Newsletter | Jan/Feb 2012

Book Circle 3: Women and the Making of the Modern House

by Inge S. Horton

Women and the Making of the Modern House by Alice T. Friedman

This is a report of the discussion at the OWA Book Circle meeting on November 10, 2011, at Wendy Bertrand’s house. The book we discussed is Women and the Making of the Modern House: A Social and Architectural History by Alice T. Friedman, 1998, Harry N. Abrams, Inc., New York.

The discussion of this fascinating book began with an observation about the cover design of the book. The jacket of the hard cover book was based on a photo of the glass house by Mies van der Rohe for Edith Farnsworth and features soft, pale colors on the house contrasted by a reddish-brown tree. The paperback edition shows a frontal night photo of the house with a glowing golden interior and purple color of the minimalist structure in front of a dark blue background and is much more vibrant and appealing. This comparison made it clear how important the cover design of a book is.

All present members of the book circle were enthusiastic about this book as it presents an unusual perspective of architecture, the relationship between architect and client, and in this case famous architects and their often wealthy, independent female clients. Alice Friedman, a Professor of Art History at Wellesley, selected six famous houses by notable architects for her investigation of the interaction of architects with women clients and how their collaboration influenced not only a particular house but also architectural history. These houses in the order presented are the

  • Hollyhock House in Los Angeles, California, for Aline Barnsdall by Frank Lloyd Wright (1915-23),

  • Schroeder House for Truus Schroeder and her children in Utrecht, Holland, by Gerrit Rietveld and Truus Schroeder (1923-24),

  • Villa Stein-de Monzie for Gabrielle de Monzie and her well known friends Sarah and Michael Stein and their son, in Garches, France, by Le Corbusier (1926-28),

  • Farnsworth House for Edith Farnsworth in Plano. Illinois, by Mies Van Der Rohe (1945-51),

  • Perkins House for Constance Perkins in Pasadena, California, by Richard Neutra (1952-55),

  • Vanna Venturi House in Chestnut Hill, Pennsylvania, by her son, Robert Venturi (1961-64).

    In the Conclusion, two contemporary houses are presented, the Bergren House in Venice, California, by Morphosis (1985) and the Draeger House in Berkeley, California, by Franklin D. Israel (1994).

    The author states in her introduction that houses commissioned by women seem to be among the best work of the architects, probably because the programming deviated from the standard program and the clients were in most cases deeply involved in the design process. Our discussion focused on the relationship of architect to client and how the clients have influenced the buildings, how architecture is experienced, how the programming is different and responds to the way a few unique women wanted to live. Of course, the programming was developed together by the client and her architect and responded to the circumstances of each woman, most of them pursuing a house for a nontraditional household. While for example Aline Barnsdall wanted a representative house as part of larger arts/theater complex in a public park on top of Olive Hill in Hollywood to be designed by a famous architect, Truus Schroeder sought a modern architectural expression for her progressive ideas about women and family life and how she could live closely together with her three children and also include the architect who was her friend and lover.

    Members of the group also expressed their own experience for example how, as a child in a household of artists, he did not have a conventional living room but the space was the art studio of the father. Generally, it is not possible to buy “raw” space (except in lofts) but houses and apartments are designed to respond to what clients supposedly want and the clients have to buy or rent what the developers offer, a vicious circle.

    The daring clients, even with different budgets, were seeking to create their homes that reflected their customized mode of living. In choosing to build a house for themselves and their household they expressed the importance of their position as independent women seeking domestic environments created specifically for themselves. Members of our book circle hope that the book will encourage readers to also pursue their own needs or wishes as one of us was inspired to change the program of her house and use of rooms to accommodate her artistic endeavors. It is not always necessary to dedicate the largest room in the house as the “living” room and one could instead create an artist studio in the space.

    The case of the collaboration of Elizabeth Farnsworth, a doctor, and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe is an example of how the architect was not mainly interested in his client’s needs but saw the commission as an opportunity to realize his own ambitions in designing a house based on his perfection of a glass house without solid walls. Farnsworth, although she spent a lot of time in the architectural office, may not have understood the implications of living in a minimalist glass house during the design phase. The cost overruns of the Farnsworth house resulted in a long legal battle and also public discussion in the press and even is mentioned in Mies’ memoirs. Although she did not fire the famous architect despite delays and higher than anticipated costs and ended up enduring a life without privacy in the glass house for about twenty years she finally sold it to a Mies van der Rohe fan and moved to Italy.

    More positive relationships between client and architect are documented in other case studies. Especially positive was the relationship between Constance Perkins, a professor of art, and her architect friend Richard Neutra in Pasadena, California. They respected each other and Neutra accepted the suggestions of Perkins who was involved in all phases of creating the house and had some strong ideas of how she wanted to live. One detail she wanted was to have her drafting table near to her bed in the main room. They remained friends long after the delightful house was completed.

    We also discussed the furniture of the houses and how some of the clients, as for example the owners of the Villa Stein-de Monzie, insisted on bringing their own antique furniture into the modern house as a connection to their past in spite of their architects’ desire for modern furniture. While the ultra-modern Schroeder house included movable interior wall elements which allowed rearrangement of spaces and rooms outfitted with furniture designed by Rietveld, who started out as a furniture designer and maker. And the Farnsworth house by Mies had of course furniture designed by Mies to be part of his total design concept.
    Another topic we discussed was how we use our houses or apartments and what the house is about. How can we as architects help women to create more suitable housing in a time when, in general, architects are not playing a role in the housing market and developers are in charge as they take the risk and also the profit.

    In the Conclusions, Alice Friedman states that the lives of women have changed since the women’s movement of the 1970s and that women now have more options in choosing a different life style. She also analyses the reduction in household income and the inability of many middle- class families and especially women heads of households to afford their own home or an architect-designed home. Although Friedman mentions “group housing” and “co-housing” in her conclusions she did not analyze these or other forms of unconventional housing any further. Instead she added the discussion of two more houses to illustrate new building programs, a remodel and expansion of a house with sufficiently large rooms for the children and a house focusing on one single mother’s way to keep an eye on the coming and going of her children from her office space rather than from the traditional lookout – the kitchen.

    Although this book offers much to think about, it did miss the opportunity to explore the relationship between a woman architect and her client.
    Women and the Making of the Modern House is highly recommended not only because it is well written and provocative and includes interesting photos, but also because one learns about many levels of the architectural profession, both for a professional or for a reader interested in houses, architectural history, or modern architecture as it relates to women.

    The book is available to be borrowed from the OWA Book Circle by contacting Wendy Bertrand.

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