Houses are one of the most ephemeral of high art objects. They survive more than a generation or two only because of unusual circumstance. Except for presidential residences, few Americans can name more than four houses that are almost certain to be permanently maintained: Vanderbilt's Biltmore in Asheville, Fallingwater, the Farnsworth House, and Phillip Johnson's Glass House in New Canaan. What makes most houses so perishable is that they are residences. They are built, owned, and maintained by private individuals to be lived in. Fallingwater seems very up to date to most visitors until they walk into the eighty-year-old bathrooms. Julia Child's kitchen may be a national treasure and in the Smithsonian, but who wants to cook there?
The high modern houses in this book are particularly vulnerable. The purity, precision, and classicism of the modernist dream continues to inspire great architecture. The reality of the sixty-year-old modernist house, however, like that of its architect and its patron, is something else. While dings, dents, and wear may be part of the charm of revival architecture, newness is an important part of the modernist aesthetic. As their architects and original owners line up in their physicians' offices and hospitals, modernist houses in the twenty-first century likewise require unrelenting maintenance.
There is a community of clients, however, who are intent on living in modernist houses. Because they want to live in an architecturally important home, they are willing to make the initial and continuing large financial commitment associated with this kind of home ownership. They understand the responsibility involved in maintaining a half-century home. In the interests of authenticity, they put up with the inconvenience and sometimes lack of utility of living in an historic house. We will soon begin seeing the proud owners of these houses attaching those little bronze plaques beside the entrance to their homes advertising that they live in a house on the national, state, or municipal registry. These are buildings that were built to outlast the clients who originally commissioned them.
A small modernist cottage industry has grown up to support these new owners. Architects familiar with the modernist tradition are usually eager to adapt modernist buildings to twenty-first-century standards of comfort, utility, illumination, heating, cooling, and energy conservation in a way that is sensitive to their original form. These architects, in turn, are supported by a small army of sophisticated contractors and wholesalers capable of supplying historically appropriate furnishings down to reasonable facsimiles of the original plumbing fixtures.
Houses are like people. They are hard to understand and appreciate only through books and pictures. The two-dimensional description of modern houses is compounded by their relatively small size, their private character, and the fact that their doctrinaire close association with their environment makes them so difficult to photograph. Only the most gifted architects can train themselves to imagine, from a page, all that these wonderful buildings have to tell us. What you read and see here is only a suggestion of what midcentury modern clients paid for. These pages provide only a suspicion of their greatness.
Lloyd H. Ellis, Jr., M.D., Ph.D.