Saturday, August 15

It's All About the Proportion

One of my favorite things to do when traveling around the US is to go to the older neighborhoods that were built between the two world wars. When architects came back from Europe after serving in WWI, they brought back a wealth of visual information. The results can be seen in these neighborhoods; the middle and upper middle classes could have a chateau to call their own. What was truly great about this period of building is that we had an abundance of skilled craftsmen whose trade had been passed down from generation to generation. Doing these "old world" styles was a piece of cake for them. The architects and craftmen turned out homes that still exude their grace and proportion today. I never tire of looking at these neighborhoods, and marveling at all the care and talent that went into building them.

Look at the two houses above; both are in the same neighborhood. Both are described as being "Tudor". I doubt you'd have any trouble picking out which one was built in 1928 and which one was built in 2003. Granted the 1928 version has about as much of a relationship to the real Tudor period houses as the 2003 house has to the 1928 house. But at least with the 1928 house there is a quiet and balanced sense of proportion between all the elements in the house's front elevation. There's a lovely blending of details like the half-timbering patterns, the use of rough-hewn clapboard up at the gable peak, and the strong addition of the brick chimney. It's a very sophisticated composition.

The 2003 version of Tudor appears to have been designed in plan - by which I mean the clients wanted this here and that there, and the contractor slapped a few gables on the exterior container, along with 3 pieces of half-timbering so they could call it a Tudor. It is not a 3 dimensional composition like the 1928 house. It's nothing more than a super-sized suburban box. Was a designer even involved?

In this day and age when super-sizing is hopefully a thing of the past, maybe we can return to building homes where grace and proportion matter over square footage. Wouldn't you rather have a house of real rooms you use vs. vast amounts of amorphous space? I'm reminded of an episode of "Housewives of Atlanta" where the owner proudly shows off her McMansion; it was one large undefined room after another (all with double high ceilings). No one in the family lived in these rooms; the kids had a TV room in the basement; the wife spent all her time in her office. All I could think about was why on earth was this behemoth built. Why is it that people stopped caring about how their homes are used (and what they look like) vs. just owning space?


  1. Hey there, dear old friend! Glad you're blogging! I happen to live in one of the amorphous, Tudor-styled "McMansions" sort of like the 2003 version, although ours was built in 1988 (ours has way more half-timbering). I was just wondering as I was reading your post and comparing the two, though, how many of these elements change over time in respect to things like the advent of energy-efficient windows, the greater number of cars per home,changes in kitchen technology, changes in the ways folks are entertained in their home, etc. I was also thinking as I looked at the two that one has the advantage of mature trees to frame it, while the other is in a new subdivision that needs time for that advantage. I feel that the 2003 version looks more open and welcoming, particularly around the door area, and the greater proportion and size of the windows brought the energy efficiency question to mind. The fireplace in the front of the 1928 version may have been in an office or front, formal living room in those days, but in modern days families congregate more in the back of the home in family rooms, around home theater centers instead of the piano, which of course is questionable as an "improvement" in lifestyle.

    Not my area of expertise, of course. You are looking at the whole thing from an architecturally aesthetic perspective, and I from a layperson's purely practical observation. Thanks for providing some thought and learning for the evening!

  2. Hi Dianna - thanks for reading my blog! I'm not going to deny that the more mature landscape if far more appealing than the newly planted lawn. And if you find the more modern home more open and welcoming - it's your taste. That's a very personal visceral reaction and everyone's is different.

    What I will discuss is the energy efficiency of older homes vs. modern homes. The only difference is insulation and stopping air infiltration. Both of these issues can be taken care of in an older home. Plus you have the benefit of much higher quality materials in the older home. You can take an old wood window and restore so it will give you another 25-30 years of life; try that with a vinyl clad window.

    As for "how we live now" issues, older houses can be retrofitted to any lifestyle. Not only do I think you get a better home, it's the ultimate in green to reuse a well built older structure.