To build the house is simple, to create the setting is from difficult to impossible; and in all cases expensive and out of proportion to the cost of the house. The natural setting should be preserved intact and the house designed to fit. It is this lack of fitness which prevents the American community from having the charm of the European village. In Europe, they never think of the house without the setting or garden; while here in America too often a house is a house and the garden a separate and distinct thing, a fad for the wealthy. Gardens are expensive in America, chiefly because we set up artificial standards in our domestic architecture. We design houses that are entirely foreign to their surroundings and then we attempt to create a setting for them. In Europe they fit the house to the setting and with very little gardening the effect is complete and charming.
1 In Garden Magazine and Home Builder, April, 1925. No longer published; see American Rome.
In America, we are prone to dwell upon minor details of the house with but scant consideration for the scheme in general, its fitness to the setting and to the community as a whole. We think in terms of the individual house and parts of that house, whereas we should think in terms of the vast open country or the complete village, that the parts may be properly subordinated to the whole.
Often, and without real consideration, the owner decides he wants a Colonial or some other type of house, perhaps he has seen an old Colonial homestead set behind large trees on a large level plot with old outbuildings, fences and gardens, a real picture. Then he purchases a plot in a community where hills, ravines, rock ledges and the great natural irregularities prevail, and can still picture nothing but the old Colonial homestead as his home and insists upon that type. He feels that the lot is undesirable and expensive to build on because of the natural ruggedness, but "the neighborhood is good" is his excuse for buying it and because of the irregularities the price was not high. He does not consider that the natural setting determines the type and style of house more than any other factor. He utterly fails to appreciate his diamond in the rough.
If the plot selected is one of those elevated above the street or with ledge rock abounding, he immediately starts to work to level down the plot for his Colonial house. He cuts down the trees, blasts out the rock for his cellar, carts the material away and builds his home - very often a white frame farmhouse. When the house is completed he starts work on his garden. He removes all outcropping rocks, he fills in the ravines, builds retaining walls to support the embankments, and makes a smooth level lawn with a formal garden of old-fashioned flowers, sets out some spindling saplings or some Christmas trees from a nursery and feels that he has done something. He certainly has! To create a Colonial house and a Colonial garden (so called) on such a rough plot meant much work and expense.
But the result! Is it pleasing? It is not! It is flat, tame and uninteresting. The commonplace effect of a level lot and smooth lawn. He has destroyed the natural beauty of the plot, the irregular contour of the land. The rugged beauty of outcropping rock is gone; and the priceless old trees have been cut down as otherwise they would have been left elevated on mounds that were too high or in ravines that were too low for the level lawn. Further, even when the house and planting have acquired the mellowness of age, the place does not fit in with the adjoining scenery and no matter how well executed in itself, if it fails in this respect the result can never be successful.
If, at the start, the Colonial type of house had been abandoned and an irregular English cottage type selected, there would have been no expensive grading and landscape construction work, the natural beauty of the plot would have been taken advantage of without cost, the old trees could have been saved and the finished result would have had a sense of fitness that imparts the charm which no artificial circumstances can create.
Of course, the house would need to be properly designed, a rambling irregular type that suits the natural site. And it should be constructed of local and not foreign materials, so as to maintain a definite relation and tie between the house and its setting.
An inspection trip through any of our suburban communities must convince a careful observer that most of the houses are designed in the haphazard manner, with little or no regard for their fitness to site and community. We see Colonial frame farmhouses perched on top of rock ledges which demand a "medieval castle" or a "lighthouse" type. We see a "medieval castle" bristling with towers and pinnacles set on a broad level plot of monotonous uniformity. We see houses built on the hillside with deep cuts and fills to give a level plot for a Colonial house whereas an irregular English type would have made a picture. We see plots that once boasted rocky ravines below the street level and with fine old trees, now as level as a parlor floor, and a nice white Colonial farmhouse with center entrance built level with the street with no trees, no ravines, no rocks - a bald, monotonous and commonplace affair.
With a plot of this type the ravines, rocks and trees should have been left intact and a house of early English or medieval French type should have been designed, with bridges thrown across the ravine from the street level to a terrace at the first floor level of the house. The basement should have been left entirely exposed and a sunken wild garden developed.
It must be remembered that opinions and tastes not only vary but that they change also, often in a short space of time suffering a complete reversal or refutation. One condemns what is not understood. One becomes tired of the commonplace and longs for something interesting and romantic. Many, who have a distinct dislike for the antique, become its greatest advocates when they learn to understand and appreciate it
Fig. 6. - This house has been designed to show rugged simplicity in harmony with its natural wooded background. (J. Duncan Hunter, architect.)
The decision to have a Colonial house should not be made merely because of a liking for the neat prim appearance of the exterior, the formality of symmetry in design and bright interiors, the effect of a multitude of large windows. Rather let the requirements of the lot determine the type of house - at least the exterior masses and detail. The interior can then be modified to reflect the individuality of the owner.
Often before the house is completed the owner, having decided upon the type he thought he wished to build, without due consideration to the requirements of the land and without thorough acquaintance with other architectural types, condemns his own first judgment (when too late) and feels that he should tear down the house and start over. This is a bitter disappointment, for, as a rule, one's "dream house" is built but once in a lifetime and then often only after years of anticipation.
Unhappily, the notion is still current that four walls and a roof make a house and that a lot is measured only by its width and depth, with straight lines and square angles, that the value of the house is in proportion to the square feet of floor space it provides for living purposes and that the value of the lot is in proportion to its frontage and to its approach to a billiard-table level. Obviously, four walls and a roof do not make a house, they make a box if well built. A regular rectangular, level plot is not the most valuable nor the most desirable, but rather the least so for a country house. The third dimension in the lot - that is, the contour - is of more importance than either frontage or depth. The more irregular the lines of the lot and the more irregular the contour, the more pleasing the result if the house be properly designed.
Of course, an irregular lot is difficult to handle; it requires a thorough understanding of underlying principles and requirements and then much study and work, but, the more difficult the problem, the greater the study required; and the results are, in direct proportion to the amount of this study, something that is distinctive, fitting and beautiful. That which comes easy usually has no intrinsic merit.
It is for this reason that altered houses often possess greater artistic merit than new ones. The conditions set up by the old building require study and planning with the result that new ideas are born and something of beauty created.
One thing, however, must not be lost sight of; you cannot expect a boy to carry a man's load, and with difficult irregular lots, an architect of ability is required. Further you cannot tie a man's feet and expect him to walk, neither can you throttle an architect's imagination with a set of obsolete dining room furniture which simply must be used in the house or tie him up with "stock" doors and windows, and expect him to create a masterpiece. The architect must overcome the difficulties of the irregular lot and the requirements of the owner but he must have a free hand to solve the problem in his own way.
This does not mean that the ideas, tastes, and requirements of the owner are not to receive due consideration; quite the contrary, but they must all be put through the melting pot, the dross burned off and the gold retained, if there is any of the finer metal left after the refining process. This is the function of the architect, his duty is not to prepare drawings, specifications and details, but to create through his powers of imagination. The "mental picture" which the architect forms of the house and its entire ensemble is of greater importance than all of the work that follows after. If it is poorly conceived, the results are doomed, for the house in its relation to its surroundings, the many different angles and perspectives involved, the effect of trees and other natural conditions, to say nothing of the orientation and effect of sunshine and shadow, cannot be adequately portrayed on paper and one must fall back upon the mental picture of the house and its setting during the translation of the picture into building material.