemporary design that is completely a free-for-all market in terms of style and form ranging from ‘green building’ to the whimsical, to tortured psychological excess. Again, design integrity is evident in only a miniscule number of projects. Nevertheless, there are gems to be found in all of the various approaches to the luxury home.

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