Sunday, November 13, 2011

Book Review: Get Your House Right

In some recent reading, I came across a reference to a book by noted architectural designer Marianne Cusato, entitled Get Your House Right: Architectural Details to Use and Avoid. The description of the contents convinced me it was worth a read so I added it to my library. Having read through the work I feel it has some excellent points to make and, at the same time raises certain questions in my mind concerning some of the fundamental assumptions that underlie the work. I thought it would be worth taking the time to share some of my impressions here.

I think the Preface to the work is a really excellent piece of writing, and is a contribution by Leon Krier, himself a personal adviser on the topic of architecture and urban planning to a most famous modern critic of modern architecture, The Prince of Wales. Prince Charles in fact writes the Foreword to Get Your House Right, and his 'Carbuncle' speech (<-- link) from 1984 remains a classic.

Back to Krier though - I thought the Preface so astute a piece of writing that I would like to quote it in its entirety:

    "Americans visit Fallingwater in religious awe, but when they choose a home, they turn for inspiration to Williamsburg and Mount Vernon, to the vernacular and classical models. Despite sustained efforts to re-educate the public according to modernist ideals, traditional designs have never ceased to dominate residential architecture in the United States. And yet even though "houses of the future" no longer look futuristic, the modernist propaganda has done lasting damage. The scandalous truth is that the vast majority of architecture schools today simply do not teach the theory and practice of traditional house design. worse, they have erased the subject from their technical, intellectual, and artistic horizon.
    The battle cry "Bauhaus instead of our house" has rallied the profession. It blinds it to environmental problems, to the reality of the housebuilding industry, and, paradoxically, to the taste and wishes of most house buyers. It is as if architects were trained to serve an alien people on a distant planet. They themselves go on living, working, and vacationing in traditional environs, but don't see the irony when it is put to them. Instead, a student or teacher who shows more than a passing interest in traditional concepts will be isolated from the academic cocoon like a blasphemer in theology class.
    Imagine the fate of plain English if American schools ceased to teach the common language and began to ostracize its speakers. This is exactly what traditional architectural disciplines have been subjected to for more than two score years. The institutional attrition helps to explain the fact that the last half-century has, despite its unparalleled material wealth, produced the most debased traditional building styles in recorded history. The ill-sized, the ill-fitted, the ill-designed and ill-constructed, have become the norm in a field that represents a large part of the gross national product and absorbs much of family savings. The triumph of kitsch sensibility - the culture of the mean, the synthetic, and the fake - may be seen as the unintended results, the distorted mirror image of modernism.
    Ironically, the most serious threat to traditional culture today comes no longer from modernism itself, but from "traditional" simulacra. Architectural analphabetism produces stunning, sometimes comical results. Discussing this book in a prestigious Washington, D.C., hotel, the authors overlooked the new pool house with its twelve sparkling Tuscan columns erected upside down, standing on their capitals. This scandal didn't raise an eyebrow among the fine clientele, nor did it cause headlines. such and more serious mistakes in construction and design are now so common that they have become the signature of our time, as style with specific characteristics. 
    Curiously, the mistakes are "cultivated" with conviction; they are frequent and repetitive, they are stubbornly and sometimes proudly committed by all building trades, by professionals and amateurs. They are built by house builders and bought into by house buyers. They have spread ineradicably across five continents and through almost all cultures. How can such confusion triumph so completely without causing organized reactions or public protest? And why don't the buildings themselves collapse under the weight of their misconception?
    Traditional and classical architecture can be thought of as a language - a grammar of constructing buildings from natural materials such as wood, stone, earth, sand, lime. Mistakes in joining, laying, or framing these materials become quickly evident through uncontrollable behavior, settling, cracking, or collapsing; even a genius cannot build a lasting mistake out of nature's materials. But synthetic materials (concrete, steel, wood derivatives, plastics) and their specific joining techniques (casting, gluing, bolting, soldering, nailing) allow anyone to realize foolish forms without facing immediate ruin. When these materials and techniques are used to ape traditional designs, technology and semantics go inevitably on a collision course, ending in grinding - and lasting - incongruities.
    To iron out the resulting anachronisms is taxing to an individual's capacities. The authors of this book have all tried and failed too often. It is sheer despair that has brought them together to draft ways out of the maze. The problems illustrated here are at once of a formal and technical nature; they are not, as ideologists claim, of a philosophical kind. Nor are they so complex as to be beyond the grasp of practical intelligence. To build a fine traditional house isn't that much more of an effort than to make a mess of it. It requires, more than anything, aesthetic sense, knowledge, judgment, and a passion for joining materials into meaningful forms that bring true and daily enjoyment to those who look at them, use them, and live in them.
   In this book we do not belabor the reasons for what is nothing less than a cultural catastrophe, nor do we want to make converts for what can seem like yet another cause. Instead, we offer a primer to help those people who are already passionately convinced of the good sense of traditional building. The latter is neither a religion nor a mystery. It is about technique and means of solving building problems with elegance and intelligence. Its solutions are self-evident and rational, practical and lasting, and when guided by talent, they are blessed with grace."

