For many years it has been the custom of architects in this country in solving their modern problems of design to seek inspiration (to put it mildly) from the styles and periods of the past. During the last ten or fifteen years the practice has been carried to extremes. Our architects have not only designed in the style of five or six centuries ago, but frankly allowed their efforts to be labeled with a tag bearing the inscription, "Designed in the style of the Romanesque," "the early English," or "the Spanish," as the case might be. The public generally took to this idea; it seemed to give a building a certain distinction if it could be associated with some historic style. Real-estate operators were quick to recognize the sales value of a house with a "period label," and owners of all kinds of buildings, including house owners, fell in line with the demand for period designs.
The result was that if a house did not bear sufficient evidence in its design of the influence of some one period to allow the owner to apply to it the name of one of the old historic styles, that house was considered of poor design and lacking in architectural value. It can readily be seen that progress in architecture in this country was seriously handicapped by this custom. The question of style overshadowed all else, individuality being entirely lost sight of.
But the practice was not without benefit. Believing that to be versed in architecture only an acquaintance with the styles and periods was necessary, the public immediately began reading up on architectural history. Now, although one cannot by mere reading master the art of architecture, it is true that a real appreciation of beauty in architecture was developed almost overnight.
But the unfortunate part of it is that now, in line with the present-day tendencies in standardization and mass thinking, we are attempting to standardize beauty in architecture by means of the perpetuation of the old styles and periods. Thus it has come about that the styles and periods have exerted a tremendous influence on the design of our houses during' the last decade or more, and still do to-day. In fact many architects believe that they always will. G. Edwin Brumbaugh, a Philadelphia architect, has expressed the opinion that, as houses are ideally the intimate expression of the owners' education and culture, it is difficult to disassociate them entirely from the history of art. He himself feels that an entirely new art, with no trace of the romance of history, would not continue to satisfy him day in and day out. Arthur C. Holden, an architect of New York, believes that because home surroundings and habits of life are deeply intertwined with the traditions of the family, anything which appears to sever these roots is apt to be looked upon as questionably radical, and therefore not desirable.
1 Adapted from "The House of To-Day," House Beautiful, June, 1930. Reprinted by permission from the House Beautiful magazine.
Fig. 18. - Interesting architectural treatment is shown in this Santa Barbara house which won a prize in a local architectural competition.
It is very evident that the architects are unanimous in the opinion that the period idea has been carried too far. They do not advocate turning our backs on precedent and tradition and the history of art, but they are aware that it is far more important that the design of a house be in good proportion, that it be appropriate to its site, and that it reflect the individuality of the owner, than that it merely conform to the character of any one of the historic styles. They still seek inspiration in the past, but instead of being slavishly imitative they are learning to be interpretative. Frank J. Forster, an architect who specializes in domestic architecture, points out that the circular tower on one of his recent houses was inspired by one on an old French farmhouse and that the oriel window portrays strikingly the influence of an early English manor house. An architect, I claim, must be possessed with originality and creative ability so to interpret these old motives that they become a harmonious part of his own composition.
But there are those who still cling to a period appellation. Mr. Forster admits that he found it difficult to label this house to the client's satisfaction. Actually it is a modern house, because it expresses the ideas of a twentieth-century architect and is adapted to twentieth-century needs. Admittedly there are French and English influences in certain details, but they are minor elements in the design. Is it not in reality more distinctive to describe a house as "of stone," "in the woods," "on the side of a hill," and so on, than to revert to such a stereotyped description as "a house designed in the Early English style"? Described in the former terms, the imagination is aroused, but with the latter nomenclature you are led merely to open your style book to page, say, 88, entitled "Early English," and your interest ends there.
These more important considerations, therefore, of material and adaptation to site are the ones that are being emphasized more and more.....
When our architect talks to us in terms of stone, brick, stucco, or wood, we really can follow him more easily than when he refers to styles and periods. It requires only a sense of the fitness of things to understand him when he says that on a woody site, such as ours, a brick house would look out of place; and we comprehend him immediately when he states that a formal house would not be suitable for our lot on the side of a hill.
Thus as we free ourselves from the constraint of period design, we learn that design is best developed from the plan, and not contrariwise, as has been too often the case in the past. For when we logically work out our floor plan, first to meet our needs and serve our requirements and to conform to the contour of the land, and then from it develop a design that shall reflect our personal tastes and harmonize with the natural landscape, we find that this design bears but slight resemblance to the architecture of the old styles and periods. The fact that so much of the countryside of Northeastern America is characterized by irregularity of contour leads us toward more informality in house design than was evident in the days when period architecture flourished. This tendency is seen, too, in the fact that so many architects report that their clients prefer stone to all other materials. For with stone is associated most commonly a low rambling house, rugged in its details, in which the relation of house to site is strongly accented.
It is probably true that Colonial architecture is still the inspiration for the greater part of domestic architecture in all sections of this country to-day. I attribute this to the fact that, as we grow older as a nation, we recognize in the Colonial many of the traditions which the early history of this country records. In other words, we think of it as preeminently American. Then, too, Colonial architecture may reflect English, Spanish, French, or Dutch ancestry without detracting from its Americanism. We find the Colonial of New England quite different from that of Pennsylvania, and the Colonial of Virginia and the Carolinas bears little resemblance to that of California. But each suggests the traditions associated with Colonial days of American history in its locality.....
Another reason for the popularity of the Colonial is the fact that this style is not exclusively identified with any one material. There are old Colonial houses of stone, brick, wood, and even cement. Hence the house owner may build his house in his favorite material and still cast it in the Colonial mould.
What of the future trends? Do we see another style dominating as the Colonial does to-day? For there are some people who are convinced that fashion is based on a cycle, claiming that it is fashion which dictates at any given time the popularity of one style of architecture over all others.
I take a rather different stand. I believe that once we have shaken off European influence it will never return. Now that we have drawn away from a purely superficial conception of period architecture, we are reverting to tradition for the best that it can furnish us in the interpretation of function and setting. Our domestic architecture will continue to bear a certain resemblance, not to any one style, but to many styles, for some time to come. But it will sparkle with original ideas as it has never done before. New materials will allow new forms, and old materials will be found to lend themselves to a new manner of expression.
And what of the house in the "modern style"? Perhaps, as Mr. Brumbaugh says, after we get thoroughly accustomed to the new manner of design which is seen in shops and office buildings, the modern style, as we choose to call it, can be extended generally to apartments and finally to houses. But it looks like a hard pull. However, I foresee a distinctive American style of domestic architecture which I believe is now in the making. Just when it will materialize, I, of course, cannot predict. It depends upon how soon we come to understand that architecture is much more than a book of styles or patterns from which each owner selects the design he likes best. We shall then realize that a house may be well designed even though it cannot be described as being in the style of any one of the historic periods. And we shall then appreciate the fact that a house, though bearing evidence of the influence of the past, may still be truly modern because the individuality of its twentieth-century owner has been reflected in a design created by a twentieth-century architect.