The American dream crashed with the economy. Can architecture bring it back?

In this political season, we’re hearing a lot of talk about reclaiming the American dream. And nothing says “American dream” like the single-family house, though it’s a sore subject for the 4 million families who’ve lost their homes to foreclosure since 2007, or the hundreds of thousands more in limbo, with the roofs over their heads worth less than the mortgages they owe.

Cathleen McGuigan, Editor in Chief
Photo © Michel Arnaud

But now new house construction, which had slowed dramatically, is beginning to rise: Housing starts are up, particularly for multifamily dwellings, as outlined in Architectural Record’s new “Stats” feature, which draws on unique data from McGraw-Hill Dodge Analytics.

Still, the notion of the single-family house—the one a child might draw as a square topped by a triangle with a curl of smoke rising from a tiny chimney—remains the epicenter of our battered ideals. Despite admonitions about the virtues of density, in terms of both thrift and sustainability, eight in 10 Americans want to live in their own detached house, according to a 2011 survey by the National Association of Realtors. Even in cities, most people live in single-family dwellings.

For architects, the house has always had a special allure as an incubator of design ideas that are too innovative or outrageous to test out on a sober-sided commercial clientele. Which is why Architectural Record has published a special issue on houses each year since 1956. Earlier Record editors, too, such as Lawrence Kocher—who designed the radical low-cost “Aluminaire House” with Albert Frey in 1931—devoted special sections of the magazine to the house. The Modern masters valued the experimental challenge that residential design allowed, and their influence is still pervasive: The long shadow of Le Corbusier and Mies (whose Villa Tugendhat in the Czech Republic has just been restored) are evident in our Record Houses this month.

Making the selection of Record Houses is difficult but fun—and we admit we’ve gone way out there this year. Most of the nine featured houses take big risks: One had to have its main components helicoptered to its hilly site. Another employs walls of perforated steel.

And a third house has so much glass that—well, let’s just say its owners won’t ever throw stones, let alone engage in certain other activities.

Not that these houses aren’t sensible in many ways. Most are comparatively small—just as the size of the average new American home, which was on steroids during the boom, has started to shrink. They are sensitive to their settings—planned for privacy facing the street but more open to gardens—or were created primarily to exploit dramatic views.

Still, we know that these aren’t homes for the average modern family. But that’s okay. Like the masterpieces that precede them—the Villa Savoye or the Villa Tugendhat—we think you’ll find these houses inspiring. And, as we give a bow to the daring patrons who commissioned them, we hope this issue might inspire potential clients to pursue the satisfaction of working with an architect to create their own home.

A house doesn’t have to be fancy or expensive—there are good architects in every state of the union who can work at almost any scale or budget.

The foreclosure crisis may have had a silver lining: It revealed a preponderance of houses that are oversized and poorly designed. Good architecture—whether for private clients or developers—can bring to the contemporary home sustainability, economy, and flexibility, as well as sensitivity to place. And isn’t that what the American dream should be all about?

P.S. As we were preparing this issue for press, we learned that Architectural Record had won, among several other prizes, the highest journalistic honor at the American Business Media’s 58th annual Jesse H. Neal Awards: the 2012 Grand Neal for our September 2011 issue, “The Death and Life of a Great American City.” Up against the top publications for such professions as law, banking, and computer science, this recognition demonstrates the broader appreciation for architecture in our culture.