Last week my mother sent me a copy of a book called The Perfect $100,000 House
by Karrie Jacobs. Read this book. It is fantastic.
Jacobs is the founding editor of Dwell
Magazine, a journal dedicated to promoting modern residential architecture at affordable prices, and this book is essentially a fleshing out of the ideas Dwell has been working on since its inception. The narrative of the book takes the form of a road trip in which Jacobs travels around the country, visiting architects that she knows from her tenure at Dwell, searching for someone who can build her perfect house. Her criteria seem next to impossible to fulfill: she wants a tasteful work of modern architecture, about 1000 square feet and costing $100,000. As someone who has lived in both New York and San Francisco she knows the hurdles she’s putting in her own way. True to the vision of her magazine she does not just want a nicely built shed for herself. An essential part of her search is to find a way to change housing in America, to move beyond stick-built subdivisions of traditional looking houses and toward an affordable modernist revolution in the way America lives.
To say I loved this book would only be half the story. I loved it and I hated it. This is because it demonstrated clearly all the reasons I both love and hate modern architecture. I love modern architecture because it has such clean lines, it seeks to integrate itself seamlessly into its surrounding environment, it is practical, it is stylish, and it uses the highest quality materials and constructions techniques. I hate it because it is often cold and always elitist. It is disdainful to everything that came before, some of which I love as much if not more. There is a “high culture vs. low culture” attitude deeply imbedded in modern architecture. Modernist buildings are works of high art, and housing for the masses is banal and pointless. Architects in general, but especially modern architects, have always seen it is their duty to force-feed the masses, to dictate not only people’s tastes but also how they should live. Modernism can be very de-personalizing. When Mies van der Rohe found out that Mrs. Farnsworth had moved some of her own furniture into the house he built for her (next to Falling Water possibly the most famous house in America—leaving out palaces like Hearst Castle and Biltmore), he threw a fit. Wright, who was kind of a bridge between Arts and Crafts and Modernism, was notorious for belittling the tastes of his clients. These men and those who follow in their footsteps are the reason Architects are often seen as arrogant elitists who think not only that they are superior to everyone else but that they are the true guardians of civilization (and others but into this. Read The Fountainhead
Jacobs has a bit of this, and her quest for a populist idiom in modern architecture is something of a self-canceling action. To her credit she recognizes this and struggles with it throughout. This prompts her to quickly jettison some of her preconceived notions. She fairly quickly dismisses prefabricated architecture as promising more than it can deliver. She comes to recognize that maybe the reason houses are built the way they are, in sub divisions built by builder’s like KB homes, is because that is the most efficient and cost effective way to build them. She also has a modernists dismissiveness toward New Urbanism. She rejects New Urbanism primarily because it values traditional architecture. What she fails to realize or ignores, however, is that New Urbanism is not about buildings it is about community. While new urbanism favors Arts and Crafts and Mission style houses, the main point is to create functioning neighborhoods with relatively dense populations living in communities designed for walking and for personal interaction. Modernism’s answer to affordable housing has been the skyscraper apartment building, impersonal and oppressive places like Co-op City and the “park in a tower” projects of Robert Moses—cutting edge at the time but which have proven to be a failure today. Modernism never found an effective way to integrate its utilitarian principles with density and affordability, and the best modernist houses are in rural areas. The perfect expressions of Modernist housing are either Robert Moses’ projects, or else its isolated houses seamlessly folded into nature like Farnsworth House and Falling Water. The perfect expression of New Urbanism is old urbanism, neighborhoods like Greenwich Village or small-town down towns like those in Muncie Indiana or Salinas California. Of course, New Urbanist communities sometimes feel like those orwellian utopian communities from 70s science fiction stories, ie Celebration, Florida, and don’t get me started on that Thomas Kinkaide subdivision out near San Francisco. What Jacobs barely recognizes is that New Urbanism can include modern houses as well, because the lay out is more important than the architecture (I say “barely” because in the end Jacobs admits that she might just be a postmodernist after all).
But that doesn’t mean this is a bad book. This is a great book. To say it spoke to me is an understatement. It shouted in my ear. I devoured it, reading fifteen chapters in one day (ok, I was flying over President’s day, and so had some time to kill in a couple different airports). The thing about this book is that it took themes I’ve been thinking of for years and talked about them directly. This is not my bible, but I get the feeling from it that other people get when they discover the book that says the things they’ve been feeling all their lives. You see, I’m something of an architecture groupie. I’m a fan in the way other people are fans of movies or sports. I love learning about architecture but I’m not an architect. The closest I’ve come has been working for a contractor or being Richard’s project manager. I love all sorts of architectural styles (my list is much longer than Jacobs’). I started out by designing castles when I was a child and have been designing houses ever since. When Jacobs talks about houses she is talking to me, and talking about things I’ve been thinking about. Nearly every place she visits and everything she sees strikes a chord in me in someway. I have long had a fascination with the Earthships in New Mexico. I’ve seen the photos of the house that prompted her to start her search, a beautiful hillside house near Seattle by Anderson Anderson. I’ve been trying to convince my girlfriend to build a pre-fab modernist house on property we want to develop in Virginia. As a kid I was fascinated by A-frames. I’ve been designing versions of what she calls the “shot-trot” house for a couple of years now. I have longed to see a truly modernist subdivision (other than Sea Ranch, which really doesn’t count). Right now I’m working on a deal to buy and rehab a house in a college town (the aforementioned Muncie), which will cost me a great deal less than $100,000. All of these issues she delves into with great thought and an eloquent voice. While I don’t share her disdain for traditional architecture nor her opinions on the American Dream, I do share her enthusiasm for houses, and few people have written about them as well as she does. This is a great book, and deserves a place on every bookshelf. It is not in any way an answer to the problems of housing in America, but it is absolutely should be part of a discussion on the forms housing might take in the future.
READ THIS BOOK!