the american house

The American House: the commodification of home

At the turn of the century, the American house seemed far beneath the ‘high’ art of architecture. Houses were just buildings-the Parthenon was a work of architecture! Then in 1920, French architect Le Corbusier sounded the artists of the world to a revolution, intent on overturning the traditional hierarchical constructs as ‘high’ and ‘low’ art in a new more egalitarian age of information. Corbusier didn’t realize who was listening:

“Architecture can be found in the telephone and in the Parthenon. How easily it could be at home in our houses!”
-Le Corbusier Vers Une Architecture

American capitalists, well aware of the market-place potential of such an idea, imported the new forms of this European movement, conveniently omitting any political underpinnings, and began their re-definition of the American house. Museums, schools, and popular journals in particular, were employed to disseminate a new ‘trend’ in housing, bracketed in the historical imperative of a revolution, and one that apparently intended to offer the middle class of America a taste of greatness. What was originally a socialist vision of a more just society in Europe, transformed into ‘Architecture for the Good Life’ in the pages of American journals. The house, entering the mass market with the distinction of modernist on its label, became a primary site of bourgeois identity construction. Its forms and their meanings, supported by a contrived ‘consensus’ of journals were not substantially contested until the 1950’s. This contestation came mainly from above; American architects refuted the manipulations of the media, and rescued theory from practice.

What emerged, however, was not an extension of the ideals of modernism, but a return to past forms under the seemingly defendable practice of ‘quotation’, known today as post-modernism. Having far more in common with commercialism than modernism, this new movement was quickly endorsed by the media, and attracted architects originally committed to the tenants of the modern movement, such as Philip Johnson, to join the money makers.

Artists in both Europe and America had high hopes for the liberative potential of modernization, but while the great American poet Walt Whitman praised the highway, “…you can express me better than I can express myself”, Europeans had visions not of expanding individual expression, but of radicalizing traditional forms for their maintenance of the status quo:

“…for the first time in world history, mechanical reproduction emancipates the work of art from its parasitical dependance on ritual…instead…it begins to be based on another practice-politics.” -Walter Benjamin Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction

The most defining manifesto of this movement was a work by the Swiss born french architect Le Corbusier entitled Vers Une Architecture published in 1923. In it Corbusier outlined a critical re-evaluation of form and rallied the artists to “…no longer be artists, but rather penetrate the age, fuse with it until we are indistinguishable”. This sentiment was echoed by a contemporary architect, Mies Van Der Rohe, associated with the Bauhaus in Germany, who described architecture as the will of an epoch translated into space. Note that underlying all of these assertions was a strong commitment to the belief that architecture could change society, and for the better. This is seen no more clearly than in Le Corbusier’s cry, “Architecture or revolution!”.

By contrast, America in 1923 was cultivating the ideal consumer base” a middle class with aspirations of greatness. Time magazine was introduced, the first of a wave of subjective news reports emphasizing image, and aimed not at the masses, nor the intellectuals, but rather the ‘middle brow’ as they called it. Far from the empowered socialist utopia envisioned in the political agendas being written by European modernists, this was a body apolitical; trained to subsist on image alone, and living in the false promise of the media-a future continually deferred.

Consequently, when the news of what was going on in Europe hit America, a lot was lost in translation, and not unintentionally. In 1932, the Museum of Modern Art displayed the work of Mies Van Der Rohe, Corbusier, J.P. Oud, and Walter Gropius, in an exhibition dubbed “The International Style” organized by Philip Johnson. The aim was to define common visual traits among their work, and thus establish a style-the first legitimate one since neoclassicism. This was achieved despite the remarkably inadequate criteria offered: volume rather than mass, regularity rather than symmetry, and the avoidance of ornament. What America saw was a handful of private houses removed from their socioeconomic context and cleansed of all association with critiques of the bourgeoise. Given the patrons of the show, it is not surprising how this might happen: Dukes, Princes, a Baroness, a publishing company, presidents of real estate boards and housing corporations, as well as clients of the architects. Through the authoritative voice of a modern museum, and the writing of Philip Johnson and Henry Russell Hitchcock, America witnessed “the extent of modern architecture”, as it was described with a sense of urgency, that Germany, Holland, France, Switzerland, Czechoslovakia, Belgium, Sacandinavia, and even Russia, were all participating in a cultural zeitgeist, while in America, “…there is Frank Lloyd Wright who stands alone”, What was happening was quite simple: the modern movement was in the process of being appropriated, redefined, and ultimately commodified. Whereas in Europe modernity was never equated with individual family needs, in America, the house was elevated to the primary site of the battle.

