Mass Production and the Modern House: Part II
From ARCHITECTURAL RECORD, February 1930
In modern architecture, I pointed out in my first article, the emphasis has shifted from building to manufacture. Since the parts of a building have been industrialized, it has naturally occurred to certain intelligent designers that the whole might eventually be treated in the same manner: hence various schemes for single family unit houses, designed for greater mechanical efficiency. Those who approach the problem of the modern house from this angle suggest that the mass house may eventually be manufactured as cheaply and distributed as widely as the cheap motor car.
Although this development holds out promise for definite improvements in functional relationship and design, there is some reason to doubt, I pointed out, that costs could be cheapened as radically as the advocates of a purely mechanical improvement have supposed. A good part of the total cost of housing is represented by factors which, like the cost of money or land, are outside the province of factory production, or, like the numberless constituent parts of the house, are already cheapened by mass production. The mass house promises a better mechanical integration. That would constitute an advance; but not an overwhelming one; and the mere ability to purchase such houses easily and plant them anywhere would only add to the communal chaos that now threatens every semi-urban community.**
We have now to see whether there is not a different line of advance which rests upon more thorough comprehension of all the social and economic as well as the technical elements involved. Without abandoning a single tangible gain in technique, there is, I think, a more promising road that, so far from eliminating the architect, will restore him to a position of importance.
Taking the individual house as a starting point, it is by now hopeless to attempt to restore it to a central position in domestic architecture. The individuality of such houses is already lost. Except for a bare ten or fifteen per cent of the population, such houses cannot be produced by individual architects, attempting to meet the unique wishes of a special client. The words Colonial, Cotswold, Tudor, in suburban architecture are mere attempts to cover by literary allusion the essential standardization that has taken place; and as soon as we approach the price level of the ordinary run of house dwellers, clerks, salesmen, skilled industrial workers, to say nothing of the more unskilled operations and the more poorly paid trades, the game is already lost; the manufactured shingle, the roughly turned colonial ornament, or the plaster "half-timber" show the strain on the purse.
Admirable as is the layout, the pervading conception, of our first American attempt at a "town for the Motor Age," for example, no candid critic can pretend that the individual one-family houses are particularly triumphant examples of modern architecture; and the reason is that even with large-scale organization and limited dividends, it is impossible to isolate such houses sufficiently and lavish upon them the attention that so graciously humanized the traditional house even as late as 1890. Architecturally, these studiously suburban types fall down badly beside the finer rows and quadrangles of Sunnyside, the work of the same architects; and if anyone thinks he can do better with the cheap free-standing house, let him try it.
The isolated domestic unit cannot be made sound, beautiful, and efficient except at a prohibitive cost. If we wish to retain the single-family house, we shall have to accept it as a completely manufactured article; and in this event, we must throw overboard every sentimental demand. The advocates of the single-family house have never faced this dilemma: they dream of universalizing the work of Mr. Frank Foster or Mr. Julius Gregory; but the sort of domicile that their ideas actually effectuate for the majority of the population are the dreary rows of West Philadelphia and Astoria.
Now, a careful economic analysis shows that there are four possibilities from among which we must choose, if we are to have the renovated domestic architecture we so badly need, namely:
We may reduce the cost of housing from thirty to forty per cent by foregoing all the mechanical utilities we have introduced during the last hundred years. This would enable us to spend enough upon the structure and the materials to produce a fairly good looking traditional house. As a practical feat, this could be accomplished only in the country; and nobody would regard it as a serious remedy for the housing problem: so we may dismiss it.
Or, second: we may raise the wages of the entire industrial population to such an extent that they will be able to make a demand for houses of the same grade that the upper middle classes now create. This is not entirely outside the bounds of possibility; but it would necessitate an economic revolution, not alone in the distribution of incomes, but in a maintenance of the entire industrial plant up to the pitch of wartime productivity. Since we cannot create decent single houses for the relatively comfortable middle class today, it is doubtful if this could be accomplished even under an energetic and efficient communism. In order to make good housing practicable, the wages of the lower income groups will indeed have to be raised, either directly or under the disguise of a subsidy; but no rise will bring back the one-family house in an urban area that possesses a complete municipal and civic equipment, including waterworks and sewers and schools.
Or, third: we can preserve the individual isolated unit at the price of accepting all the limitations that now accompany it: lack of open spaces, scantiness of materials, lack of privacy, rapid deterioration of equipment, and lack of esthetic interest. Some of these evils would be mitigated or removed completely in the ideal manufactured house; but others, as I showed in my first article, would remain under our current system of commercial production.
Or, finally, we may seek to establish an integral architecture. This means that instead of beginning with one aspect of the architectural problem, we will begin with the community first, and treat the problems of economics, community planning, technics, and architecture as one, seeking a solution not in terms of the individual "cell" but in terms of the larger unit. This last scheme would derive the character of the house or apartment from the particular social whole of which it is a part; and the solution would not be a fixed quantity, but a variable, adapted to soil, climate, landscape, industrial conditions, racial groupings, and the whole remaining complex that makes up a human community. Instead of crabbing our solution by asking before anything else how shall the single family house be preserved, we ask the broader question: how shall the fundamental requisites of domestic life be embodied in a modern community program-and that is a radically different matter!
The last course is the only one that really sweeps the board clear of preconceptions and inherited prejudices and faces the problem of the house as it comes before us in the Western World in the year 1930. Unfortunately, there is a considerable vested interest opposed to it: not merely the interest of the small builder, used to doing things in a small way, or the individual home-buyer who has been vainly dreaming of the twenty-thousand dollar house he will some day buy for a thousand dollars down and the balance in installments, but against it are such organized bodies as the "own-your-own-home" movement, to say nothing of a good many sincere and honest people who have concerned themselves with the evils of congested housing. We have "all these groups, to say nothing of the standard Fourth-of-July orator, to thank for the notion that the free-standing individual house must be preserved at any cost, as if "home" and America were inconceivable without it.
Most of the arguments that support this sentiment are specious and fundamentally unsound; but they still carry an air of respectability. The individual free-standing house was as much a product of the Romantic movement as Byronic collars: it was the formal counterpart of the completely free and isolated "individual," and to look upon it as an immemorial expression of the "home" is to betray a pretty complete ignorance of human history--an ignorance that one can condone only because an adequate history of the dwelling house in all its transformations has still to be written.
Spurred on by this romantic conception of the home, its partisans blindly cling to the poor mangled remnant of a free-standing house that remains in the outskirts of our great cities, rather than the fact that these dwellings are, in fact, sardonic betrayals of all the virtues they profess to admire, and possess scarcely a single tangible advantage. Under the cloak of individuality, personality, free expression, the partisans of the free-standing house have accepted the utmost refinements of monotony and unintelligent standardization.
Unfortunately, intelligent planning and design on a community scale cannot proceed until this prejudice is knocked into a cocked hat. It is not until the architect has the courage to reject the detached house as an abstract ideal that he will have the opportunity to embody in his designs some of the advantages and beauties that are supposed to go with such a house. That is the paradox of modern architecture: we can achieve individuality only on a communal scale; and when we attempt to achieve individuality in isolated units, the result is a hideous monotony, uneconomic in practice and depressing in effect.
We have sometimes succeeded in our synthetic buildings, the hospital, the office building, the apartment house and the domestic quadrangle: we fail, we will continue to fail, in the isolated house. In my first article I pointed out the economic and mechanical reasons for this failure; and I have now to suggest in concrete terms a more favorable program of work.