Modern design, including modern architecture, is experiencing a dramatic surge in popularity. More and more of our clients are coming in and asking for modern designs without knowing what it means to have a residence in the “modern” style. You can find modern design everywhere now – the background to every car commercial being made, to the checkout stands at your local grocery store.
There is also a massive disconnect between what it costs to build a modern residence versus what people think it costs. Modern homes, with their clarity often mistaken for simplicity, are extremely expensive to build.
In the decade after World War I, modern architects were interested in the “rational” use of modern materials (steel and glass most notably), the principles of functionalist planning, and the rejection of historical precedent and ornament. There was a widespread belief that building forms must be determined by their functions and materials if they were to achieve intrinsic significance or beauty in contemporary terms.
Okay – so put down that awesome issue of DWELL magazine – where the pages are adorned with the manicured images of kick ass looking houses populated by uber-cool, yet tragically forlorn, dual income homeowners. I am going to give you the starter kit of classic rules for modern architecture:
• adoption of the machine aesthetic
• materials and functional requirements determine the final product
• emphasis of horizontal lines
• express the structure of the building
• rejection of ornamentation – the simplification of form + elimination of “unnecessary detail”
and the most enduring, and most quoted rule of all:
• Form follows function
What does this all mean to the 40-something’s that come in wanting a modern house?
Nothing ….. yet. I don’t need for them to understand the maxims of modern architecture – I’m just happy they care enough to hire an architect. My job is actually a lot more fun when I get to go through this educational process with them. This is a period when everybody loves each other – we’re meeting for coffee, I’m loaning them books on Marcel Breuer, Richard Neutra, Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe. Things are going great and I am their hero – leading them from the dark ages and the soul consuming blackness that is the gothic builder home and into the light.
When you introduce “cost” into the conversation, things start to turn like a pork sandwich left out in the sun.
Client: “It’s going to cost what? It’s a concrete box with glass walls on two sides”
Me: “But we’ve emphasized the horizontal lines”
Client: “There’s only 7 rooms!”
Me: “Form follows function”
Client: “I’m not getting you”
Me: “uummm, we’ve adopted a machine aesthetic and expressed the structure?”
These are the critical moments with your client that separate the wheat from the chaff. It would be so much easier to take the client to a modern style house that was poorly (or cheaply) built where every single flawed issue of craft is exposed. The skill level needed from the contractor to plan ahead and adjust for dimensional “nuances” so that the joint pattern of the tile aligns with the window layout and that there isn’t any remnant pieces of leftover tile just before you get to the corner. Ever noticed that the openings in brick walls are the exact same size of the windows? That no bricks had to be cut? That meant the placement of every window in that wall was perfectly located months before any bricks even showed up on site. These things take skill to execute and just like everything else, skill costs money.
I’m not trying to say that contractors who build traditional style houses don’t have skill. What I am saying is that the skill level needed to build a house without ornamentation is higher than traditional houses because there aren’t as many ways to hide errors or “nuances”. How many traditional houses have exposed concrete floors? If you are going to be covering them up with a wood parquet floor, why pay extra to get the concrete floor perfectly smooth and level? If you are going to be slathering texture on the walls, why bother floating out the entire surface with gypsum to make it flat. Ever wondered why those old Fox & Jacob homes from the 70’s had popcorn texture on the ceilings? Aaahhhh – it’s all becoming clearer isn’t it?
The best rule of modern design is probably one you’ve heard before but you thought it meant something else:
Less is More