The potential of moving the home in its entirety into the realm of consumer goods was quickly capitalized upon. In 1938, House & Garden “prepared a full report” 36 pages long explaining, complete with diagrams, where the American house fit into the history of architecture, and more importantly, where it need to go. Although “traditional design plus modern equipment is still the favored formula”, it read, the mechanical core of the house was expanding rapidly and demanded new spaces. In the words of Philip Johnson, the American house was apparently “conceived of in terms of outworn modes of living”. It wasn’t until the 50’s, however, that modernism was completely domesticated. America had been through a depression, a World War, and a significant amount of cultural conflict, and was eager to believe in the myth of a classless, homogenous suburbia, as well as financially able to answer the question asked in 1954 by House & Home, “Are you getting ready for the coming boom in quality houses?” Through popular journals such as House & Home, Architectural record, and House & Garden, the American house became a primary bourgeois signifier, and in turn, an arena of contestation.
In 1951 House & Garden commissioned a house for “an average family of four” on Long Island. The significance of this house, according to the editors, was that it was a “House of Ideas”. Architectural Record, commenting on the house, defined just what those ideas were:

“Its design seems to indicate a careful fusion of many better qualities of two widespread style influences-the crisp, clean lines of the International Style, and the rambling openness of the popularized Ranch House Style. yet, it has eliminated the severity of the one, and the ugliness and awkward combination of materials frequently found in the other.” -Architectural Record 1951, page 104

In 1952 Architectural Record published a list of “eighty-two distinctive houses” to lend credibility to this new style; each one exhibiting icons of European modernism, such as open plans and walls of glass between inside and outside, contrasted with images of American domesticity: the huge hearth, and an “appreciation of local materials”. This inherent duality effectively alleviated any overly Spartan manifestations of a hard edged world of standardization with the nostalgic inclusion of regional or “woodsy” reminders of a by-gone craft ethic, and individualism. The most enthusiastic proponent of this new style, was the journal House & Home. First published in 1952, it was nothing more than a platform for developers, banks, museums, and even architectural schools. House & Home kindly offered a checklist in 1954 to help readers know “what customers {i.e. the readers] want” with a list of the “chief features of five most popular houses”, such as a minimum of three bedrooms, and bigger and more windows. “Other significant trends”, such as “integral door and window units and walls of glass instead of mere holes punched in the walls” were also pointed out. House & Home’s primary objective was to move the house into the mass market. To that end, all associations with the socialist contempt for bourgeois culture by the very architects enlisted for the hard sell that might alienate the middle class market of America was consciously avoided, as well as any substantive discussion of what Mies, Corbusier, and others were in fact doing and why. In its common sense shopping lists of ‘do’s’ and ‘donts’, theory was replaced with a reasonableness. Corbusier’s strip window, la fenetre en longueur, was not discussed in terms of its metaphorical associations with the horizon, or the modernist ‘free facade’ and the separation of structure from the envelope, but in terms of “sleekness”, going on to say, “In houses, as in ladies, the waistline is crucial!”. Le Corbusier’s complex investigations into Cubist manipulations and experiences of space was reduced to a few sentences about making a room look less crampt. Not only was every issue dedicated to narrowing the definition of modernism in American architecture, House & Home was also busy lobbying for reforms of existing laws that denied most readers the means to contribute to the ‘revolution’, and in 1953 congress “as advocated unanimously by industry leaders, by House & Home” allowed open ended mortgages for construction and home improvement. House & Home rejoiced as “…homeowners will now be bale to modernize, add sorely needed bedrooms for second and third children…” but complained that appliances bought after a new house would not be added to the same mortgage.

By 1954, the house, and home, had been successfully commodified. Better Homes & Gardens presented yet another “Home for ALL America”:

“Designed to fit any climate zone, any family group, any design taste, any materials- the 1954 Better Homes & Gardens ”Home for ALL America” truly meet the needs and desires of ALL America- families and builders alike.” -Better Homes & Gardens 1954

Clearly the editors were attempting to speak to the suburban middle-class through the authoritative voice of consensus; as they say themselves, “With the knowledge of the needs and desires of its 4,000,000 reader-families in mind…no other consumer magazine exerts such a powerful influence on so many home builders and home-minded families.” this is a tired and true tradition of American commercialism, after all, as an Elvis album cover might tell you, four million fans can’t be wrong! These journals merely helped to lead the public, according to the editor of one, “firmly where it wants to go”.

