Saturday, November 15, 2008
Dreaming of a bungalow?
Today's abodes could benefit from modesty
Kelvin Browne, National Post
Published: Saturday, November 15, 2008
In a recent conversation with Paul Goldberger, architecture critic for The New Yorker, he said tough economic times make us appreciate modern houses more, the kind often built in the subdivisions of the 1950s. "The modern-style houses of this period are typically modest but well-designed, making good use of their relatively small space," says Mr. Goldberger, arguably the most influential architecture commentator in the U. S. Since we can no longer afford behemoth teardowns, with multi-garages and four ensuites, will a Don Mills bungalow be our dream home again?
Modern or not, most 1950s houses were small compared with today's homes. The U. S. National Association of Home Builders statistics show the average American abode was approximately 1,000 square feet in 1950 and had grown to 2,400 sq. ft. by 2005. While families were larger in the 1950s, houses were not; it was usual for a family of five or six to feel lucky to live in 1,200 sq. ft. In addition, there was usually a basement and carport or, if the family was well-to-do, an enclosed garage.
People lived in the living room because -- where else? If there was a family room, it was a breakfast nook connected to the kitchen. Children often shared bedrooms and most always a bathroom. If parents had an ensuite, they were doing well. No one had huge closets. It may be naive, but I don't think people had as many clothes or as much stuff in general. Photographs of 1950s homes illustrate a more minimal style than today's. It could be a magazine illusion with all the heavy curtains and French furniture arriving after the magazine photographer left, but I don't think so. The rooms were smaller and people didn't have the credit we did, at least until recently.
Families in the 1950s didn't know they were saving on the costs of addiction counselling because parents in close proximity to their children knew what they were up to. As well, like it or not, everyone had to try to get along because you couldn't disappear to your wing of the house and avoid your parents or sibs. No reality-cum-psychotherapy shows for these families.
They didn't know it then, but 1950s families were living energy efficiently because they had less space to heat and cool. Air conditioning was a luxury; a wall unit in a bedroom was the norm. They didn't have mammoth stoves or commercial-size refrigerators that guzzled energy. (More home-cooked meals and less need to have a week's worth of frozen pizza in the freezer.) Few had washers and dryers; clothes were hung outside to dry until subdivisions got snotty and outlawed clotheslines. There weren't a million energy-wasting gadgets. People raked lawns and didn't use leaf blowers. If there was a television, there was only one and the family watched it together.
"Modern houses tended to make good use of natural light, and the best had good relationships between interior and exterior spaces," Mr. Goldberger says. The most lauded examples of connection to the outside, and the expansion of perceived living area, are the classic plans of Frank Lloyd Wright. In the home magazines of the time, someone was always extolling the virtues of sliding glass doors and windows that let in garden views.
Modernists were concerned about natural heating and cooling, or positioning houses for natural ventilation. Think of Richard Neutra. Lattices above windows became standard design elements but also allowed for passive heating while blocking unwanted noon sun or sun during the summer. Traditional houses favoured in the ritzy subdivisions of the 1990s didn't care about working with nature. They were restricted by Georgian or other style conventions and couldn't, but even if they could, why bother? Heating and cooling was cheap; 1990s cottages were the worst offenders. They inevitably had huge windows facing west (to capture the sunset) that required the house be massively air-conditioned to make it livable. So much for the natural cooling of lakeside summer living.
Mr. Goldberger doesn't say that affluence made us thoughtless but he does point out how thoughtful many modernist houses are. He says they were about how people really lived and how design could make lives better. That Don Mills bungalow's goal wasn't a stage set for pretension and conspicuous consumption, but rather about making the day-to-day lives that most of us live quietly better.
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