Accent on Living

AN ARCHITECT, nowadays, is risking his reputation if he designs a house with anything but a flat roof. If his house has a pitched roof and into the bargain uses clapboards, he is really getting nowhere. It sounds odd, but a recent competition sponsored by the American Institute of Architects came out that way.

There are many words in professional jargon that seem to have a special meaning to initiates. A significant word right now, for instance, among architects is '’traditionalism.” It’s virtually a when-you-call-methat-smile kind of word, a dirty word, and it is applied not only against his design but also against his materials and the architect himself. The supreme insult is “provincialism.” To characterize a building as traditional and provincial is to imply that its architect would be more at home in a traditional tepee with the Sioux, or among the muralists in the caves of the Dordogne, than in well-to-do circles of the picture-window set.

To judge by the American architect’s legacy from the past, it is not surprising that the word “traditional" sends uneasy quivers up and down his spine. Surely, some tradition, be it no more than happenstance, must account for the buildings along the main street of Fitchburg, Massachusetts, which call to mind the warning of years ago offered to a scowling, grimacing child: “Look out —your face will freeze that way!" Hundreds of miles of such survivals with just such a face deject the wayfarer in Chicago and its suburbs; it does indeed seem “traditional” that most of our cities abound in shoddy, unkempt structures built at the wrong time by the wrong people for the wrong reasons.

It would be hard to find a more comprehensively inappropriate scheme than the Hotel Ponce de Leon, in St. Augustine’s sunshine, attributed unblushingly on a bronze plaque to the celebrated architectural firm of Carrere and Hastings; a de luxe hotel in the manner of a Spanish fortress, complete with drawbridge and portcullis, vast entrance doors and such medieval fenestration that one reads a newspaper in the lobby on a bright winter morning only with the aid of an electric light. We are not astonished to encounter a Palm Springs design in Erie or a Swiss chalet in White Plains. We know that reasoning adults must have been responsible for the decision some years ago that the Gothic style was that best suited to the needs of American colleges and universities, even though we can not imagine what their reasons were. And even as we set down these reflections, we see a successor tradition in the making by which the new college chapel resembles a pancake, or perhaps a paper hat, supported by matchsticks; dormitories and lecture halls, festooned with ramps, look as if they had been lifted right out of an amusement park. Everything is glass and metal and concrete, and there are neighborhoods in Cambridge where the populace can look through a whole facade of picture windows and see the Harvard student in his room, a strangely disillusioning view, usually, of those bright college years. Residences in the same nascent tradition, meanwhile, assume the contours of a public bathhouse or a shooting shack in the Adirondacks. The residence must have, also, one or more glass walls, and the AIA competition, as reported in House & Home, produced a list of ten major features which the six houses picked as the best from one hundred fifty-eight entries all had in common.

Now a jury of architects is entitled to find for its likes, and hardly anyone would fault the half dozen handsome examples of “better living" which did receive awards. Photographs of their interiors show nothing but extremely modern furniture, and one assumes that these are houses for clients starting absolutely from scratch, without so much as a footstool in the way of belongings. All must be new and all must be modern, and the right-thinking architect would promptly show the door to any client who turned up with a grandfather’s clock and a couple of family portraits and wanted a wall or a corner where he could put them. No such anachronisms shame the rooms of the award winners, and if the jury chose to go all out for the modern, it was perfectly entitled to do so.

The hitch in the “better living” competition came when the jury decided not to give an award to a seventh entry, and although the House & Home quotations from the jury’s report do not identify it, the editors of House & Home did so, attributing it to the Boston architect, George W. W. Brewster, and publishing photographs of the house and an endorsement of it by Frank Lloyd Wright. It is worth noting what the jury reported about, presumably, the Brewster house:

“Several jurors, in fact, argued for an award to an almost entirely ‘traditional’ house because, unlike so many of the ‘modern’ submissions, that house showed standards of good taste and elegance sadly lacking in most of the other entries.”

In its own explanation of the jury’s findings, House & Home said of the Brewster house:

“This house came closer to winning a Homes for Better Living Award than any other house without a flat roof.

“A minority of the jury wanted to give it special recognition for its ‘lasting qualities of good design: simplicity, excellence of proportion, elegance of detail.'

“In the end, the majority rejected the house because: 1) The kitchen was a long walk from the entrance hall [my italics]; 2) The detailing, while sensitive and neat, was full of minor traditional clichés; 3) Giving an award to this house would encourage a form of provincialism, which has acquired some distinctly chauvinistic overtones through articles published in certain popular magazines. The majority of the jury felt strongly that this was not a point of view to encourage, even if only by implication.”

House & Home concluded with a statement by architect Brewster that was full of good sense and wit, defending his house, its pitched roof, and even its “provincial” materials, “Our local carpenters know how to build with clapboard and shingles inexpensively,” said he, “and these materials withstand the violent winds and rains and heavy snows better than almost any other. I feel it would have been doctrinaire to have rejected them simply to achieve a particular style.”

Thanks are due to House & Home for airing the whole issue, although one question remains unanswered: Must every kitchen, flat or pitched roof notwithstanding, from this point on, adjoin the entrance hall?