Society's impact on housing; HOW WE BELIEVE, MOLDS THE WAY WE DESIGN
Anonymous was an architect. For 300 years, an army of unidentified ''government officials, popular journalists, land speculators, reformers, and industrialists have designed the face of America.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
Through zoning or moral/missionary work, through buying or building, these architects-without-portfolio have promoted and constructed most of the design of the American environment. Perhaps it was too important to be left to the professionals, or ''artists,'' of the trade.
Always, the home was more than a house and architecture was more than a facade to such ''causists.'' Alike, they sought to enroll architecture in the social issues of the day.
To Puritan founders seeking God, to early nationalists stressing unity, to industrialists demonstrating equality, or to the feminists of today seeking ''domestic revolution,'' shelter was to embody and mold the aspirations of the day.
And yet if, as Vincent Scully tells us, the essence of American architecture is the house and the high-rise, the bulk of house design has remained aloof from serious speculation in our era.
Now, however - coming, it seems, to confirm the current nightmare of a houseless society - is a wealth of books, and conversations, too, about Building the Dream (Pantheon), as social historian Gwendolyn Wright titles her search for residential architecture.
Canvassing this archetypal form of architecture, Wright's book joins such recent general examinations as David Handlin's The American Home (Little, Brown) and such specific ones as her own Moralism and the Model Home (University of Chicago Press). These all show graphically that how and what we believe molds the way we design.
Consider, for example, the mansard roof of the first American apartment building, the Hotel Pelham in Boston, in 1855. The ''shock of the new'' was diminished by its heavy-browed roof. The weighty overhang made this wicked French adoption look smaller, linking it to the benign old row-house style or the single-family home of tradition.
Examine, too, Wright urges, the fanciful period styles of the 1920s - the ''French chateaux, Spanish haciendas, Norman farmhouses, Georgian manors, Old English cottages, and various Early American homesteads.'' They not only added charm but implied the kind of ethnic diversity and cultural continuity that Americans sought.
The cult of motherhood and the love of nature - all had their physical manifestation in American architecture, in the view of such social historians.
Contrast again this symbolic home with the soaring aspirations of the business district's high-rise. The hard-edge frantic world of ''downtown'' was quite opposite to the retreat-seeking, gentle, hearth-centered, parlored home in the suburbs.
Ordinary architecture, not just monuments, then, are the source for these new readings.
A new land, open for countless houses, provided a fertile field to enlist architecture in the service of higher ends; common houses were calculated to become company towns - be the ''company'' the Puritans with their model townscape, shaped as a hierarchy of concentric circles around meeting house, ministers, and prominent folk and down to artisans or farmers on the outer edges; or be it an industry such as the Eli Whitney Gun Factory in Millrock, Conn., with its cottages, as identical and severely refined as Whitney's standardized parts.