Neighborhood Observations

After reading Bob Borson’s first lesson in Residential Architecture, I laughed a bit, lamented a bit, then started pondering how many violations of basic material termination there were lurking in my own backyard.   (You should follow along with his Residential Architecture 101 course.  I’m calling it a course because it makes me feel more scholarly.)

My husband and I regularly take walks around our neighborhood, which – thanks to Houston’s lack of zoning – is an eclectic hodgepodge of various sizes and styles of homes.  We have multi-family apartments crammed on 50’x100’ lots sitting directly next to a Spanish-styled McMansion, which is just across the street from a 1920’s bungalow that sits in the shadow of 3-story contemporary town homes.  Given the lack of any standards, you can imagine the chaos that we call ‘design’.

I decided to document a few cases around us to contribute to Bob’s collection of…um…learning material.  Let’s take a look at an example of good  and bad contemporary design.  They happen to be directly across the street from one another:

Good design

Observations: Clean lines, clear volumes and geometry, interesting way to shield an entry from the street (its behind the tall wall on the far right), private exterior courtyard, multiple materials used in appropriate ways, fenestrations that align and seem to be proportional to the spaces (I’ve never been inside, so I can’t speak to the interior arrangement).  Overall, this is a successfully done exterior, and I can only assume it would be well done on the inside, too.

Let’s contrast that with the neighbor across the street:

All I can say is, what HAPPENED?! As you squint and readjust your monitor trying to make sense of what on earth this image IS, I’ll fill you in on the not-so-secret details. This is what you call a poor interpretation of all things modern. Sure, you could argue that they based their rationale on a modern principle like ‘less is more’ or ‘ornamentation is stupid and so are indications of material changes’ (I made that one up).  But really?  REALLY?!  My husband likened it to camouflage. Unfortunately, no one is hiding. It looks as though someone designed a nice volumetric house (how’s that for architect-speak?), then had their child come in and add some ‘material stickers’ to it. Yay squares!

Here is an up close shot of how the material meets the corner:

I’m baffled.  I really have no words.

That being the case, I’ll introduce you to a different sort of house only a block away from these two.  I stumbled upon the following group of post-modern town homes and had to do a double take.  My immediate reaction was “Mother’s House!”:

The town homes seem normal at first glance, but there is a deep richness of post modern influences.  I won’t go quoting the entire Wikipedia article on what post modernism is, but this design is deliberate and smart.  You may not particularly enjoy the aesthetic, but you have to admit there is merit in the design.  It makes me giddy every time I see it; not because I love the way it looks, but rather that someone out there really tried (and nailed it) and I actually “get it”.  What’s to ‘get’, you ask?

Take the front facade, for example:

The irony of it all makes me giggle every time.  The facade is both facade and mockery of facade.  The separation between the main house and the thin, detached facade piece speaks to the context of the neighborhood (lots of imposing 3-story town homes with regurgitations of classic facade designs), while inventing a new way of viewing something familiar.  It speaks to a classic component while questioning the purpose; a true expression of “wit, ornament and reference”, as well as function and symbolism.  It is designed as a stylistic and contextual reference that helps it blend well in the neighborhood while standing out as different at the same time.  Do you “get it” too?

Perhaps you’re not on board with my comparison to Robert Venturi’s design or the whole post modern reference, but take a look at the painstaking detail the designer went to on ensuring the downspout was interesting:

You can’t tell me there wasn’t a clear intent and vision for this set of homes.  Love it or hate it, you have to appreciate dedication.

Whatever you design, be purposeful.

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