You are in store for a visual treat. In this issue, we celebrate 50 years of Record Houses by including a collection of 10 private residences from around the world, most in stunning natural settings—flung out into the desert, perched by the water, clipped to hillsides. Saturated with naturalistic color, the images combine into a seductive experience: Suffused with chromatically enhanced light, they almost glow off the page. That is what we see, first.
As architects, we then focus on the individual houses, which, to the casual observer, might seem stylistically similar to houses first published in this magazine 50 years ago. The similarities are not intentional. Oddly, the stylistic palette may have wavered over time, but the compass needle has returned to the stark simplicities enunciated by the architects of the CIAM in 1928, Le Corbusier chief among them, who declared the value of a “machine à habiter.”
Gone, the crusading theorists declared, were the sentimentalities of the past, swept along in a grand social urge toward progress. Gone too were the symbols of bourgeois life, from the fretted details of the historicist styles to the antimacassars on the sofas. The Modern era demanded clarity, simplicity, transparency, which spoke to new methods of construction and benefits for all people. Manufacturing, not handcraft, should dictate the contemporary aesthetic, and houses could then become vertical cities, providing equitable residences for workers of all stations. In classical Modernist dogma, the house morphed into “housing,” replete with its own vocabulary.
Ironically, today’s houses look remarkably similar to their early-20th-century predecessors. Why, in an era rampant with plastic expressionism, and a popular culture overdosing on the Retro-Mega-Neo style, has a new generation of the hip embraced Modernism? The motives of today’s designers and homeowners emphatically vary from the movement’s founding principles. Do serious notions of social progress ever cross anyone’s mind when examining the house at Shark Alley in Australia, or Ann Fougeron’s design for a house near Big Sur? The probable response is that the architectural results of an earlier era’s dogma (all that light, spareness, and openness) mesh with today’s nuclear lifestyle, urged less by idealism than by common sense. These houses with pencil-thin roofs and heated slabs allow us to touch the land so lightly, and toast our toes. No carpets to sweep; no tchotches to dust, save the artful, precious few.
Less socially idealistic than sensible, yet potentially poetic, today’s Record House maintains certain traditions. Obviously, the term denotes singularity. If not a freestanding unit, then a discrete unity. Born in the postwar, democratic 1950s, Record Houses continues to promote autonomy, identity, and even economic advantage through careful design. Tied by the automobile to the larger world, the homes advertise mobility and freedom of choice, then and now. And unlike the sprawling mansions of our grandparents’ dreams, these dwellings seem approachable, even affordable. We can see that much in the pictures.
What we cannot see, amid the cacti and the rolling hills, is the future. Having embraced the forms of the past in today’s structures, can we discern any directions for growth, any positive movement within architecture, or are such hopes illusory in our through-the-looking-glass era? What bases can we build our homes on for the future? Look to Record Houses for clues. Look hard.
Begin with nature. The architectural photography that our annual April issue celebrates, along with the private house, depicts an exquisitely fragile world. The physical laws do not change, yet our environmental conditions, including the ample sunlight and shifting vagaries of rain, wind, and tide, are changing at a frightening rate. In his best-selling book, Collapse, author Jared Diamond has described how earlier civilizations failed, citing a litany of reasons, including deforestation, soil depletion, water management problems, and human population growth, among others. Analogies with our own civilization are pronounced, though not definitive.
The basis of a new theoretical framework for architecture may lie in realizing the fact that much of our own world’s future lies within our hands, and building accordingly. Not the environmentalism born of sentimentality. We went down those roads in the 1970s, complete with Birkenstocks and the Grateful Dead, and they are too readily abandoned. Sentiment is the most easily discarded emotion. (Who among us, in all honesty, separates the trash out of deep feeling?) Necessity, instead, demands strong change. The high cost of energy in Europe, for example, coupled with a powerful lobby of workers, has forced governments to demand efficient, productive workplaces. In the United States, with oil in excess of $50 per barrel and gasoline approaching $3 per gallon, will we be far behind?
For architects, and for smart clients, it is possible to foresee houses that provide significant energy on their own and minimize their impact on the land (as Pugh + Scarpa’s Solar Umbrella House in Los Angeles does). It is even possible to see, in that house particularly, the attempts at a new aesthetic, one that simultaneously embodies strong ideas about our place in the world and our responsibilities to the world in its physical fabric and form. Could the awareness of climate change or the price of natural gas provoke the evolution of the Record House, or does radical change in sensibility only come about through necessity?
We admit that Record Houses aestheticizes the individual, freestanding house. We’ve been doing so for half a century. The larger questions of relationship and urban planning lie outside these pages. However, powerful images can free the mind, allowing it to wander and to speculate. The houses that you see, and the underlying issues that you do not, beg a question of fundamental importance, one that the next generation of architects may respond to: What will be the theoretical framework for the house of the future? Will we want to celebrate a centennial?