LET us begin by frankly admitting that the style employed in the design of a house should be determined by the special conditions of environment, by the material used, and by the social and intellectual characteristics of the people who are to occupy it.
For instance, it is often appropriate to build a camp in Maine or in the Adirondacks of logs, and in its place this seems the most fitting material and properly influences the "style" or character of the building. However, while one may admit this, it would not make a structure built of this material with its resultant "style" seem especially appropriate or fitting on, say Fifth Avenue, New York, It is difficult to imagine an architect who really designs his buildings saying, " Go to, let us now design a building in Tudor Gothic or Dutch Colonial," without having first studied his problem. No; a design should grow from the conditions imposed by the site, the material to be used and the needs of the owner and his family, and the style should be determined, almost automatically, by these requirements.
Granting all this, there are still valid reasons why an adaptation of the Italian Renaissance is the logical style to use in an increasingly large number of cases. Undoubtedly all good design is the result of a frank use of the materials employed; and any forcing of the materials is sure to result either in a distorted design, or in what, I think, may fairly be called " building scenery," that is to say, in constructing an effect that looks like something different from what it is.
First floor plan, "Casa del Ponte," Rowayton, Conn.
Slee & Bryson, architects.
For instance, building in frame with a covering of stucco is, to my mind, distinctly disingenuous. Stucco represents the idea of plaster on a backing of some form of masonry - stone, brick, terra cotta, or what not, but never a cover for a wood frame.
Now, there is one question which has to be considered in building, and consequently in designing, every house; and that is the question of materials. "Of what shall we build our house?" is a question that has to be settled first of all for every case. Frequently there are only two or three materials that are to be had, without undue expense, and usually the materials of the locality are the ones to use. Rightly used, they will generally give results which seem harmonious and fitting.
Of course, in this country the tradition is to build as much as possible of wood. Formerly wood was the cheapest as well as the quickest material to use, and the idea that wood is cheap is so firmly ingrained that most people are surprised to learn how little basis there is at the present time for this belief.
Second floor plan, "Casa del Ponte," Rowayton, Conn.
Slee & Bryson, architects.
For some years there has been a well marked and increasing tendency among owners and architects to try to find some substitute for frame construction. This is partly to be explained by the constant advance in the price of lumber and the fact that the difference in the expense of building in wood and some incombustible material is rapidly reaching the vanishing point; and partly by the growing conviction that the risks of fire in a wooden house are too great. People are realizing more and more fully that the extra expense of building either fireproof houses, or houses where the walls at least will resist fire, is more than justified by the added security obtained. Furthermore, the reduced cost of maintenance in buildings that do not require frequent painting is a factor that appeals more and more strongly to prospective builders, especially if they have had experience with the constant drain for repairs brought about in even a well built frame house.
Now, undoubtedly, the most economical and straightforward way of building in fireproof or semi-fireproof construction is to use straight, simple wall surfaces with the minimum of breaks, and to stop the wall at an even height.
If the tops of the walls are protected from the action of the weather by a projection of the roof, you have the maximum of efficiency with the minimum of effort and expense. These conditions naturally suggest the sort of building so prevalent in central Italy and especially in Florence.
In other words, they suggest the Italian type of building, with its plain, simple wall surfaces, its long, horizontal projecting cornice or eaves, and the simple roofs which are so characteristic of the type.
It may be said, and with some truth, that the Georgian or Southern Colonial type fulfills these requirements equally well. This may be true in some cases, but, as has been frequently pointed out, the almost entire lack of flexibility in the Colonial style makes it often difficult to use without forcing a plan into a more or less arbitrary rectangle, and in so doing distorting the natural requirements of the house.
Now, unlike the other Renaissance styles, and contrary to the usual impression, the Italian work, except in the later and more formal examples, is one of the freest, most flexible styles ever developed. Even the most cursory inspection of any of the well known works on Italian villas will convince the doubting homebuilder of the absolute accuracy of this statement.
During a somewhat prolonged stay in Italy, the present writer made a practice of measuring and making drawings of the most important, or at least the most interesting, buildings and details that came under his observation; and it happened, not once, but so many times that it came to be almost a commonplace, that some unexpected departure from the normal, some unperceived variation from symmetry perhaps, made a second visit necessary to check the measurements. This almost invariably resulted in uncovering some perfectly frank lack of balance which had been perpetrated in so naive a way as to elude the eye of even a trained observer.