Here is an interesting suggestion regarding modernist homes like those found in New Canaan, Connecticut: the homes were just too small to compete with McMansions.
Among the houses that Philip Johnson designed in New Canaan, Conn., the suburban enclave that became a laboratory for postwar Modernist design, the Robert C. Wiley house, completed in 1953, remains one of his most elegant. It is a strikingly simple composition of two rectangular boxes: one, a glass and wood pavilion with a single, 15-foot-tall living, dining and kitchen space, is cantilevered over the other, a stone and concrete base that contains, among other things, four small bedrooms, bathrooms and a sitting room. The 3,000-square-foot house typifies Modernism’s insistence on efficient use of space, but by the advent of the McMansion era, despite its architectural pedigree, it merely seemed quaintly, and unsalably, tiny.
The house had been on the market for some time when an enlightened buyer — Frank Gallipoli, the president of Freepoint Commodities, an energy trading firm — bought it in 1994. “I wasn’t looking for a Philip Johnson house,” he recalled, but given the price of land in New Canaan, the building, along with the six acres on which it sits, offered good value. “It had the utility of a house,” Gallipoli said, “but I was getting an art object.” And art is a subject close to Gallipoli’s heart: he owns an extensive collection that includes works by contemporary British artists like Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin, Gary Hume, Jenny Saville and Marc Quinn. Many of these pieces are too big to show in a domestic setting, so Gallipoli began to think about converting a barn on the property (it also served as a garage) into a private gallery. About 10 years ago, he asked Johnson himself to come up with a design, but the architect’s idea for a series of domed structures was never built. Ultimately, Gallipoli commissioned Roger Ferris, of the Connecticut firm Roger Ferris + Partners, to design the barn, along with a pool house, a new garage and a substantial restoration of the existing house. (Ferris also did some work on Gallipoli’s Manhattan house and designed a “surf shack” for him in the Hamptons, which includes a pink Corian aboveground lap pool.)
I know the point of piece is to discuss the intriguing rebuild of this home but I find the suggestion at the end of the first paragraph fascinating. The tone of the piece is that people should recognize the beauty of the home and it took an “enlightened” buyer with a true interest in art to see it for what it could be. But, alas, Americans got bogged down with buying humongous homes like McMansions and lost interest in homes with “architectural pedigree.”
I’ve suggested this before: if given a choice, I don’t think most Americans would select a modernist home. I’m not sure square footage is the only reason for this. Critics and architects may not like these choices but it also doesn’t necessarily mean Americans only go for the largest space, the best bang for the buck, the kitschiest house, or the most impressive space. Perhaps many Americans imply aren’t trained to know what critically praised architecture looks like or to appreciate it. Indeed, where is this training supposed to take place and when should it occur? (I don’t think it happens much in the curriculum from kindergarten through college.) Or perhaps it has to do with how Americans view social class and the suspicion Americans tend to have toward educated opinions and movements. Additionally, hiring an architect to design a home requires money that is likely out the reach of many Americans.