Two new books focus on the way urban design dictates our lives

6 June 2016

The urban design that dominated America post the Second World War, introduced loose standing houses and suburbs far from commercial points. Two books look at the decisions made and how it still influences our lives today.

houses

We are all well versed with the work of the foremost American architects from the last century. Think of Falling Water or Kaufman Desert House. But this is not where the average American lived. Two recent books that look at the houses (and suburbs) of post-war America, are Houses for a New World: Builders and Buyers in American Suburbs, 1945-1965 by Barbara Miller Lane, and James A. Jacobs’s Detached America: Building Houses in Postwar Suburbia.

These developments reflected the so-called modern lifestyle – Miller describes it as informal, democratic, multi-ethnic and committed to the bettering of the lives of their children. Both books then asks the question whether the new suburbs and their houses could have been executed better.

The critic Martin Filler, in the New York Review of Books, is filled with praise for the academic seriousness Lane gives to the contributions of less well-known developers. (The work of the famous Levitt brothers are not included.) “In Houses for a New World, the Bryn Mawr professor emerita Barbara Miller Lane investigates the output of a dozen lesser-known tract house developers in four diverse regions—New England, the mid-Atlantic, the Midwest, and Southern California—and treats the period’s typical Cape Cods, ranches, and split-levels with the serious formal analysis once reserved for high-style architecture. Her tour de force of research is all the more impressive because she has assembled documentation akin to that previously available on the residential work of important postwar figures such as Richard Neutra, William Wurster, and Marcel Breuer but largely overlooked for builders other than the Levitts.”

However, Filler is less positive about various other aspects – some contestable statements, stereotypes, influence of segregation based on race, etc. – in Houses for a New World. In this regard, he finds Detached America much better balanced.

New York Review of Books

New York Review of Books

In another review – on the Daily Beast – the two books are again discussed together, but this time the biggest difference is described as the focus: Lane looks at a number of developments in a few cities; Jacobs stands back just a little and includes smaller developers with the giants, such as Ryan Homes. (The name of the reviewer is not given.)

An interesting remark: “Suburbia blurred class distinctions by offering a life more capacious to the lower classes and one less stuffy to the upper crust. This reorganization of domestic life amounted, Jacobs suggests, to the ‘universal establishment of casual living’. One dramatic example: the rise of the kitchen to social preeminence. Suburban design is the reason why the kitchen, once purposefully cloistered, became the literal center of the new American home.”

Yet, it the arrival of the garage – a whole room for a motor car – which is, according to the Daily Beast, the greatest characteristic of post-war American developments: “…the most radical shift in postwar home design is so ubiquitous that we simply take it for granted: the attached garage.”

 

Houses for a New World: Builders and Buyers in American Suburbs, 1945-1965

Detached America: Building Houses in Postwar Suburbia

Daily Beast

 

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