Postwar suburban houses reviewed

A review of two new books on postwar suburban homes points out some of the idiosyncrasies of the houses:

The one-story ranch loosened its belt and spread out, and the Split Level, that most American hippogriff of house hybrids, took flight. The origins of the split level are murky: it originally offered a small footprint and a means to make better use of sloped northeastern sites. But it soon spread to locations where neither item was a real concern. It was an easy means to reintroduce functional separations that residents soon realized were valuable: locating bedrooms a stairway away from living rooms wasn’t merely Victorian prudishness—it made good sense. Split levels also fueled the rise of that most suburban setting, the rec room, which was usually located in basements or lower levels and almost invariably a more informal children-oriented social space, frequently enabling the relative re-formalization of the main living room.That suburban building sited homes on big lots is not news, but what is worth noting, as Lane points out, is how the houses were designed in relation to those lots. The formal and inward-oriented facades of pre-war homes gave way to houses whose facades were dominated by the living room picture window, affording a glimpse not merely of one’s own yard but those of your neighbors. As Lane comments, “The windows looked out on the new landscapes that formed around them and also enhanced the perception of spaciousness so much desired by this generation.” The scenography was often repetitive, but it was open: As John Updike commented in Rabbit Redux, “now the view from any window is as into a fragmented mirror, of houses like this, telephone wires and television aerials showing where the glass cracked.”…

Distinctive design was rarest from the larger builders, but similar trends characterized a very wide swath of construction, despite an often complicated level of agency. Jacobs cites a National Association of Home Builders study in 1959 indicating that 38.3 percent of builders designed their own homes, 34 percent used a contract or in-house architect, 12 percent hired a designer of some sort, and 6 percent purchased blueprints through a commercial service. Countless independent and uncoordinated actors who end up producing a similar monotony is unfortunately often the story of America.

And my favorite part of this review:

Suburban building has long been reviled by sociologists and ignored by architects. As Lane comments, “scholarship has been delayed and disturbed by decades of neglect and dislike.” Some of that neglect and dislike is warranted: it’s hard to find all that much architectural distinction in the vast majority of suburban homes. Their general interchangeability discourages the kind of design interest that has given us many monographs on vernacular rowhouses and bungalows and only a handful on the ranch home. There are countless books on a dozen homes in New Canaan, Connecticut, but almost no books on the remaining thousands of homes there; that balance is mainly right—and yet.

Simply the sheer number of homes built in the decades after World War II meant that these design choices would be influential. With a massive housing shortage building up through the Great Depression and World War II, homes were needed quickly and the existing economic, political, social, and design forces led to these particular kinds of homes.

But, as a suburban scholar I agree that such homes have either gotten little attention or have been reviled. These homes were incredibly influential, even if they weren’t true Modernist structures or deviated too much from existing vernacular designs or weren’t designed by architects but rather were mass-produced. Much of the scholarship and commentary on these postwar homes is done from a critical, after-the-fact angle and with an implicit alternative vision of how an urbanized America might have turned out. There is some truth in all of these critiques: these suburban communities were racist (in that non-whites were typically not welcome), initially had particular visions of gender roles and family life, promoted consumerism and driving, and took up a lot of land without much thought of the consequences. At the same time, millions of Americans enjoyed their new homes and the opportunities that came with them.

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