At The Edge: Architecture & Culture

The architecture of the homes we live in reflects the social and cultural values of the times. To explore this idea, let us consider the sort of houses—the domestic structures—found in America over the last one hundred fifty years or so.

Generally, the houses of the nineteenth century had the following physical characteristics: The Victorian house had two or three stories, and typically included a basement and an attic as well. On each floor, the different rooms were specialized for different social functions. Drawing rooms and parlors were for talking; game rooms, music rooms, and libraries each served an individual purpose.

Even the homes of the less wealthy at the time commonly had two or three floors in which two or more families lived together. Others lived in row houses, in which several families lived at close quarters, thus forming a physical basis for their neighborhood. Many of our older Eastern cities still have houses of this familiar type clustered in ethnic neighborhoods. This kind of architecture expresses both hierarchy, in terms of the floors with their different functions, and community, by virtue of the closeness and the cooperative character of life within the individual households.

Into the architecture of this social and hierarchical order came modernism. Frank Lloyd Wright’s domestic architecture probably represents the major break with the older style. His houses were reliably horizontal or flat, rather than vertical with multiple stories. In addition, his were always single, isolated houses that emphasized horizontal planes and the implicit social isolation of the family or persons who lived there.

This architectural emphasis received a substantial boost after World War II with developments like Levittown, each with very similar houses on its own separate plot, where the horizontal tended to dominate any vertical emphasis. By the late ’50s, ’60s, and early ’70s, this trajectory culminated in the “ranch” style house—a typical example being one story, with no basement or attic, on its own quarter-acre or larger plot of flat ground.

The horizontal house removes distinctions between different activities of life by merging rooms—such as the dining and living rooms—into one; even living and sleeping areas are sometimes combined. Also, by having all rooms on one floor, these structures allow much less privacy: Here it is easy to walk into any room; no areas of the house are out of the reach of visitors, or fully private—as were the upstairs rooms in the nineteenth century.

The more extreme forms of these isolated horizontal houses are found in the Midwest and especially the West. In any case, such architecture can be considered a physical expression of America’s once-popular individualism and homogenized social atomization. They are, in a sense, houses of a perfectly egalitarian people focused on the present with little concern for their neighbors. These are houses for people without a past (no basements or attics) and without the hierarchical order implied by a multilevel home with rooms serving various purposes.

It is most interesting that this type of individualistic and egalitarian architecture has been receding in popularity for roughly the past twenty years. Today very different kinds of homes are being built. A representative example is a cluster of town houses with common walls between adjacent homes; often a second or even a third floor has reappeared. The social coherence of these communities is exemplified by walls surrounding the complex. Many of these compounds even have private parks and community centers.

The crucial point is that community and social cohesion are re-emerging in our domestic architecture: The need to reinforce the common good is now evident in the physical features of this new housing.

Meanwhile, there is a separate but related architectural movement underway, namely, the restoration of old homes. This movement, now found throughout the country on a wide scale, is preoccupied with recovering a sense of the past, a sense of community, and other values that were present in some “golden” period. The sepia-toned photos found in catalogues and the old tools on the walls of new restaurants tell us that the pre-modern past is now looking very attractive to our present-day culture.

All of these trends in our society argue that we have recently turned a very important corner away from the isolated individual. Instead, our new domestic architecture strongly predicts that we are headed back toward hierarchy and community.

  • Paul C. Vitz

    Paul Vitz is a popular author and professor of psychology at New York University.

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