That was very well put and I am in agreement with much of it, particularly the criticisms of the modernist movement and it's failures, and the apocalyptic landscape of McMansions and soul-sucking poorly built ugly faux crap that characterizes the vast portion of the built landscape, particularly here in North America. Did I state that too strongly?

What I find slightly ironic is that architectural designers and such - in which I mean the authors of Get Your House Right - are arguing for a reset back to an age when there were no architects, at least for residential construction. They are making a case, in a certain sense, for a return to the Master Builder paradigm, in which pattern and not fad ruled the day. Sadly though, as I detailed in a series from a few years back, the Master Builder tradition is in the graveyard, likely to stay until the bubble in which we live, the one produced by the industrial revolution and which has surged for 150 years on the back of cheap energy, has popped. So, really, at best all the authors can argue for here is for builders and architects to select better quality industrially-produced building products and components, and put them together in a way which honors the constructional logic that led to the creation of the forms in the first place.

No one would be fooled if they saw a car produced with the wheels placed sideways, the headlamps facing the driver, or the steering wheel on one side and the pedals on the other, however with vernacular architecture, for some strange reason, people do not notice incongruities of a similar scope. I laughed in reading the description of the upside down Tuscan columns in the upscale D.C. hotel mentioned in the Preface. It is absolutely unsurprising and absolutely humorous at the same time. How is it that a builder/architect/installer wouldn't understand what column entasis (<-- link) is all about? Curiously, the word 'entasis' is sufficiently unusual that the blogger spell-checker is red-lining it - that should tell me something.

So, most of Get Your House Right: Architectural Details to Use and Avoid deals with architecture in a section-by-section basis: doors, windows, facades, massing, roofs, etc., in a similar manner to many 19th century pattern books - with the added benefit of showing the reader, often in a side-by-side format, what NOT to do. In most cases it is readily apparent why the things to be avoided are inferior to those things they say we should use. Those who build or design vernacular N. American architecture really should have this book on their shelves. I would be most gratified if even 10% of the guide points suggested in the work were taken up on a wider scale. I'm not going to spend time in this review going over any of that material however. The authors make their case quite convincingly and it is undoubtedly true that the built environment would look a lot better if more of these types of buildings followed the classic patterns with greater fidelity.

What I found particularly edifying were the illustrations showing the origins of the classical orders and what the various parts related to. Stone architecture was generally in imitation of wooden antecedents, and it is interesting to learn which stone parts correspond to which wooden ones:

Columns topped by a beam, then floor joists, a rafter plate and then the rafters. Nice and straightforward, direct, and rational.

In wood at least.

When the same elements above are rendered in stone however, a certain degree of abstraction occurs - compare the following illustration, labeling the same parts as the above picture:

The scale of the parts has altered. Note how slim the architrave is in the stone structure - in wood, such a depth of beam would be inadequate, especially in proportion to the parts above. And who would have guessed that the ogee-shaped Cyma is actually representing a gutter? Or that the Bedmold is in reality a rafter plate?

It is no great surprise that the stone structure, though it imitates a wooden one, has different proportions of parts. It has to. After all, different materials have different qualities and respective advantages/disadvantages. Stone, for instance, is great for columns but not so strong when used as beams. While the earliest stone buildings would likely have been fairly close in imitation of the 'traditional' wooden forms which preceded them, over time, designs done in stone and upon stone's qualities would have moved/evolved further and further away from the starting place.

