What US Home Architecture Tells Us About America

The architecture of American homes is a lot like America itself, a hodgepodge of different styles from different countries often melded together into one whole.

From colonials to Victorians to ranch-style houses and McMansions, the story of American residential architecture is that it tends to be eclectic.

“The history of American residential architecture has always been kind of like an all-you-can-eat buffet,” says architect Susan Piedmont-Palladino, director of Virginia Tech’s Washington Alexandria Architecture Center. “We can borrow anybody’s style of architecture and I’m not sure that’s the attitude in other countries around the world. I also think we’re dominated by the single family house in a way that other places aren’t.”

What that single family home looks like can vary.

“Most houses built today do not reflect any one style, but integrate ideas from many cultures,” Jackie Craven, a journalist who specializes in architecture and fine arts, told VOA via email. “A single house can have a French-inspired mansard roof, Grecian columns, and English Tudor-inspired timbering. Our homes, like our people, draw from many sources.”

After the American Revolution, the architecture of public buildings often borrowed from Greece and Rome to express democratic ideals of order and symmetry. This neoclassic style also extended to private homes, notably Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello and George Washington’s Mount Vernon.

The long reign of Britain’s Queen Victoria, from 1837 until 1901, occurred during a time of American prosperity. Mass-production of building parts allowed for the construction of elaborate, affordable Victorian-style houses throughout the country.

The style of American homes has often reflected what the country itself is experiencing.

“During the Industrial Revolution, steel transformed the American landscape. The strength of this new metal made skyscrapers possible, rebuilding Chicago after the Great Fire of 1871,” says Craven. “The lavish Gilded Age mansions of the late 1800s and modern-day McMansions both reflect the conspicuous consumption of a powerful wealthy class. Minimalist post-Victorian architecture rebelled against excess, and the 20th century brought new solutions for affordable housing. Catalogue companies like Sears sold mail order house kits, making home ownership achievable even during the Depression.”

The architect who most defined American residential architecture might well be Frank Lloyd Wright, who eschewed the idea of borrowing architecture from Europe or anywhere else.

In the first half of the 20th century, up until the 1950s, Wright’s designs and philosophy brought a new American modernity to the single family home. He pioneered housing features — such as low horizontal lines and open floor plans — that can still be found in suburban America today.

“He was very interested in a relationship with the land…this idea of relating terraces and the gardens and the landscape into the house…the roof would extend out, blurring the boundaries between inside and out,” Piedmont-Palladino says. “Wright really pioneered the unique architecture, and little bits of it do still show up. There’s a little Frank Lloyd Wright DNA in split-level houses and ranch houses still.”

The simple Cape Cod, a derivative of American colonial houses, and the ranch house, more reflective of America’s modernism, both dominate all of the other residential architectural styles in the United States, according to Craven.

Wright would probably be horrified by today’s oversized neo-colonials. Derisively dubbed ‘McMansions,’ these homes borrow loosely from classic architectural styles of the past.

What will the next dominant style of American house be? Piedmont-Palladino is concerned that the home-building industry doesn’t appear prepared to take on the challenge of building better-performing houses.

“I would like to be optimistic and think that, in a generation, the dominant language of American house construction is sustainable and that we would start to look at building environmentally responsibly, so that houses perform better. This is one of the big issues that is confronting us,” she says. “Houses are getting bigger and bigger and less efficient, even as our families are getting smaller.”

In addition to eco-friendly designs, Craven also envisions more avant-garde architecture with unusual shapes. New digital software can easily manipulate classic shapes, giving them a curvy or lopsided twist that could hit home in a modern way.

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