William Morgan is an architecture critic based in Providence, R.I., who has written on everything from license plate design to the Cape Cod cottage typology. He is the author of a dozen books, including The Abrams Guide to American House Styles (2004), and Monadnock Summer (2011) about Dublin, N.H.’s architectural legacy, which was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. Morgan, who has held teaching posts at the University of Louisville, Princeton University, and Brown University, is a contributor to “This New England” at thisnewenglandblog.projo.com.
Residential design is the most rigorous and the most demanding architectural specialty. You are dealing with where clients live, how they’d like to live, and how they are perceived to live—or, identity. When an architect does a house, it says so much more about what they really are than when they do a skyscraper. The house is the ultimate naked truth of what an architect really cares about.
Any house is about both shelter and aspirations. A successful house has to be designed from the inside out, and the plan is crucial. It’s much harder for an architect to do a small house and get it right than it is to design, say, an Olympic stadium. A house has to be based on human measurements and it has to feel good. Good residential architects will take the landscape into account as a matter of course. The genius of the place has to be consulted—not so much the clichéd idea of placemaking, but the opposite: figuring out what the place is inherently about. The break between landscape architecture and architecture is needlessly artificial when it comes to residential work—both camps ought to be asking the same questions about place.
A good client, on the other hand, needs to ask around. Getting the right architect is like finding a doctor. I used to teach a course at Princeton on the visual arts in contemporary society; it was designed to snag non–art students, believing them to be the patrons and clients of the future. Conscious design decisions shape our environment, and it’s crucial that the decision makers have some design training.
One of the biggest issues facing residential architecture is that people cannot leave well enough alone. Beyond the landscape, certain house types suggest their own materials and sensibilities—and they rarely suggest multi-car garages and 17 different roof pitches. How much granite, for instance, do we need in our kitchens? People have more resources today to think about good design. They also have more white noise with which to contend. What I’ve always tried to do is find a way to introduce people to good design—whether they’re students or colleagues or the reading public—in hopes of inspiring a better world. — as told to William Richards aia