A few years back, at the end of a long design meeting, a client asked me, “So, what’s the latest trend in homes now?” I felt like I needed to sum it all up again in a terse quip, a tasty truffle. While I am thankful that the recent rise of renovation and real estate programs has lifted awareness of architecture and design, I also lament that the designing of a home has become just one more consumable good. One views a flurry of celebrity homes and a light appears, “Can I have that, combined with that, now, or at least by the end of the show?” No record deal, no sports contract, you can still have the crib. The slick editing of TV proposes to us that good design is fast and, just a matter of short, clever tips. Back at meeting, I responded, “We don’t need to know because, your design won’t be about trends, it will be about you”. I knew this would become clearer through the design process but also, that in its aspiration and its mimesis, creating a home had the ability to convey far beyond the pieces of a project.
Arguably, the American vision of a dream home stems from our Anglo roots. “Downton Abbey” was such a huge hit. The British and Americans alike, both dream of being the gentry and, relate to being the like the staff. As embodied in Highclere Castle, the setting of Downton, the English country house has also come to symbolize the American Dream house. Into the fourteenth century, the English had substantially unified Britain, and political stability allowed economic prosperity. The castle was less about military defense and fortification, more about wealth and power. Crenellation still required royal permit, but it served more as a medal than battle device. Eras of Imperialism would follow, those leading victory were rewarded with property, and a landed gentry over the next five hundred years would develop ideas of the country house. In so doing, they created a model that defines House for us today. By the mid nineteenth century, Industrialization created both a new moneyed elite and, the country’s first true, upwardly mobile middle class. In looking for cues to express their wealth, they did not embrace the modernization, nor the technology that brought prosperity. Instead, contemporary visions of the country house, their layout, their details, looked back in history and to the gentry. We do the same thing today in our Mc Mansions filled with Restoration Hardware; Trump Tower apartments filled with Roche Bobois.
A number of years back, I had a fellowship to travel and study the English Country House, with forty other architects, historians, curators and preservationists. At the historic outset, the country estate represented not only the wealth, political power and social status of the land owner, but also his culture, taste and interests. The singular head focused these interests in a remarkable way and, this focus was able to truly reveal a unique individual with a unique history. As the rule of primogeniture insured the house and collections would stay intact, a single inheritor would shape the evolution of each family house for that successive generation. The forms vary across parts of Britain, periods of its history and, the particular availability of craft and materials. Variation was as great as the number of individual estate Owners but as they socialized greatly, custom, ritual and interests created functional similarities. An architectural typology did emerge and, evolve highly.
Collections within vary even more, but all these things are tied together by an individual, a family, whose own lives provide a thread to link the House as a whole. A guided tour through any historic house in the U.S. reveals our inheritance; so much of the talk is of the objects, their link to the family history, its trials, and its tribulations. In the English Country house, an Owner sought an Architect not to decorate a box with fashionable colors or motifs, but to give materiality to his identity and, ideas. The Architect was not thought of as a stylist, because the architecture and the interiors could only have meaning and weight if they also had an inherent value linked to the humanism and cultural history of building and design.
One finds the individual in the life and history of the place. The architecture and objects reinforce a story of a person, her triumphs and setbacks, relationships and endeavors. Rarely does this assume his directing specifics of colors or furnishings, or the planning of sites, or the authorship of the structures; certainly, as this would not be expected of the books owned, music played or clothes worn. In these great homes, we find architecture and design that was able to achieve its utmost by pursuing a critical development, beyond the temporal boundaries and, of the individuals involved. The estate owner, in setting forth his abstract requirements, confident in her own endeavors, allowed the greatest architecture to occur, and thus the greatest testament to his own expression.
As I step back even further, I realize Architecture captivates me because it reflects so much of our past, aspirations of our future and, necessarily confronts our imperfect present. I find politics and society, technology and craft, beauty and emotion, all in Architecture. In the end, I am so glad our office is really unable to offer what is, on trend. With each project we analyze and interpret a site, consider program and unique persons; all set to a specific time and place in the world. In our work, I believe one can sense an individual; but I also hope, we have created a compelling idea of home.
(edited from our book of Work, Interpreting Ideas of Home, 2016)