Commentary: What Happened to the House?
Two years ago, Thom Mayne and UCLA’s Now Institute produced 100 Buildings, a guide to the “most important and influential buildings” of the 20th century, as ranked by nearly 60 leading architects and practices. While the projects range in location, scale, and function, by far the most common building type is the single-family house. Twenty-four houses appear in the survey—more than twice the number in any other category. Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye (1931) tops the whole list, and two other houses are included in the top 10: Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House (1951) and Pierre Chareau’s Maison de Verre (1932). (Wright’s Fallingwater is No. 13.) By these measures, houses dominate the canon of 20th-century architecture.
Yet the timeline reveals that houses became less and less common on the list over the century. Half the 24 were designed before 1930, but only six after 1950, and none of those ranked in the top 50. Only one house—OMA’s Maison à Bordeaux (1998)—was completed after 1980. By the year 2000, leading-edge houses had all but disappeared.
Other sets of rankings are similar. In 2010, Vanity Fair ran a survey of the “most important” structures since 1980, and not one house appeared in the final roster of two dozen buildings. Over the past two decades, two dozen houses have won an AIA Institute Honor Award, but that accounts for only 10 percent of all winners; only four have won in the past decade, none since 2012. And of the 16 houses in RECORD’s 2016 poll of the 125 most significant buildings since 1891, the most recent was completed 40 years ago.
What happened to the house?
“A lot of it has to do with economics,” says James Timberlake, of KieranTimberlake, whose Loblolly House (a RECORD house, April 2007) was one of the four houses to win an AIA Institute Honor Award over the past decade. “The more elite, wealthy owner can afford the fees to commission an architect. Many cannot.” This signals a stark change from past generations. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, between 1940 and 2000, inflation-adjusted housing prices quadrupled. In 2018, the median home price was twice the equivalent cost in 1960. Two-thirds of the houses in 100 Buildings were completed before World War II. In the postwar era, Case Study houses showed that beautifully designed modern homes could be affordable, but cookie-cutter production housing increasingly became the norm. Some sources estimate that architects now design fewer than 2 percent of all houses built in the U.S. Timberlake notes that his firm, founded in the mid-80s, used to design at least one house every year. “Now we’re lucky if we have one every three to five years.”
Urbanization is another factor. A century ago, a minority of Americans lived in cities, and now over 80 percent do, according to the Census Bureau. The number of single-family detached dwellings peaked in 1960, while the number of households living in apartments and condominiums grew by 63 percent over the following three decades, the Census reports. As a percentage of all new residential construction, multifamily housing has nearly tripled since the early ’90s. This trend is positive in many ways, since various studies show that denser, more diverse, walkable communities are environmentally and socially beneficial, dramatically lowering resource consumption while improving health and wellness through casual exercise and social engagement. But the shift also means fewer opportunities for architects to design houses.
How might these changes affect the profession? “Historically, single-family houses have been important commissions for young architects,” notes Adam Yarinsky, of Architecture Research Office (ARO). “They provide an opportunity to test new ideas.” Yarinsky was in his 30s when ARO designed the Cor-Ten-clad Colorado House (a RECORD house, 2001). Robert Venturi and Charles Gwathmey were 37 and 27, respectively, when they designed their parents’ houses, which launched their careers. Houses also can be midcareer reboots. Frank Gehry was 51 when he completed his Santa Monica home, which made him famous. KieranTimberlake had been in business for two decades when it designed Loblolly, which reinvented the firm’s practice around alternative production methods. “We couldn’t have done that with a larger, more complex building type,” says Stephen Kieran.
“Houses are incubators for experimentation,” contends Tom Kundig, of Olson Kundig. “Smaller projects present opportunities for quickly testing ideas—both poetic and technical—on how to create an architecture that relates to its context and connects people to place. Residential design leads innovation trends.” The kinetic window of the Chicken Point Cabin (2004 Institute Honor Award)—“a turning point in my career,” says Kundig—led to similar experiments in larger projects. Yet many architects now focus on other project types, notes Yarinsky. “Over the last decade or so, young architects have more design opportunities in the public realm. These offer greater visibility and impact than the single-family house, which has lost some of its significance as a means of exploring ideas.”
Take the work of Weiss/Manfredi. “Our own practice is focused primarily on projects with a public dimension, particularly where architecture and landscape play a powerful role together,” explains Marion Weiss, who contributed to 100 Buildings. The stone of their McCann Residence (a RECORD house, April 2016) appears to be extruded directly from the site, so the firm’s attitude toward geography and materiality in the public realm seems to influence its work on private houses.
Weiss and Yarinsky both say that if the profession does not follow a single canon of residential architecture, it may have less to do with the quality of contemporary design and more to do with the quantity of media outlets. “The canonical houses of the 20th century were designed, built, photographed, and published at a time when the media was less saturated by their seductive imagery,” Weiss says. Online media have exploded: since 2005, the percentage of Americans using social media has shot from 5 percent to 69 percent, according to the Pew Research Center, while the number and influence of national architecture magazines began dwindling during the same period. As a result, architects’ attention is being diffused: a major museum project might be featured in every media outlet, while the latest house may not get as much coverage, so there’s less opportunity for consensus. “There’s a different media landscape determining what is or is not ‘important,’ ” Yarinsky points out.
“We may be in one of those periods where there’s not too much that surprises us about houses,” muses Marlon Blackwell, FAIA, whose Keenan TowerHouse (RECORD, February 2001) brought him national acclaim. For years, at the University of Arkansas, he taught a course on the 20th-century American house. “A lot of houses built over the past 25 years are incredibly familiar, extensions of what came before. They may not be strange enough for architects.” He calls some of the houses in 100 Buildings, to which he contributed, “wonderfully strange” and “transgressive,” redefining dwelling at a time when the single-family home was a staple of the American landscape. “The issues we’re dealing with as a profession today—affordability, prefabrication, sustainability—haven’t fully manifested themselves yet. We may still be working through something before the next radicalization. The next revolutionary house will be something anyone can afford. That will be a breakthrough.”