Which Buildings Changed America? Consider the 'Good Enough' Tract House

The Society of Architectural Historians and Chicago public television have put together 10 Buildings That Changed America (hosted by Geoff Baer) for broadcast on May 12. The ten are necessarily an arbitrary list, given what might considered "change" and what can be called a "building."

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Two of the ten buildings are (or were) homes: the Robie House in suburban Chicago, designed (1909-1910) by Frank Lloyd Wright, and the Vanna Venturi house in suburban Philadelphia, designed (1964) by Robert Venturi. The Robie House was influential -- as an assemblage of deep propositions about the domestication of space -- but not as a plan for other builders to replicate. The Venturi house, deliberately contradictory in its presentation of itself, looks more like a comment on architecture and less like a house in which to live. Its influence on Americans escapes me.

Oddly though, the Robie House has been unlived in for decades and the Venturi house has always been a home for its owners.

If we actually believe that the shelter shapes those sheltered (as I do, up to a point), then the most influential home in America is the mass-produced "minimal traditional" tract house of 1947-1967 (and in down-market tracts after). Millions of Americans still live in one of them, even as their more aspirant neighbors moved on to tracts of the post-tract house: notably bigger, consciously nostalgic, and the product of focus-group sensitivity to market preferences rather than historical necessity.

It's customary to pit tract houses (in their multitude) against the Case Study houses of nearly the same period (a handful) with the Case Study houses standing for modernity unrealized in its purity and the tract house standing in for suburbia and an unstable load of assumptions. That, I think, is a false opposition.

Having reduced the fabric of shelter to its minimums, the tract house could only be new in 1950, not just in the way it was built (and sold) but also in the ways it was lived in. Or if, instead, a particular toolkit of forms determines modernity, then the tract houses designed a few years later by Gregory Ain or Cliff May and the tracts of houses built by Joseph Eichler were as modern as any mass-produced commodity can be.

The post-war tract house is still the most influential building type in America and will be for decades more. The "good enough" tract houses in my neighborhood are nearly 65 years old, and hardly any of them has been torn down to be replaced by some other notion of domesticity. What's sheltered inside them has conformed to ideas of modernity that have become the everyday and the ordinary here, that have become habits that changed America.

About the Author

D. J. Waldie is the author of "Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir" and "Where We Are Now: Notes from Los Angeles." He is a contributing editor for the Los Angeles Times.
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