This course did not go completely uncontested. In 1949, Philip Johnson, who had been instrumental in bringing modernism to America, built his now famous Glass House, as if trying to rescue the style he helped to coin from its bastardization. In its extreme reductivism, the house portrayed, in the words of Kenneth Frampton, “a life cleansed of the barnacles of consumerism. sentimental domesticity, and suburban posturing”. That this was a house in direct conflict with the ideals propagated in popular journals is evident in its conspicuous absence from both House & Home and Architectural Record’s exhaustive list in 1954, which did include an earlier design by Johnson (the Hodgson House) uncritical of domesticity. The Glass House was easily grouped with European elitism, however, and made its point too subtly to have any impact.

In 1953, a much louder House Beautiful directly criticized the International Style as
a “threat to the New America”. The focus of the editorial was Dr. Farnsworth, the dissatisfied client behind the Farnsworth House in Illinois by Mies Van Der Rohe.
She made no attempt at subtly:

“Something should be done about such architecture as this or there will be no future for architecture…I thought you could animate a…form like this with your own presence. I wanted to do something ‘meaningful’, and all I got was this glib, false sophistication.”
-Dr. Farnsworth Interview 1953

She went on to say, “We know that less is not more, it is simply less!” Although the Farnsworth House, just one year earlier, had been published in House & Garden under the heading The American Idea in Houses, here is was portrayed as representing the cultural bankruptcy of modernism; one that was “grim, impoverished, impractical, and destructive of individual possessions, as well as individuals themselves.” The well known American architect Frank Lloyd Wright, eager to criticize the Europeans, joined in:

“The ‘International Style’…is totalitarianism. These Bauhaus architects ran from political totalitarianism in Germany to what is now made by specious promotion to seem their own totalitarianism in art here in America…Why do I distrust and defy such ‘Internationalism’ as I do Communism? Because both must by their nature do this leveling in the name of civilization…”
-Frank Lloyd Wright 1953

Despite such harsh criticism, House & Home, Architectural Record, and House & Garden continued to proselytize their cause, and publish the work of Le Corbusier, and Mies Van Der Rohe especially, proudly using their names to lend credibility and status to other work juxtaposed with theirs. By 1956, the American Institute of Architects was convinced enough to meet in Los Angeles to discuss what they called “Architecture for the Good Life”. Just as the journals had done before them, they sited a house by the American architect Richard Neutra as exemplary, and as summarizing, “as any single house could, the collective vision of the good life”.

What had happened? An originally oppositional movement, defying the cultural hypocrisies of the bourgeoise and the market places’ claim to a false history, had become the dominant cultural belief. Capitalism co-opted the images of modernism to serve the aims of specific industries. As a result of reform and art itself being dispensable, modern architecture was reduced to a thin veneer. Ironically, this made it an easy target.

This time the opposition came from well known American architects. Louis Kahn, Peter Eisenmen, and John Hedjuk, challenged the very formula of the American house as constructed by popular journals: in Kahn’s De Vore House in 1954, the rugged hearth, open plan, and any remnants of the American prairie house were rejected, while Eisenmen, in his House X in 1996, rejected not only the paradigm of the ‘Good Life’, but any domestic comfort in an alienating house representing a dehumanized world at war, and Hedjuk, exposing House & Home’s ‘middle brow’ theory, confronted the ever present disparity between art and life, appearance and reality, and architecture and society. None of these esoteric exercises had the impact, however, of Robert Venturi’s work. The reason lies in the nature of his critique. Venturi, in his book Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture published in 1966, although critical of the contrived signage of the middle class, only exaggerated their identity signifiers rather than transform them. His thesis was dismissal of the modern movement’s ”simplistic and diagrammatic forms” in favor of more complex, and contradictory ones; forms of popular culture.

Not surprisingly, his argument fit disturbingly well into the logic of consumer capitalism; providing little resistance, if not reinforcing the schizophrenia of a consumer society saturated in images. This was no longer a critique of suburbia, but a celebration of kitsch, neon signs, Las Vegas, etc. The opponent to his stance was in fact modernism. The replacement of modernism’s didactic narrative of a more universal and just world with a doctrine of image alone-quoting from all ‘signs of life’, assumed all meaning only exists in surface ornament. In other words, he played directly into the hands of the culture industry, and through the help of wide coverage in popular journals, Post-Modernism was born.

Far from being glossy magazines of no real import, popular journals have become a cultural apparatus capable of appropriating political movements, and squashing ideologies of the avant garde under impotent captions about “the latest trends”, while coralling radical ideas into allignment with its own economic interests, and- no we are not without blame- more palpable to a consumer base not used to being told “less is more”.