in defense of the 'midcentury modern' trend - because sometimes trends are awful.

Full Disclosure! I’m not just talking about homes built in the middle of the last century, I’m using that buzzword term to refer to any home built in that tradition. The thesis statements of many homes that were designed in the genetic lineage of Wright, the International Style, and the like have many similarities, regardless of when/where they have been built. Midcentury Modern is a catch-all in my mind, covering a style departure not seen before the 1900’s, and still a bit on the fringe of what is desired by most seekers of residential design, so I’ll use it as such.

I’m trying to focus a good amount of my energy these days into trying to define, and then refine, what I am buzzing about mentally and emotionally when I get caught up in needing a new house. So many people ask us why on earth we would want to do build new, and I would be missing an opportunity if I didn't take this time in which we CAN’T build to focus on what the motivation behind the desire is. I’d be lying if I said that the collision between the popular ‘traditional’ and ‘trendy’ design and my current house wasn’t also lighting the fire in me to explore this topic. I totally understand that our previous attempt at designing a little bit outside the box is a part of why our house hasn't sold. we tried to look the part on the outside, but go for it a bit on the inside, and that was a fatal mistake. Fine. I get it. But I’m still not gonna paint it Revere Pewter or Painter’s White. I see the new 2018/2019 color trends veering to the dramatic and dark, and people on Pinterest rebelling against the whitewhitewhite and experimenting with texture and tone….. Our day will come, I’m not giving up, even if takes a few years and more renovating.

ANYWAY, I scrolled through my Pinterest albums today, not really knowing what I would glean from it, but knowing that I needed to give myself time to just let the overall feel of them sink in. I realized that what was lighting up in my brain was the way in which these homes made at least an honest attempt to harmonize with the environment. I know, I know, building anything is not a way to honor the natural environment, but given that everything humans do is destructive, I’m making the best of a bad situation and the fact that most of us don’t want to live in a canvas tent year-round.

Imagine Fallingwater without the waterfall and the boulders, or the Farnsworth House without the riverbanks nearby, always ready to overflow and dictating the house be built upon stilts. Picture a midcentury Eichler house in Long Beach without the courtyard trees and the tropical plants filling the floor-to-ceiling window views. These structures, and so many others built since they blazed the trails, were designed WITH the landscape. The outside is meant to be viewed from the inside, and the outside is meant to fold itself into the landscape. This approach goes beyond just the hillsides and treescapes on a given plot: architects working toward these ideals acknowledge sunlight, weather, natural materials, and reduction of environmental impact. Today’s designers that orient buildings for solar panels and natural drainage are working from the same place as the midcentury designer that built a courtyard around a 100-year-old live oak.

Once I started to gel these impressions together, I realized that what drives the design I’m so drawn to is not JUST the appearance of buildings that acknowledge the landscape, it’s the mindset that allows it to happen in the first place. I looked at dozens of photos of projects by current firms I adore - Anacapa, Olson Kundig, Weber Arquitectos, Jacobsen Arquitectura, A Parallel , and so many others - and what I saw was a collective through process that did not eliminate the natural environment. it was not ‘WE PUT HOUSE HERE!’ and a consideration of the site as a set of zoning and driveway configuration requirements. To me, that shows a level of acceptance of the human’s place in the world as unrelated to what exists naturally before we arrive to claim our plot. We might be strong-arming our desire to build a beautiful structure into the landscape on some level whenever we build even a lean-to in the forest, but an attempt to make it blend and minimize impact is soothing to me. There is a large neighborhood not far from me that was built in the 1950’s, mostly designed by a local unsung architectural hero named Edward Humrich, on flat, forested land. If you viewed it from a drone, you could pick out the plots that have recently been re-built on, as they are empty blotches in the woods, with a house stuck in the middle. The original homes tucked themselves in, quietly, beautifully, and left the forest as intact as possible. Closer to my house, however, are more of the clear-cut subdivisions that were built by leveling every living thing on the acreage and plopping in houses in diagrammatic fashion. (Many of them were built on land previously cleared for crop farming, to be fair, but…) Big homes, small homes, townhomes, etc - all price points and scales of developments use this tactic, and the result is a total disconnect from what was there before. Even my own house is built on what used to be rolling, wooded, and marshy land that was cleared in the early 1900’s for street grids. It seems less objectionable, because it’s been this way for so long, and we are possibly the 3rd house on this property, but that disconnect is really bothering me. Even if we build new, the lot we have is just about the last one in town that HAS NOT previously been built on. It’s appears to have been used as a dumping ground for excess earth as the former bog around it became a fully-built neighborhood, so it’s not ‘natural’ in it’s shape and topography, but it really bothers me that we would be possibly uprooting squirrels, mice, perhaps a fox, and countless birds and bugs. The need to be careful and thoughtful when planning for that build weighs heavily. How can I encourage the flora and fauna currently hanging out there to leave and move a hundred yards or so east, and into the forest preserve?? that’s a blog post for another day, I suppose….

In the spirit of illustration, I needed to find some examples of what I mean by houses that DO NOT fit the ideal I hope to someday surround myself with. What these houses say to me is that they are only about the house itself. It’s possible for a house to not give a hoot about the landscape and be proportional, or visually balanced, or well built, or LEED-certified, or attractive, but the older I get, the more unnatural they are to me. It’s a statement by a client that doesn’t think about the natural order of things very much. I understand that some people just want a nice house and to be done with it, but I think that over time, that point of view becomes less a statement about indoor plumbing and protection from rain, and more a result of a cultural point of view that ‘we don’t have to think about the rest of the world because we’ve solved the problems that exist right here’. The budget and the location and the cost of materials don’t make a difference in my argument, either - a small budget can espouse environmental recognition and a small budget can also be overly damaging. It’s kind of like a twinkie - sure it’s yummy comfort food that satisfies a craving and is also engineered to overcome environmental weaknesses like mold and dehydration, but apples picked right off the tree are AMAZING and also better for us. And yes, that orchard is man-made and isn’t natural, but lots of birds and bees and field mice and hawks can live happily in an apple orchard. If you’d grown up thinking twinkies are the shit, though, and a well-deserved treat, I can see how that first orchard apple tastes a little acidic and getting juice all over your hands isn’t much fun, but I swear you’d get used to it.

I feel I have a lot more to say about this topic, but right now I’m feeling the discomfort of blogging pretty acutely. I am trying to find my voice, and realizing that it’s REALLY HARD for me to do this without an audience or a partner in conversation. So, i’ll leave this topic for now, and perhaps come revisit it when I’m feeling not so much like a beginner in the world of silent conversation. ;)