Romance in the Rooftops: To Understand a Condo Builder's Sales Strategy, Look at His Chimneys



WHAT’S FOR SALE at the Racquet Club—395 units of attached condominiums on what used to be forty unremunerative acres of cactus and mesquite in Scottsdale, Arizona—is a sense of escape from the humdrum. The Racquet Club’s features, even those that at first glance seem a tittle peculiar, tell us something about home-building’s growing devotion to image-making. The oneto three-bedroom units sit under undulating roofs of orange-toned barrel tile, a building material that has gained immense popularity recently, as the Southwest has embraced its sparse but periodically rediscovered Spanish colonial traditions. The condos’ walls are an ocean of tan stucco—a rough-textured stucco that washes across the region like a tidal wave—whose very commonness is an advantage. To newcomers from the East, accustomed to asphalt composition roofs and vinyl and aluminum siding, the ever-present stucco and the rounded tile both seem to proclaim, This is the romantic Southwest, where textures and materials, as well as temperatures, have a welcoming warmth. Ambitious residential complexes, whatever their materials or region, nowadays engage in a kind of architectural choreography, striking a series of intentionally charming poses. Occasionally this is accomplished with auxiliary structures that have nothing to do with supplying usable living space but much to do with setting a desired tone. At the Racquet Club the most prominent feature—strategically positioned between the clubhouse and the sales office, along the entrance drive—is a Mediterraneaninspired tower with a series of broadarched openings through which you can see a stairway angling upward to a shaded observation deck. Anyone who makes the climb can look out across a vast panorama of orange-tiled roofs (including the roofs of low tract houses that have almost engulfed Taliesen West, once Frank Lloyd Wright’s winter compound) stretching to the dark, bumpy McDowell Mountains along the horizon.

What catches the eye first, though, is a series of chimneys at close range. These belong to the Racquet Club’s “luxury villas”—a group of oneand two-story houses called the Brookline, the Newport, and other names apparently chosen on the presumption that an aura of settledness can be trundled around the country as easily as a parcel from an overnight-delivery service. The chimneys rise above the roofs as straight expanses of stucco, each embellished at middle height by a projecting belt of stucco and an inset band of orange tile. Under the brilliant sun the change of profile creates pleasing patterns of light and shadow. The chimneys are cut away near the top by still more deeply shadowed horizontal recesses, and they culminate in remarkable chimney caps that jab at the sky at 45-degree angles.

The chimney caps testify to the avidity with which the home-building industry assimilates and then universalizes design ideas. In 1965 a northern California development called Sea Ranch, designed by a group of architects including Charles Moore, set loose upon the American landscape a sharply slanted condominium roof style shorn of eaves and overhangs and their softening effect. By the mid-1970s countless condominium complexes throughout the nation had roofs like Sea Ranch’s, jutting up suddenly and terminating abruptly. It wasn’t just housing that adopted an angular aesthetic, of course. Shapes have a way of reverberating throughout a national culture, and even further. Just as rounded forms appeared on everything in the 1930s from locomotives to pencil sharpeners, angles emerged as a dominant design motif of the 1970s, injecting a sense of energy into objects as disparate as midwestern banks and Italian sports cars.

The contribution made by the Racquet Club’s designers, The Architects Group, of Phoenix, was in marrying the thoroughly popularized angular shape to the materials and the decorative devices of the Southwest. Indeed, visitors need not climb the Racquet Club’s observation tower to be struck by the forcefulness of the chimneys. From the time a visitor enters the development, the banded, incised, and sharply angled chimneys call for attention, pleasingly setting its villas apart from the tightly packed miles of stucco-and-tile houses all around. The dramatic roofscape of the Racquet Club exemplifies a major theme of today’s houses, especially houses that are densely clustered. That theme is exterior design that fulfills a desire for excitement, impressiveness, and romance. Increasingly the shapes and silhouettes of American houses are meant to stir the spirit and generate compelling rhythms on the horizon.

THIRTY YEARS AGO American roofscapes were bland and were sometimes visual junkyards. Bristling television antennas clambered up from chimneys and ridges, their metal rods aimed in all directions, eliminating any hope that a house would form a wholly graceful composition. A variety of factors, from cable TV to environmental consciousness, has since helped to clear away much of the mess. As the rods and wires have disappeared, builders have come to realize that the roof can form an emotionally potent element of the house’s personality.

“People want to live a dream,” says Zane Yost, an architect in Bridgeport, Connecticut, who specializes in massmarket housing. Yost studied at MIT in the 1950s—a time, he recalls, when “we talked a great deal about honesty of materials.” The urge among designers to create a rational, factual architecture has been succeeded by a desire to tap into powerful feelings. Yost, like many others, now explores visual imagery that need not have anything to do with the underlying structure.

