Every so often I let our editorial staff peer beyond the borders of the United States in their search for compelling houses to show you. This is usually when they start pleading with me to start an international edition of residential architect. They're so excited to find such vigorous visions of home. Certainly, we have admirable examples here, too, but why are there so many more outside our country's limits? It seems that elsewhere they're almost everywhere. We may be the land of the free and the home of the brave, but we're not very free or very brave when it comes to designing our homes. One of the first major stories I wrote for this magazine was a piece on production housing in Orange County, Calif. It was my first trip to the Irvine area, and I was just stunned by the monotonous ubiquity of nouveau Mediterranean architecture I found there. (I called it “the Spanish imposition.”) It permeated all the local housing done in the last 20 years. So I was positively gleeful when I stumbled upon some clusters of contemporary houses done in the 1960s and '70s. They were a breath of fresh air. They still looked bold and inventive decades after their heyday. It made me wonder what might have succeeded those houses if the developer of the Irvine ranch hadn't grabbed the clock and spun back the hands of time. There are hundreds of talented architects there, eager for a little stylistic leeway.
We love traditional architecture, too, here at ra—particularly if it's allowed to evolve and invent within its own parameters. But it can't be the only game in town. What do we have to grab hold of if everything looks the same? My high school science book had a photo of a cat, stymied by a flight of stairs covered in the same pattern as the floor in front of it. Faced with the uniformity of the pattern, the animal lost all depth perception and froze, unable to move forward or backward.
There is something marvelous about walking through older neighborhoods and seeing the hash marks on the timeline. Even more dazzling is seeing that timeline compressed—new house next to old house next to very old house. We're afraid of that kind of visual dialogue in this country. And our streetscapes are poorer for it. We're so terrified of being fashion victims, we're stuck wearing our grandmothers' clothes. But will our hearts leap when, 20 years from now, we tour a subdivision of 1980s' versions of 1930s' versions of 19th century architecture?
Perhaps we'll accuse those who are now copying the mid-century modernists word for word of the same lack of invention later on. Maybe if they do it very well, they'll get a free pass. And that's fine. We can enjoy our revivals as long as we also tolerate our vivacious new inventions. What's so exciting about the architecture in this issue is that it's part of a smorgasbord of design. It exists amid enviable variety.
It's hard to fathom why a country as smart, strong, and prosperous as ours is can be so unwilling to support diversity. We don't hesitate to impose our vision elsewhere, but imagine what we could learn if we opened our eyes to other ways of seeing. Then we could honestly call ourselves brave.
Comments? Call: 202.736. 3312; write: S. Claire Conroy, residential architect, One Thomas Circle, N.W., Suite 600, Washington, D.C. 20005; or e-mail: email@example.com.