After reading Bob Borson’s first lesson in Residential Architecture, I laughed a bit, lamented a bit, then started pondering how many violations of basic material termination there were lurking in my own backyard. (You should follow along with his Residential Architecture 101 course. I’m calling it a course because it makes me feel more scholarly.)
My husband and I regularly take walks around our neighborhood, which - thanks to Houston’s lack of zoning - is an eclectic hodgepodge of various sizes and styles of homes. We have multi-family apartments crammed on 50’x100’ lots sitting directly next to a Spanish-styled McMansion, which is just across the street from a 1920’s bungalow that sits in the shadow of 3-story contemporary town homes. Given the lack of any standards, you can imagine the chaos that we call ‘design’.
I decided to document a few cases around us to contribute to Bob’s collection of…um…learning material. Let’s take a look at an example of good and bad contemporary design. They happen to be directly across the street from one another:
Observations: Clean lines, clear volumes and geometry, interesting way to shield an entry from the street (its behind the tall wall on the far right), private exterior courtyard, multiple materials used in appropriate ways, fenestrations that align and seem to be proportional to the spaces (I’ve never been inside, so I can’t speak to the interior arrangement). Overall, this is a successfully done exterior, and I can only assume it would be well done on the inside, too.
Let’s contrast that with the neighbor across the street:
All I can say is, what HAPPENED?! As you squint and readjust your monitor trying to make sense of what on earth this image IS, I’ll fill you in on the not-so-secret details. This is what you call a poor interpretation of all things modern. Sure, you could argue that they based their rationale on a modern principle like ‘less is more’ or ‘ornamentation is stupid and so are indications of material changes’ (I made that one up). But really? REALLY?! My husband likened it to camouflage. Unfortunately, no one is hiding. It looks as though someone designed a nice volumetric house (how’s that for architect-speak?), then had their child come in and add some ‘material stickers’ to it. Yay squares!
Here is an up close shot of how the material meets the corner:
I’m baffled. I really have no words.
That being the case, I’ll introduce you to a different sort of house only a block away from these two. I stumbled upon the following group of post-modern town homes and had to do a double take. My immediate reaction was “Mother’s House!”:
The town homes seem normal at first glance, but there is a deep richness of post modern influences. I won’t go quoting the entire wikipedia article on what post modernism is, but this design is deliberate and smart. You may not particularly enjoy the aesthetic, but you have to admit there is merit in the design. It makes me giddy every time I see it; not because I love the way it looks, but rather that someone out there really tried (and nailed it) and I actually “get it”. What’s to ‘get’, you ask?
Take the front facade, for example:
The irony of it all makes me giggle every time. The facade is both facade and mockery of facade. The separation between the main house and the thin, detached facade piece speaks to the context of the neighborhood (lots of imposing 3-story town homes with regurgitations of classic facade designs), while inventing a new way of viewing something familiar. It speaks to a classic component while questioning the purpose; a true expression of “wit, ornament and reference”, as well as function and symbolism. It is designed as a stylistic and contextual reference that helps it blend well in the neighborhood while standing out as different at the same time. Do you “get it” too?
Perhaps you’re not on board with my comparison to Robert Venturi’s design or the whole post modern reference, but take a look at the painstaking detail the designer went to on ensuring the downspout was interesting:
You can’t tell me there wasn’t a clear intent and vision for this set of homes. Love it or hate it, you have to appreciate dedication.
Whatever you design, be purposeful.
Some people collect coins. Others collect stamps. Some have collections of old movie ticket stubs or other event tickets and can tell you about each experience in great detail. Architects are a bit odd in that they collect many things that have no use. For instance, they’ll have a drawer full of pens that are all but dried up, yet they won’t throw them away because they claim the intermittent ink supply is great for drawing dashed lines…never mind the fact they don’t draw on paper anymore. Some architects collect books. They have a library filled floor to ceiling with publications that address all topics of architecture, design, structures, and more. Let’s be real: how many architects have the time to actually read books? Most of the books architects ‘read’ are the ones with lots of pictures, and even then, those books get a quick browse with the occasional pause on really interesting or shocking photos (S,M,L,XL anyone?).
Architects collect many things, but perhaps the most perplexing is home tour memorabilia. Tucked away in a folder or forgotten drawer, you’ll find a mountain of colorful brochures, informative pamphlets, ticket stubs and receipts that indicate exactly where the architect’s last paycheck went.
Home tours are wildly popular among architects and self-proclaimed designers, as indicated by the quantity of tours offered. In Houston alone, there are five advertised tours, as well as individual tours provided by a guide (most likely intended as a tourist excursion to show off great architectural mysteries such as the beer can house). We have tours based around holidays, and surrounding the blooming of plant life. We have tours that focus on historic homes and micro-neighborhoods that we never realized went by a separate name.
Home tours appeal to architects for a variety of reasons:
- Innocent intentions: you pay a hefty fee to view great residential designs by local talents; the price is worth it to see such great architecture.
- Cynical intentions: you pay a hefty fee to critique the latest designs by local talents; the price is the next thing you’ll be critiquing.
- Devious intentions: you pay a hefty fee to stew in public about why your project wasn’t selected for the tour, under the guise of ‘critiquing’ the local talents; they should have selected your home for the tour AND let your whole family in for free!
- Lofty hopes: you pay a hefty fee to buddy up to other architects in hopes of forming a partnership; subsequently you get to stew about how they didn’t go for the idea and how their practice won’t last ‘til the next home tour because of it. You spend the next several hours wondering if the architects on the tour get a cut of the entrance fees.
- Two for one: you pay a hefty fee to fawn all over the home’s architect in hopes of getting a job offer, and you get to write off the cost of the tour as a job hunting expense. Who cares how much it costs? The benefits far outweigh it.
- Philanthropic ideologies: you pay a hefty fee to spend a Saturday engaging in ‘cultural’ activities while supporting your local AIA chapter; money is no object - you’re doing good things.
- (Subconscious) Narcissistic tendencies: you pay a hefty fee to see and be seen; especially by anyone who might hire you for a project or think you’re awesome for being a designer. Soon they’ll be paying you to come to the tours!
- Free design and decorating ideas: you pay a hefty fee to get ‘free’ design ideas from your neighbors. Never mind the fact you’re still unwilling to shop anywhere except IKEA because everyone else is ‘price gouging’ you. That $50 entrance ticket was worth it.
- Eco-consciousness: you pay a hefty fee because you’re itching to discuss the latest LEED home requirements and how the home’s underground water cistern is saving the earth from peril, one drop at a time. The earth is priceless; no fee could keep you from raising awareness!
- Hoarding: you pay a hefty fee to collect business cards of designers you’ll never contact. Somehow it made sense to go on the tour, but that thought has passed…at least they’ll be a nice addition to the rest of the home tour memorabilia you have in that old drawer.