For decades, the professional journal Architectural Record has published its yearly "Record Houses" issue featuring a number of architect-designed homes chosen by the editors to represent the cutting edge of residential design. And every year, I am struck by the notable disparity between what we architects aspire to build and what most people aspire to live in.
A reader of the magazine only has to turn a few pages beyond the "Record Houses" section to find advertisements for roofing, doors, millwork and exterior trim with photographs showing the kinds of traditionally styled and furnished homes Americans really want.
Why is this aesthetic disparity so pronounced? The photographs themselves provide most of the answers.
The eight homes selected for "Record Houses 1999" are all over the map, geographically as well as in form, size and materials. Three are on urban sites, in Toronto, Chicago and Los Angeles. The other five are in the Arizona desert, a meadow in Vermont, the edge of a Long Island pond, a hillside in France and a gully in Brisbane, Australia.
They are built using concrete and concrete block, wood framing and wood finishes, natural and dressed stone, stainless steel, aluminum and copper, plastic, gypsum board and glass--typically lots of glass. Most visible materials are natural in finish and color, both inside and out, except for the plywood-clad cube of a house in Toronto, which is stained red.
Like the Toronto house, several houses are compact in volume. But a couple are fragmented and reach out into or embrace the landscape. Geometrically, all are designed to respond to and fit their unique sites.
There are other common points. Seven of the eight houses have flat or nearly flat roofs, one of the recognizable hallmarks of a "modern" building in the eyes and minds of most Americans. By contrast, all the houses depicted on the advertising pages have pitched roofs with ridges, gables, dormers and chimneys.
You won't see any colonial-style, divided-light, single- or double-hung windows punched into the walls of these eight modern houses. Instead they have sizable "picture" windows or expansive glazed walls combining large panes of fixed glass with casement or awning-type operable windows, plus hinged or sliding glass doors. This is another modern hallmark. Glass dematerializes exterior walls, enhances views of the landscape, infuses interiors with natural light and blurs the distinction between inside and outside.
You also won't see any crown moldings, decorative wallpaper or window curtains in the "Record Houses." Detailing is clean, spare, sometimes industrial in character.
Photographs of interiors reveal why many people who are not design connoisseurs might be turned off by modern architecture, or at least not drawn to it based on what is so often presented photographically. In presumably domestic living spaces, there frequently are little or no furnishings, furniture, plants or people. Often walls are bare and color is absent. A sense of stark, abstract minimalism, of abandonment and emptiness, pervades the lifeless images.
This is intentional. Architects, photographers and magazine editors want the reader's attention focused only on the architectural concepts. These photos celebrate the geometric purity of the space itself, the surfaces and structures enveloping the space, the materials and details with which they are constructed and the manner in which mass and light interact. Conventional artifacts of habitation and human beings only get in the way.
The average American home buyer looks for something else.
Conditioned by a lifetime of exposure to domestic environments embodying traditional forms and tastes, consumers are drawn to the "warm and fuzzy" promise of a world fashioned by Martha Stewart--comfort and coziness achieved with personally chosen furnishings giving evidence of human occupancy.
To most homeowners, artfully sculpted architectural spaces are of less interest than amenable, functional spaces that can easily and flexibly accommodate a variety of furniture, decoration and activities.
They want the architecture to serve as backdrop, to be deferential rather than dominant. The "Record Houses 1999" photos suggest that the architecture is both dominating and demanding, as if access would be denied to residents daring to move in with any furniture at all. And don't even think of showing up with objects not approved by the designer.
Moreover, many Americans perceive that modern houses are more expensive to build and maintain than traditionally styled houses. Custom-designed homes generally are more costly per square foot, but not because they are stylistically modern. Rather, they typically involve architectural services, special construction details, materials and land whose costs are significantly higher than those for market-driven, production houses.
Mass-market home buyers probably suspect that owners of modern houses not only have substantial financial resources, but also are iconoclastic elitists striving to be different. This is often true. But can or should a design philosophy carry a social stigma, either positive or negative?
In reality most Americans do not want to stand out, to be different from their neighbors. Thus a desire to conform reinforces consumer resistance to overtly modern design ideas, and the "Record Houses" are clearly nonconforming.
The tragedy of all this is that many of the fundamental ideas explored in these and other modern houses are worth emulating: fitting buildings uniquely to their sites; exploiting the visual richness of light, shade and shadow; capturing views of the landscape; connecting indoors and outdoors; and expressing the natural beauty of building materials.
But as long as these ideas are presented through photographs that thoroughly sterilize the architecture, suppressing signs of habitation and domesticity, it's improbable that production house builders will emulate them. And it is equally improbable that such photographic images will ever motivate home buyers to reconsider or modify their preferences for traditional design.
Roger Lewis is a practicing architect and a professor of architecture at the University of Maryland.