Our house: Probing The American Idea of Home

“Many architects in this book believe that a financial and moral sensitivity to scale in our homes must become a new norm,” Bernard Friedman writes in The American Idea of Home: Conversations About Architecture and Design (University of Texas Press). He adds that good design “is more important than ever.” The author’s interest in residential architecture began when he and his wife hired the Los Angeles firm Hadley + Peter Arnold to help them remodel a midcentury house they had bought in the Hollywood Hills. After that positive experience, Friedman interviewed dozens of architects. He used a sampling of the material for his 2012 documentary short American Homes and a more complete selection for the new book.

Friedman is managing partner of the Los Angeles documentary production company Flying Mind. Since 2008, he has served as chairman of the advisory board of the Arid Lands Institute. “It’s a postdoctoral academic institution where people come to understand how to refine an architectural practice to deal with aridity,” Friedman said.

The American Idea of Home, presenting interviews with more than 30 architects and architectural scholars, covers a lot of ground. “In my book, the interviews are all over the place. It was hard to tie it deeply together, but the conceit of the book is that it’s kind of a peek under the hood for the layman to come to understand all the thinking that goes into that house, to set it up for you to make it a home. When architects think about a site, one of the primary things they think about is the movement of the sun through the day and seasonally. That’s something very few people understand has gone into the design of the house, but it has a huge impact on how you experience the home.”

The people in the profession are often plagued by the stereotype that architects are only for big buildings and rich people. “It is unfortunate that people don’t realize that they can call upon an architect to elevate their experience in life,” Friedman said. “And the reality is that they are not actually that expensive.”

In the book, architectural theorist Grant Hildebrand talks about the fact that people like a variety of spaces in their homes: cozy places “to read and snuggle” that are almost hiding places, satisfying our instinctive desire for safety, but then also more open, sunlit spaces that relate to our need to scout food and danger. He contrasts that ability to enjoy both reclusive and expansive spaces with what happened in Scottsdale, Arizona, where vast plats of megahouses with swimming pools have subtracted from the important vista of the desert for those residents. This is “not a happy way to achieve good architecture ... not a good way for civilization to build,” he writes. A series of towers containing more intimate condominium spaces would have been better. “House people in a small footprint and the desert is still theirs.”

Friedman interviewed Sarah Susanka, author of the pioneering 1998 book The Not So Big House. “Sarah is on a beautiful mission to essentially lead and educate Americans to the liberating qualities of not overbuilding,” he said. “Obviously it’s a resistance to a deeply consumptive society, but, more specifically, when you have a smaller space, you have less compulsion to accumulate. It’s that simple, and that’s a hard lesson for us Americans to learn.” He said the trend peaked about 15 years ago, with, as he put it, “McMansions where builders were trying to squeeze as much square footage into smaller lots, trying to meet an expectation of buyers who thought the bigger the better.”

In his talk with Susanka in the book, Friedman invokes Samuel Mockbee, the late architect who co-founded the Rural Studio at Auburn University. “Sam Mockbee wrote, ‘Everyone wants the same thing, rich or poor — not only a warm, dry room, but a shelter for the soul.’ I’ve thought about that a lot because so many of the architects that I’ve interviewed are problem solvers, and at the same time they’re interested in making an individualistic statement.” Susanka responds, “If I look at my own work, a certain flavor runs through many of my projects. But the character is really dependent upon who the client is.” She continues, “I believe very strongly that architects serve their clients best when they get out of the way and really listen to what the person is looking for.”

The author also interviews Andrew Freear, the post-Mockbee director of the Rural Studio, which is an undergraduate program of Auburn’s School of Architecture, Planning, and Landscape Architecture. Freear emphasizes the program’s goals of using affordable building materials that require little maintenance — “Our most recent palette consists of galvanized aluminum, stainless steel, and cedar,” he says — for well-ventilated, well-lit houses that offer owners low operating costs. He rarely talks with his students about appearance issues. “Hopefully, the stylization comes out of the material use,” he tells Friedman.

The walls of the studio’s famous Carpet House, made of 72,000 hand-stacked carpet tiles, certainly have a distinctive appearance, but this house also incorporates a crumpled tower form — definitely a memorable stylistic gesture. “The parental bedroom, which makes a tower, didn’t have to be as strangely shaped as it was,” Freear says in the book, “but it was an act of exuberance on the part of the students to celebrate the place, the people, and the space.”

“In a way, the Rural Studio is trying to address poverty,” Friedman said. “It’s a belief that, even if you don’t have means, you ought to be able to live in a place that exalts you. I think what they’re doing, which is just so inspiring, is to go into the community and collaborate with people and appropriate materials that may not necessarily be perceived as building materials, as a way of playing, as a way of enabling that homeowner to have participated in the creative act of construction.”

A landmark in the evolution of the American idea of home was the Case Study House program, which was commissioned by Arts & Architecture magazine after World War II. The program is mentioned in the book by architects Kenneth Frampton, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, and others. The famous Case Study residences by Richard Neutra, Pierre Koenig, Charles and Ray Eames, and other noted designers were beautiful but were really keyed to Los Angeles and people who believed that these almost experimental houses would help them live in a modern style. “A lot of what was explored in Los Angeles architecture in the 1940s and 1950s really only could happen there and couldn’t easily be ported to other parts of the country, for the most part,” Friedman said. “Some of the aesthetics — for example, living with an awareness of outside and inside — could, but that was enabled by climate. I grew up in suburban Chicago, where two months of the year, the temperature was under 20 degrees, and you could not have sliding glass doors as the central feature of your home. And also the hills in Los Angeles presented a specific challenge for architects, and that provided a certain aesthetic experience.”

Interior designer Lee Mindel, in his interview in the book, focuses on the Shakers and their emphasis on function and craftsmanship. “Lee Mindel is an interesting character because his clients are like Ralph Lauren — famous people who want to show off, particularly in New York,” Friedman said. “He is somebody who can harness gigantic budgets. His firm is hired by the super-wealthy, people who can control every bit of their environment, who can exactly control the colors they want and the materials they want, the things that they import from the far corners of the world, and yet Lee Mindel’s intent is simplicity. It’s very interesting: As a thinker, he’s almost like leading the materialists out of the wilderness.”

Another vital voice in the book’s dispersed deliberation about pragmatism and style is Marianne Cusato, designer of the Katrina Cottage. She makes a pithy statement about the design concern: “It’s easy to satisfy affordability, security, and strength, but then you’ve got barracks.” Friedman explained, “In New Orleans, what happened was not only that houses were destroyed, but the whole fabric of the neighborhoods were destroyed. Temporary housing has limited resources, and it’s supposed to be not forever. As you can imagine, a lot of people who are devastated by disaster are not going to get out of it. So there was an implicit presumption that whatever FEMA housing was generated as temporary could very easily become permanent.”

And miserable. “Yes,” Friedman agreed. “A barracks. Marianne Cusato built these houses that are teeny-tiny, vaguely intending them to be temporary but recognizing that they have to persist. And in order to overcome the barracks effect, even thought they’re so small, there’s just enough idiosyncrasy that can be brought to each one of them that makes them more like a home.”

“The American Idea of Home: Conversations About Architecture and Design” by Bernard Friedman is published by University of Texas Press.