People generally think of modern houses as having little trim or ornamentation, lots of glass, and flat roofs whose proportions are exaggerated—sometimes extremely long, sometimes dramatically cantilevered, and sometimes exactly the opposite: hardly visible at all. The image of the modern house took root some seven decades ago, and although the avant-garde gave up the prohibition on sloped roofs more than half a century ago, the sense of what is “modern” has remained fairly consistent.
In contrast to modern houses, traditional houses are generally thought to have old-fashioned windows—either double-hung or casement—with multiple panes of glass. Instead of flat roofs, traditional houses tend to have gable or hip roofs, and on the interior and exterior, they often display classically-inspired trim and ornamentation. Many architects once expected that modern houses, which appeared on the scene around the dawn of the twentieth century, would eventually replace all the older styles of dwellings everywhere. And yet the revolution stalled. Modern design made an enormous impact on offices and other workplaces, but it never achieved its goal for the domestic side of life. In the eastern portions of the United States, you need only visit a few new residential developments to see that the traditional styles have remained firmly established. In the Northeast, where I live, the center-hall colonial remains the single most popular form of house, generations after the passing of Wright, Le Corbusier, and other heralds of new ways of designing.
When so much of life has changed, when four or five generations have passed since Americans traded in horse and buggy for a vehicle with a gasoline-powered engine, why hasn’t the appearance of the modern house ever really caught on? One reason may be that many people find modern houses cold and alienating. A house needs to resonate with peoples emotions if it is to be considered a home. Some people, it’s true, get a thrill from the rigor and the other attributes of modern homes. They love their shapes, which can be unusual (they don’t have to resemble a cube).
Admirers of modernism tend to like industrial materials, and are happy at the absence of details that have already been used millions of times. These same attributes strike other people as harsh or downright intimidating. Novel or unfamiliar forms drive many people away, especially when the house’s colors, textures, and finishes are also severe or out of the ordinary.
In my view, the techniques and details of good modern design can achieve tremendous beauty. When a modern approach is rendered in warm materials and is shaped into a romantic composition, the results can be more endearing than is the case with many traditional houses. A modern simple column made of exposed cedar can, in a woodland setting, be far more pleasing than a porch post designed in a classical style or one that’s been ornately painted to mimic those of historical houses.
The architects whose work is presented here—Peter Bohlin, Hugh Newell Jacobsen, and Obie Bowman—all build modern houses employing modern details and modern techniques. The houses they create may not look nearly as familiar as a center-hall colonial, but they are not cold or alienating. These houses are built of wood and other materials found in their regions. They appear so natural in their settings that it is often difficult to tell when the houses were constructed, even though each is clearly modern in style.
These houses have interiors that may be warm or cool, but are always sensual. The living quarters of these houses are filled with natural light, refreshed by cool breezes, and blessed with fantastic views, thanks to the modern use of glass and the decision to use open floor plans. Their unusual shapes and dramatic roofs give these houses a unique character, one not available in a traditional dwelling. Consequently, they can express something about their homeowners or their location and the inspiration that brought them into being. A traditional house can be tweaked, with a change of layout, to suit the site or the occupant’s lifestyle better, but it cannot be as imaginative, as wholly creative, as a modern house can be. These architects whose work I examine in the pages that follow create houses that have the comfort and warmth of traditional houses, but that deliver the sometimes breathtaking advantages of modern design.
Modern houses are built with exciting shapes, with interiors that are not ornate, and with ample areas of glass. They wield dramatic assemblies of volumes; in some instances the volumes themselves are not out of the ordinary, but they are always bold. Detailing of the interiors spans the entire spectrum from highly traditional moldings to little or no trim, yet all of these houses emphasize a restrained palette; they are purposely limited in color and texture. They are built with a modern appreciation for the artistic qualities inherent in construction—the structure, joinery, and detailing not only hold the building together; they serve as compelling decoration.
The ample expanses of glass typically are organized into a grid pattern of window panes, a signal of their modernity. The way the glass is arranged, proportioned, and divided gives the interior its comfortable atmosphere and enhances the view of the outdoors, at the same time preventing the occupants from feeling overly exposed. Properly handled, modern techniques are not cold or alienating; they are bold, artistic, and sensual.