So the ancient Greeks and Romans massaged and adjusted the proportions of these parts over many many years and produced the stone temples and public buildings which have formed the underpinnings of the Western architectural tradition.

And then a funny thing happened in the 1830's, when the so-called 'Greek Revival', an architectural fad which was not particularly Greek, nor was it a revival (in the case of houses at least - what was being 'revived' were the forms of temples, which were to be applied to banks, government buildings, and houses). Perhaps, though, in this culture, the temple = bank link is not so hard to make :^).

A curious inversion took place with the advent of this fad - in the case of houses, wooden forms were now to be configured so as to imitate stone forms which in turn were themselves imitating wooden forms. A copy of a copy, and in that copying, an important message was lost.

And thus I find it a little whacky that the authors of this book, while taking the trouble to make clear how the forms of the orders derived from wooden architecture, then advocate we continue on with an imitation in wood of patterns which were established by copying wooden forms in stone and then abstracting these forms over hundred of years. And yet they also talk about truth to materials in this book, arguing against vinyl siding in place of wood, against fake, wire-cut, or machine make brick in place of real brick. So, I find this aspect curious, however maybe they are simply being pragmatic. If people are going to build this way, then let's show them the 'right' way. Hmm.

One of the issues I have with such prescriptions of what is 'right' and 'wrong' however is the simple fact that there is an overlay of logic onto something which didn't entirely make sense from the get-go. This is exactly the same as those who tried to overlay rules of Latin grammar onto English - it doesn't quite fit. Ditto for the borrowing of Chinese characters into Japanese. In such cases it would appear inevitable that things will become somewhat convoluted when you try to assemble such disparate parts, and no matter what, it's never quite convincing. I teach SAT test prep as a part time gig, and some of the rules of grammar in English, which were largely invented in the 19th century, don't really make a lot of sense, and are still in fact subject to intense debate by those interested in such topics. I'm not one of those people, I'm just stuck with the task of trying to explain obscure rules of grammar that virtually no one uses to hapless high school students.

Anyway, why are we imitating Grecian/Roman temples in our houses? It's absurd. It would be as odd if the we started building housing subdivisions composed of structures which imitated wooden bridges, or Gothic Churches. Houses, barns, and temples have their architecture configured in specific way as a result of how the building is used. And as much as I have my reservations about Frank Lloyd Wright, he was astute in his observations about our houses composed of interminable little boxes -well, perhaps I should quote him directly, from The Natural House (1954):

"What was the matter with the typical American house? Well, just for an honest beginning, it lied about everything. It had no sense of unity at all nor any such sense of space as should belong to a free people. It was stuck up in thoughtless fashion. It had no more sense of earth than a "modernistic" house. And it was stuck upon wherever it happened to be. To take any one of these so-called "homes" away would have helped to clear the atmosphere. The thing was more a hive than a home just as "modernistic" houses are more boxes than houses. But these "homes" were very like the homes Americans were making for themselves elsewhere, all over their new country.
   Nor, where the human being was concerned, had this typical dwelling any appropriate sense of proportion whatever. It began somewhere down in the wet and ended up as high as it could get in the high and narrow. All materials looked alike to it or to anything or anybody in it. Essentially, whether of brick or wood or stone, this "house" was a bedeviled box with a fussy lid; a complex box that had to be cut up by all kinds of holes made in it to let in light and air, with an especially ugly hole to go it and come out of. The holes were "trimmed"; the doors and windows themselves trimmed; the roofs trimmed; the walls trimmed. Architecture seemed to consist in what was done to these holes."

Like FLW, I have to wonder why North Americans must continue patterning their boxes after pseudo Greek temples, and why we don't develop an architecture for ourselves, based on this natural environment and the materials it is blessed with. Do we have no originality? Why if Americans are so proud to have escaped the yoke of colonial British rule more than 200 years back, in to 'freedom' and all that good stuff, are people still clamoring to have colonial style houses? It's kind of weird if you ask me.

