Americans spurn modern houses

Unloved: Americans pride themselves on being rugged individualists, except when it comes to their houses. More daring, modernist homes are spurned in favor of traditional designs.

January 13, 2002|By Charles Belfoure | Charles Belfoure,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

In 1949, a woman visited the New Canaan, Conn., residence of the renowned architect Philip Johnson. He had just designed one of the very first modern homes in postwar America. It was flat-roofed with brick and stone floors, steel detailing and exterior walls made completely of glass that took in the views of the countryside.

"I could never live here," the woman blurted out to its owner.

"I'm glad," replied Johnson.

Johnson's home, now known as the Glass House, has since become an icon of modern residential architecture and upon his death will become the property of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Nonetheless, the woman's opinion of modernist houses is still shared by Americans more than half a century later.

Given a choice between a traditional home of Colonial design and a modern one, almost every homebuyer would choose the Colonial. It's very rare for anyone in Baltimore or America to want a modern or contemporary house. And every homebuilder can tell you why.

"It's because the public doesn't like them," said Bob Corbett of the Williamsburg Group, a Howard County builder of custom and semi-custom homes. "They don't sell, so builders don't offer them."

Most architects agree with Corbett's observation. "People are used to what they grew up in," explained Ali-Reza Honarkar, an architect in Washington. "And it's hard for them to change from a traditional to a modern aesthetic."

This attitude puzzles Honarkar.

"What's ironic is that we're in an age of great technological change, but our houses haven't changed," Honarkar said.

In the real estate boom of the late-1990s, houses actually regressed in style and took on a more decidedly Colonial look labeled with English sounding names like the Carrollton and Kensington. This is especially true of "McMansions" - those huge, expensive homes built on tiny lots.

In European countries, which have a much older history than America, there isn't a demand for pseudo-historical styles, and modern residential architecture is widely accepted. "Changes in technology and houses go hand in hand," Honarkar said.

Another contradiction in American taste is the preference for modern interiors, Honarkar said. His firm, Division One, does many office and retail interiors that are all very modern in design. No one ever asks for a Colonial-inspired interior.

"They want the office to be high tech, but they don't want a house to look like that. So you have a client with a modernist office who pulls up to a house every night that looks like it's 100 years old."

The preference for a modern interior includes houses as well.

"The interiors in no way reflect the exteriors," said Don Taylor, owner of D.W. Taylor Associates, an architectural firm in Ellicott City.

The open plan's large rooms opening up into one another without doors or very little wall separation are essentially hallmarks of modern design.

Yet these free-flowing layouts along with soaring two-story spaces are found inside shells of houses that resemble Colonial mansions in thousands of subdivisions across the country.

Although America is thought to be a land of rugged individualists, most architects will explain that homeowners don't want their homes to be different from their neighbors.

"A lot of times, clients will come back to us and tell us to tone down the design," Honarkar said.

Robert A.M. Stern, the dean of the Yale School of Architecture, has been quoted as saying that it's usually the dentist who has the only modern house in the neighborhood.

Many modern houses are built on large parcels, surrounded by trees, explained Taylor, so you don't have to worry about being different from the neighbors. Glass exterior walls so prevalent in modern design work well on big lots, but wouldn't work on a small, less private subdivision lot, he said.

Another reason for the aversion to a modern-design house, Taylor said, is the fear that the homebuyer won't be able to resell it.

"Generally speaking, people are conservative and don't want to take a risk, especially because of the large amounts of money involved. It's safer to buy something traditional," he said.

Since the modern movement began, frustrated architects have had to settle for designing modern houses for themselves or their sympathetic parents because they couldn't find clients who would accept the aesthetic.

When Honarkar and his partners couldn't find any clients in Washington who wanted a modern house, they bought a lot on 10th Street NW and designed five modernist townhouses themselves.

The facades, with their large square windows and cantilevered balconies, are jarringly different from the usual late 19th century townhouses. The project will be completed this spring and will sell in the $500,000 to $600,000 range.

Developers don't necessarily dictate the traditional or Colonial style. They'll build what sells. It's a huge financial risk to deviate from the norm. The banks that give developers their financing take an even dimmer view of risks.

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