Why suburbs are a supermarket of housing styles

Deep in the heart of the suburbs, on a winding curbless street, in an ersatz Colonial home with a two-foot plastic eagle over the door. Next door, a fine example of Tudor Revival displays fake exposed beams and a turret (minus the cannon). Farther down the road sits a trendy modern home, strewn across its lot like a giant cedar-and-glass experiment in geometry.

Why are America's suburbs a supermarket of housing styles? What do the styles mean, and how important are they to the people who buy them?

Armed with a federal grant, a clipboard, and a camera, Scott A. Kinzy hopes to find out. Mr. Kinzy, an assistant professor of design at the State University of New York at Buffalo, will spend the next six months studying two post World War II suburbs, one in Buffalo and the other in his native Milwaukee.

"Are Colonial homes more formal, an evidence of some sort of permanent nostalgia?" asks Kinzy. "Are colonial homeowners all bankers? Were homes with roughsawn siding built because contractors thought consumers were hungering for some sort of rural image?"

For instance, by questioning zoning boards, contractors, and homeowners, Kinzy intends to find out what elements make people view a home as a "good" example of a particular style or an "awkward" one.

He plans to compile a catalog of doors, roofs, windows, dormers, siding materials, and other elements that stand for a particular style -- and he wants to find how those elements are grafted together to make an attractive house.

"I want to establish a visual grammar," he says. "Commercial housing has certain nouns and verbs, and if we get new construction to use them correctly, we can improve the quality of design in our suburbs."

Kinzy believes many builders throw up ugly, awkward tract homes because they just don't know any better. By establishing standards of taste, he hopes to enlighten the construction industry about what consumers really want.

Such stylebooks were an important influence on the housing of 19th-century America. Volumes like Andrew Downing's "Cottage Residences" and Calvert Vaux's "Villas and Cottages" featured "morally correct" houses, whose "visual grammar" of simple doors and windows supposedly reflected the happy home life within.

Eugene Gardner, another 19th century architectural critic, wrote a straight-faced study that purported to show how a home-owner's preference in roof styles was linked to his choice of hats.

But modern suburban housing is a vast, mostly untouched subject. In 1976, the controversial architectural firm of Venturi & Rauch assembled a Smithsonian exhibition titled "Signs of Life" which took a serious look at the design heritage of American suburbia.

"People are beginning to get interested in this sort of thing," says Venturi & Rauch associate Stephan Izenour.

Mr. Izenour claims traditional styles such as Colonial and Spanish Mission Revival are popular because American culture is so image-conscious. "The appeal historically. People feel comfortable with them because they're part of our upbringing."

but the Cape Cods and Colonials scattered through suburbia like prosperous citi zens are more than mere replicas.

"They reflect people's lives and priorities," Says Chester Liebs, an architectural historian at the University of Vermont and cofounder of The Society for Commercial Archaelogy. "In California I recently noticed a sub-division where the garages are as big as the living rooms."

The auto's appetite for roads, gas, and shelter has been a major influence on the form of America's suburbs. Professor Kinzy believes future subdivisions may be shaped by the conservation ethic that is replacing it.

"Potentially, the passive solar form [of building] could generate a whole new visual style," he says.

Someday, silvery reflective glass and heat-retaining stone walls could constitute an indigenous style -- American Solar -- as traditional and respected as today's Cape Cod.

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