architecture, houses and history

In light of some recent posts here on Colorado vernacular architecture and my recent appointment to the City of Boulder’s Landmark Preservation Advisory Board, I have been thinking a lot about the received cultural knowledge that architecture provides.  For the most part, the vase majority of single family houses are designed, built and occupied without the slightest thought toward “Architecture”.  But throughout the last 100 years or more, the house, the single family detached dwelling, has been the acknowledged testing ground for architectural ideas.  This may mean that these architect-designed houses are a prime reflection of our culture, or that they simply describe the gulf between the culture of “Architecture” and the lives of most people.

2007, 2008, 2009, 2010

Typically I do not save the various architecture and design magazines that come across my desk.  However, Architectural Record’s annual April issue, Record Houses, is an exception.  While I am missing some issues (notably absence after my great Purge of 2007), for the most part, I have a continuous series from about 1990 to 2010.

2003, and the missing years - 2004, 2005, 2006

What is striking about at least the images chosen by the editors to grace the front pages of that yearly issue, is the increasing level of formal abstraction that you can see over the twenty years.

1999, 2000, 2001, 2002

With few exceptions the designs have become more stark, if not outright alien, to what most laymen would recognize as a house form.

1995, 1996, 1997, 1999

Many of the projects of the 1990’s were modern reinterpretations or “modernist” transformations of vernacular forms, as if architect’s had just rediscovered the local buildings that were not part of the received canon of either modern or post-modern educations.

1991, 1992, 1993, 1994 (missing)

Even the more modernist or formally  abstract houses of the early 1990’s often executed these geometries in building materials that would not have seemed foriegn to architects and buildings 100 years prior.

1986, 1988, 1989 (missing), 1990

What remains consistent is that these images all depict the houses in either their rural settings or carefully eliminate any other architectural context.  How these buildings participate in a larger context of community or place only sullies their identity as “exceptional” objects.

I am eager to begin work on the Landmarks Board, looking at not the “architecturally significant” cultural production deemed worthy by architectural historians in approved histories, but real houses lived in by real people.  The houses addressed by preservation boards are not frozen in time like the images above, rather they have been occupied, altered, and most importantly retained, by generations of owners.  They are “historically or architecturally significant” as determined by the community and are inextricably linked to place, neighborhood and community.  It is a kind of richness that the Record Houses can hope to achieve.

Will we be fighting to preserve any of the houses above?  Maybe a little plaque will mark the place where a Record Houses building once stood.