The Finch Formerly Known As Gold

4 May 2007

Architectural indigest

The palatial estate at Surlywood was constructed in 1948, which may mean that I am fortunate indeed:

You have to wonder: have Americans forgotten how to build dignified houses, or are we simply not dignified people anymore? Virtually every building put up after 1950 looked terrible and many of them were rotting into the ground. Most of them are little more than elaborate packing crates with a few doo-dads screwed on — exactly the kind of buildings, by the way, that [Robert] Venturi and [Denise] Scott-Brown celebrated in their writings. They called them "decorated sheds," the vernacular expression of the mainstream American soul.

The design failures of these things might be attributed to a loss of knowledge and a lack of attention to details, but I think a deeper explanation has to do with the diminishing returns of technology. We've never had more awesome power tools for workers in the building trades. We have compound miter saws, electric spline joiners, laser-guided tape measures, and many other nifty innovations, and we've never seen, in the aggregate, worse work done by so many carpenters. For most of them, apparently, getting a plain one-by-four door-surround to meet at a 45-degree miter without a quarter-inch gap is asking too much. In other words, we now have amazing tools and no skill. What you wonder is whether the latter is a function of the former. Is the work so bad because we expect the tools to have all the skill?

Another issue is the choice of materials. As you march down the decades from the 1950s, the materials-of-choice for finishing the exterior are more and more materials not found in nature. Aluminum siding was a big favorite for a while — and you can always spot it because of the dents below the three-foot high level, where the lawnmower has shot stones at the panels for decades. After the 1980s, there is a distinct acceleration in the use of vinyl for practically everything. The vinyl clapboards, soffits, window-surrounds, et cetera, are often little more than stapled onto the house. And naturally they begin to sag and pull apart instantly. After twenty-odd years of that you end up with a house that looks like a birthday present wrapped by a five-year-old.

I think I've just been talked out of some vinyl trim.

More on the sheds, from Elaine Brownell's Master's thesis:

The problem with the decorated shed is not that it exists; the justifications for its widespread use are all too clear. The problem is that as architects have become less involved with the space, structure, and program of a building, they have focused primarily on the ornament. In our time of widespread standardization and unquestioning pragmatism, the program, siting, massing, structure, and general floor layout for a building are already decided by the time an architect is hired to finesse the details of the curtain wall. Realizing the limitations of the architect, Cesar Pelli has become a champion of the skin. Herzog and De Meuron have followed in due course. In the day of the triumph of the corporate logo, it has become all too tempting to leave one's stamp on the box, without much consideration for what happens inside it. And, as building development processes become more complex, increasingly specialized, and faster paced, architects are hard-pressed to keep up, applying their talents solely to the creation of an image, which is manifest in a thinner and thinner envelope.

I am not suggesting that the wrapper is inconsequential; it is unfortunately only too rare that the envelope of a building be truly beautiful. However, substance is more important than skin. In their 1971 treatise on "ugly and ordinary" architecture, Venturi and Scott-Brown distinguished between "urban sprawl" and the "megastructure", which they presumed to be opposites.

And now, of course, they're right on top of one another, so to speak.

Cesar Pelli, you'll remember, designed Tulsa's BOK Center. Is it all skin, no structure? Guess we'll find out soon enough.

In the meantime, when visitors ask me about the house, I will continue to explain, "It comes from the period when they'd learned how to build one-story houses with a certain degree of panache, but before they figured out how to make them all alike."

Posted at 6:30 AM to Almost Yogurt


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We live in a decorated shed. The wife would not argue the point, save perhaps for "decorated." ...[read more]

My house was built in 1890. Everything built after that is crap.

Posted by: Mister Snitch! at 7:11 PM on 4 May 2007

Our house was built in 1973. It is sturdy for the most part, but lacks interesting architecture. I notice around here particularly, there are new houses going up that look less like glorified boxes.

One builder builds homes that look like they were built 100 years ago, they blend in quite well in established neighborhoods.

Having toured several new model homes, I have to say I think there is a trend towards building homes that have more unique characteristics and that look less like tract houses even if thats what they are.

Posted by: Heather at 8:01 AM on 5 May 2007

My two bedroom house was built in 1950. While it is your basic brick house, it has a couple of great characteristics. It has good closet space, and has no foundation problems. You never see foundation repair guys in my neighborhood. I think part of that is because of the ground below, but I have to believe that they built a solid foundation. My parents both live in houses that are much newer, with significant settling issues. I expect my 57 year old house to last longer than their houses.

Posted by: Scooby214 at 9:37 AM on 5 May 2007