"Name one new modern subdivision. I'll bet you can't." That was the challenge from our cover guy, Rodney Friedman, FAIA, a former leader among cutting-edge merchant-housing designers. At the time, when put on the spot, I couldn't think of one either. After a few days pondering and consulting with my colleagues, we came up with a couple: Aqua, just north of Miami Beach in Florida, and Prospect New Town, 30 minutes from downtown Denver, in Longmont, Colo. Just a couple out of the thousands of new subdivisions sprawling across the country--and only Prospect is building single-family homes. To see them, boot up and go to www.aqua.net and www.prospectnewtown.com.
Interviewing Friedman, who trained with William Wurster at the University of California, Berkeley, and was a teaching assistant for Charles Eames, reignited my nostalgia for Mid-Century Modern and even '70s "Contemporary." Friedman's anger at the Dark Ages that followed those years of innovation and creativity rubbed off on me. Why has experimentation in single-family housing design been restricted to wealthy patrons of custom architecture? Every new merchant-built detached house is swathed in a bygone style. No developers, with the exception of Kiki Wallace at Prospect and Craig Robins at Aqua (with the guidance of planners Duany Plater-Zyberk), have had the guts to put modern design on the outside of their houses. I have nothing against historicist styles if they're done well, but they shouldn't be the only choice out there. Friedman gave up and carved out a new career doing campus housing.
He's also designing loft apartments in downtown San Francisco. His adaptive reuse of the Oriental Warehouse building into live/work units won an Honor Award from AIA San Francisco. It's lovely, edgy, forward-thinking work. The units sold out. And here's where my glimmer of hope lies. I think if Friedman, who's 69, is willing to keep on working for at least another five years, he'll draw some modern--with a lowercase "m"--houses again. After all, those 30-something loft buyers in San Francisco--and every other major city in the country--are going to want a house some day. For them, the suburban pseudo-Colonial just won't do.
This market knows something about design. Many people credit the plethora of architecture magazines in the '50s for broadening public taste and knowledge of architecture. We have a similar bounty of shelter magazines nowadays (although somehow, fewer professional architecture journals). Home design books by residential architects such as Sarah Susanka and Dennis Wedlick also are selling well; home shows are all over cable television. And new contemporary furniture stores are ready to fill those sleek lofts with something interesting and appropriate.
We're whetting an appetite that we won't be able to satisfy with new single-family homes. A friend of mine, newly married and expecting a baby, moved out of her urban condo and into a '60s split-level in the suburbs. That's as close to modern as she can find right now. It's great for the remodeling market, but it's a blow to the new-home market. Builders and developers are Rip Van Winkles; they've been asleep for 20 years, and they'd better wake up.
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