CONTEXTUAL ARCHITECTURE is the current fad word in architectural circles, replacing Post Modern as the subject for conversation. Among the eight awards from the American Institute of Architects' Washington Metropolitan Chapter (see story on this page) are several buildings which qualify for this name.
At its best, contexual architecture simply means houses and buildings that fit well into the landscape, that look as though they have always been in that spot. You should be able to drive by and thing, "Well, that's a nice old building. I wonder why I never noticed it before. They must have painted it."
Such a premise is hard to argue. A building that screams and sticks its tongue out at the passer-by is as unpleasant as a rude person. Along existing streets in town, the well-bred building that fits neatly into the snaggletooth gap is surely to be commended. Hugh Newell Jacobsen, who designs a lot of them, calls them "polite buildings."
On the other side, contexual architecture can be blamed for exhuming design devices that one had a valid purpose, but have outlived their day. Such architectural doodads make no more sense than wearing hoop skirts when riding in a sports car. At its worst, it degenerates into putting false fronts on otherwise honest buildings, as though the architect is only a set designer. One architect, Frank Gehry in California, even has used facades propped up like stage sets.
I'm still modernist enough to feel that the outside should give some clue to the inside, that form should follow function. The most blatant cases, in the immortal words of architectural historian Richard Howland, are where buildings have been "earlied up," given design elements to which they're not entitled by age.
Among the more unsavory leftovers from the past are windows divided into many mullioned and muntined small panes. Pains are what they give me. Checkerboard of dividers makes me feel as if I'm in jail. The birds, of course, like it. They think we're the ones in the cage. The frameword fragments the outside view, cuts it into small bits, keeps you visually contained inside. If you need so much protection from your view, it's better to put a solid wall there and light it with a skylight.
I should say right here, I speak from experience; the house I've lived in for the last eight years has small, paned, metal casement windows, said to be the first Thermopane windows in Washington. I hate them. One day when I have inherited untold wealth, I will buy tickets to Nantucket for all the architects I know (especially Francis Donald Lethbridge, who strongly disapproves of my plans). Then I'm going to knock down the divisions between windows and replace all my casement windows with one huge hunk of glass per wall.
Some of the worst of the small paned windows are those in my house and thousands of others built in the late '40s or '50s. Just as bad are those subdivision or Ye Old Rowhouse Fake Federal Fronts so often seen in the '70s. The best use of small panes is in restoration work and in some of the buildings in the accompanying article. (Though even these, in my opinion, would look better with unmullioned glass.)
In earlier days, large sections of glass were difficult to make. And homeowners were taxed according to the square inch of glass. For these excellent reasons, then windows were small and composed of still smaller units. e
Today, we have no such excuses. Glass should not be used recklessly, of course -- east and west sun is hard to control, winter and summer. North windows let in too many cold winds. Only the friendly south sun can be controlled with ease with overhangs. Glass doesn't make sense where there's no view or light.
But none of these reasons excuse the pernicious practice of cutting what glass you do have into small segments. In the 1950s, even modest houses often had floor-to-ceiling, wall-to-wall glass. As the saying then went, the glass walls "let the outside in," and blurred the distinction between outside and in, to the improvement of both -- the light and view came in, the bees and bollen stayed out. The ultimate use of the concept was Philip Johnson's all-glass house.
Hugh Newell Jacobsen once felt so strongly about small panes that, where forces into them, he used the snap-in-and-out variety, so that if the local ruling were changed, the glass could be made whole again. He also used to paint mullions and muntins black (when they couldn't be removed) to help lessen the jarring effect. Jacobsen, along with such otherwise notables as George Hartman and Warren Cox, now in some situations feel free to use divided glass. Cox, defending himself, said the other day, "I think that in some contexts, especially when added to an existing house, it's necessary to use multi-panes."
Perhaps I'm stuck in my '50s beliefs, but I think the glass-walled house gives you the feeling of being one with the outside, as though you lived in a pavilion in nature. Today's most popular addition is variously called the sun room, the atrium, the winter garden. Why put this, the most glorious of all rooms into a whalebone corset of mullions and muntins?
The old homilies are still wise. We all know the folly of mutton dressed like lamb, but we should beware the Queen Anne front and the Mary Jane behind. Why shouldn't a building, even when filling in a row, admit to its age? Surely the new building should keep to the same scale and perhaps harmonizing colors as its neighbor. But no 1981 building owes anyone a Palladian window or a Greek pediment or a four-over four-sash window.
Like the recent fuss about Post Modern, contextual architecture is sometimes used to avoid the real issues: how to design and build houses that are not only beautiful but also practical; houses where neither the roof nor the basement leaks, the heat bill is payable, the maintenance is low, and you get goose pimples down you back when you walk inside.