And another point - what is with this urge to emulate ancient Greek or Roman architectural patterns, when the average person in North America knows next to nothing, or perhaps I should say NOTHING, about those cultures otherwise? I find the whole thing rather bizarre. But then again, if I might make an aside, this is a culture where people were seriously talking at one point about renaming French fries as 'Freedom Fries'; I'm thinking that these same people are probably wearing 'All American' blue jeans without realizing that 'denim' originates in France (named after a place called Nîmes, that is a product 'de Nîmes', and that the word 'jeans' is also French, from the French word for Genoa Italy, Gênes, where the first denim trouser were made). Yes, I digress.

It's not as if Western civilization couldn't construct beautiful buildings without paying heed to the classical architectural orders -  take a look at this German half-timbered house, and you'll see that things can look quite alright without Cyma moldings and entablature, etc. (photo by D. McAnany):

I could similarly dig up examples from England, like this little cob cottage:

Similar examples could be shown from any number of other countries. Beautiful houses can be built of natural materials, in a manner that honors the qualities of those materials, without any recourse to hair-pulling about whether the moldings are built up in the right patterns, whether the windows should have muntins or not etc. Even if one does make use of classic architectural details, they can be combined sensitively without slavish obedience to the classical orders, like this example, the Broadgreen Historic House (1850) in Nelson, New Zealand (picture by PDL Photography):

That house is also made of cob. Not a material mentioned in Cusato's book, and I'm sure the combination of elements seen in the above photos is a mish-mash of styles in terms of the classic orders, but I find it pleasing all the same. Personally though, I would avoid placing valleys in the roof like that.

I guess, in the end, this book Get Your House Right: Architectural Details to Use and Avoid teaches you how to think inside the box, carefully and with fidelity to the logic of classical patterns. It still assumes a house built of factory-produced standardized components, trucked to the site and assembled. The architect's job is now to pick wisely from a component catalog. That's as far as an argument for craftsmanship seems to go in this work. Cusato's argument that a key aspect of what makes for sustainable architecture is that the buildings be sufficiently attractive that we want to keep them instead of calling in the demolition company is an excellent point with which I wholeheartedly agree. If one builds or renovates wooden structures that are in imitation of the classical orders in their decoration and fenestration, then it is vital to understand that those orders had a logic and a beauty absolutely worthy of study, since the finished result is much more seamless and, well, orderly. Understanding the whys is a key to sorting through the hows and the whats of any developed form of architecture. I just don't get the part about why we should continue to emulate ancient temples as a pattern for housing.


  1. Great post, Chris. You touch on many of the questions I, myself, have pondered but never articulated.

    For me, the comparison of the wood versus the stone orders would justify the purchase of the book.

    As a furniture maker I have intuitively sensed that we’ve lost the mythological connections to the design features of things like claw feet and parts of animal symbols used to embellish the classic pieces. There exists such a chasm between why the built world looks like it does and the history of its parts. Without having an understanding of the meaning behind these curious parts, why repeat them?

    Perhaps this book does a decent job of elucidating the parts that relate to our cherished, but poorly understood, traditional architecture. That would be a worthy accomplishment.

  2. Tico,

    your comment is most appreciated, and I think that you're right that the book reviewed succeeds in clarifying the meaning of the parts employed in traditional Greek architecture, at least as pertained to temples and other formal structures. I thought it was a good addition to my library and would recommend it to many others.


  3. Hello Chris,

    My wife, who is not American, sometimes says how ugly American domestic bourgeois architecture seems to her. Curiously, I don't think the counterparts that exist here are much of an improvement while they do conform more to the measure you seem to imply in that the Greeks and Romans - outside of threatening economic catastrophe - don't figure in much, at least explicitly.


    Don Wagstaff

  4. Hi Don,

    thanks for your comment.Interestingly, one of the criticisms leveled at Prince Charles, in response to his call for a return to traditional architectural values, is that:

    "This appetite for neoclassical architecture among the upper classes is not entirely surprising, harking back as it does to a time when kings were on their thrones and the rest of us were subservient. With its order and rules, classical architecture is social hierarchy made manifest in built form."

    Indeed, this sort of argument was a central tenet among those who found the Bauhaus and other atelier out of the shambles of World War. See the following piece for more commentary from a modernist architect's point of view:



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