Little red houses

Posted: 14 July 2016 in Uncategorized
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I had no idea. Apparently, when Hollin Hills [ht: sm] (in Fairfax County, Virginia) was developed in the early 1950s (inspired by Philip Johnson’s Glass House in Connecticut), it was considered part of a foreign-inspired, communist invasion.

Planned in the late 1940s, architecturally unique Hollin Hills was built in the early 1950s during the post-World War II housing boom. Architect Charles Goodman and landscape architect Dan Kiley designed the project for developer Robert C. Davenport, who wanted to build attractive but modestly sized, affordable homes for America’s middle-class. Moreover, they decided the hilly, wooded site, full of twisting contours of steep hills and meandering valleys, dictated a labyrinthian road network and houses that were carefully sited within the natural terrain of each lot, thereby preserving the existing tree cover, providing privacy, and capturing views and sunlight as much as possible.

It all sounds pretty bourgie to me.

But not to the editor of House Beautiful and others:

just as Johnson’s Glass House was sneered at for subordinating comfort to aesthetic pleasure, so were Goodman’s utopian pronouncements in the firing line. In 1953, Elizabeth Gordon, the imperious editor of the prestigious House Beautiful magazine, launched an astonishing, Trump-ish attack on Modernist design under the title, “The Threat to the New America.” Gordon warned of a conspiracy to subvert American taste in favor of “foreign” design. She saw the buildings of architects such as Johnson and Goodman as being “barren” and “grim” and attacking the very heart of American society – the home. “Two ways of life stretch before us,” wrote Gordon, “one leads to the richness of variety, to comfort and beauty. The other…to poverty and unlivability.”

As Greg Castillo’s essential Cold War on the Home Front spells out, Gordon viewed the clean open spaces of Modernist houses, the “less is more” aesthetic, as an affront to the post-war American mindset of abundance. Her insinuation that communist ideals lay behind these creations was all too clear, especially with Senator Joseph McCarthy’s “Red Scare” running rampant at the time. She was not alone. Even the great American architect, Frank Lloyd Wright, declared purveyors of the style “not wholesome people.” In a perverse piece of logic the inhabitants of a glass house—by exposing themselves to the world so blatantly—clearly had something to hide.

As for architect Michael Sorkin, who grew up in Hollin Hills, it was something quite different, something akin to an urban communist utopia:

For a variety of reasons. . ., not the least of which was the fact that the rules of circulation and sociability – not to mention the technologies of access – were different for kids than for adults, more urban. Indeed, the movement of kids through this environment was exemplarily advanced, streets ahead of Copenhagen or Amsterdam today. It was, for example, completely contrary to the ethos of the place for yards to be fenced and children were authorised to cut across lots. This meant that we enjoyed a condition of near universal accessibility at the ground plane, that any line could be desire’s. The only rule that obtained was that cross-yard circulation had to be on foot.

This freedom of movement was not simply limited to well-worn paths but also offered its special version of that indispensible urban condition: getting lost. This was available to smaller children within the hilly, wooded, meandering bounds of the community and for the older cohort in the fascinations of forests, dumps, military installations, road-side attractions and contiguous neighbourhoods beyond. We became a wandering crowd of mini-flâneurs.

The combination of universal accessibility and getting lost actually sounds a lot like where I grew up, albeit without the modernist glass houses. . .

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