He points out, for instance, that how fireplace chimneys look is largely unrelated to how they are actually made. For a decade or more the standard method of providing a fireplace has been to install a prefabricated metal firebox that sends its smoke up a factory-produced, Underwriters Laboratory-approved metal pipe, or flue. The cost of this pipe is, by Yost’s estimate, “one half to one third the cost of doing it in masonry”—which, of course, is the main reason that the newer technology has displaced traditional block-and-brick construction. High-fashion architects sometimes get away with leaving the metal pipe exposed, running it up the side of the house and above the roof, but the far more common practice is to disguise the pipe by encasing it in a large wooden framework, reminiscent of a masonry chimney, and then covering this with a veneer of whatever material is on the exterior walls—generally stucco in the Southwest and clapboard (wood or vinyl or aluminum) in much of the rest of the nation. The wood tower often helps to give the housing a decidedly more sculptural character. Instead of a contrast between brick and mortar and the color, texture, and scale of the walls, the exterior becomes visually unified, all of a piece. Just as the stucco chimneys in Scottsdale draw aesthetic strength from the fact that they seem to grow naturally out of the houses’ stucco walls, some of the clapboard chimneys elsewhere in the country are powerful extensions of the walls from which they rise. This consistency is one reason why many American attached-housing complexes and their roofscapes have attained an increasing measure of attractiveness.

One of the masters of roofscape styling is Sandy & Babcock, a San Francisco architectural firm that has designed clusters of attached housing throughout the United States. The firm’s designers once ushered me into a white-walled conference room and put on a slide show of Sandy & Babcock projects in places from Santa Rosa, California, to Kiawah Island, South Carolina. As the pictures flashed by in quick succession, what most stood out was the bold outlines the houses cast against the sky. Ranks of chimneys rose confidently and rhythmically, concluding with distinctive chimney caps in a variety of shapes and colors.

Some of the chimney caps were copper-toned, some finished in other colors chosen to complement whatever was below. Some were half-round, some rectilinear; none was in a shape that would be considered fussy. “You’ve got to be careful not to be too cute about it,” Donald Sandy said.

Sandy & Babcock custom-designs its chimney caps out of sheet metal, and they cost $300 to $400 each—not an inordinate expense for a middleor upperincome condo, especially when the fireplaces of more than one unit can share a single chimney. The decorative chimney caps are meant partly to conceal or deflect attention from what Sandy describes as the “little, dinky flue caps” that are the standard tops for prefab chimneys. Their main purpose, however, is to give a more romantic and residential flavor to the complex and its roofs.

A chimney cap can bestow on a complex an air of sophistication, and so make the units easier to sell. But the artfully designed roofscape also serves a broader public purpose. For decades one of the nagging failings of suburbia has been that its houses fail to add up to much of anything. When housing is coordinated into a pattern punctuated by well-modulated roofs and chimneys, however, it gives a gratifying sense of visual coherence. The roofscapes of the more skillfully designed projects around the country create energizing rhythms that bring distinction to their setting. Rather than simply subjugating the land, they strike a resonant note on the horizon.

Elements other than chimneys are involved. Increasingly housing employs elaborate arrangements of gables and dormers, and also windows that have rounded tops or other features accentuating the feeling of impressiveness. Architects at virtually every level of talent and expense are using multiple gables on new housing.

Jack Bloodgood, whose firm, Bloodgood Architects, in Des Moines, produces new designs for builders in the eastern two thirds of the nation, points out that builders rely on this “articulation of form" not only to give residential developments a cohesive pattern but also—in at least some complexes—to make each unit distinct from its neighbors. There’s a danger to this technique. If the designer distributes ornamental gables, chimneys, and unusual windows liberally, trying to make every occupant feel special, the proliferation of decorative forms can destroy the integrity of the whole.

Indeed, there are already more than enough townhouses—and even freestanding houses—with strange little gables in unexpected places (often pushing out from the bottom edge of a bigger gable), and other protuberances that fall short of their picturesque intentions. As Zane Yost sees it, “We’re getting into a baroque period.”

But knocking popular designs is an

old sport. The salutary fact is that a great many remarkably handsome housing developments are being created by the kind of designers who have to meet a budget and master a speculative market, Along some suburban or not-quiterural highway, a roofscape of surprising grace and strength suddenly pokes up on the horizon, infusing zest into its surroundings. For the most part, the best incarnations of the burgeoning romantic impulse turn out to be the tops of townhouses and other attached housing.

America likes to idealize itself as a nation of single-family detached homes, but it is the clustered condominiums that are creating visual rhythms large and grand enough to suit the size of the American landscape. □