Six LDS Writers and A Frog

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Architecture and Books -or- How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Tract Homes (and Harry Potter)

by Robison Wells

It's a six hour drive from Minneapolis to Nauvoo, if you take the interstate. My wife and I don't like the interstate, and so it took us nine hours to get there and ten hours to get back this weekend.

I've always loved small towns and small roads, and Minnesota has been a delight. Not only are the rolling hills green and dotted with forests, but the towns are beautiful. And the architecture is amazing.

While driving through the tiny town of Owatonna (population less than 20k) we turned a corner and came across this. I wasn't familiar with the building (it's the National Farmers Bank), but I know the architect well. He's Louis Sullivan, one of the fathers of American architecture. He was one of Frank Lloyd Wright's mentors, and it was while working for Sullivan that Wright created his first significant designs. And here it was, absolutely gorgeous in every detail, in the middle of nowhere.

And, while driving through the tiny town of Mason City, Iowa, we chanced upon an actual Frank Lloyd Wright, the Stockman House. I got off the main road and followed the signs, and my wife insisted I go on the tour. I'd never actually been in a Frank Lloyd Wright home before, even though I have several books on the subject. And the home was amazing. Each detail was important to him: the horizontal mortar of the fireplace was lighter than the vertical mortar, because he wanted to draw the eye from side to side. The gap between the windows was almost eight inches instead of the usual three and a half because he wanted to maintain the distinct exterior while allowing more freedom for room placement inside. This was a home that was finely crafted, seriously contemplated, and artistically magnificent.

I'm an architecture snob. My first college major was architecture, and, when my eventual degree in political science didn't get me anywhere, I fell back on my architecture classes and designed homes for four years. (I was a structural designer, unfortunately, and not an architectural designer. That basically means that instead of designing what a house looks like, I was designing the structure of it: how far apart do the floor joists have to be; how big does the ridge beam have to be.) I designed homes for all of the major builders in Utah, and many of the tiny ones--and I hated almost all of what I was designing.

Utah homes follow two major trends. First, Utahns (for whatever reason) are as cheap as the day is long. One major goal of home design in Utah is get the biggest freaking house possible for the smallest amount of money. What this often translates into is stretching an enormous, gaudy home to fill almost the entire lot--the homeowner bought an eighth of an acre, and by George he's going to use an eighth of an acre. Often, these homes are boxy and square, with the only architectural elements on the front, while the back and sides are flat and lifeless and beige. I hate these homes. As my wife can attest, every single time I drive past I tell her that those people should be ashamed of themselves. (Or, perhaps, I fear for the future of the country?) (More on this in a moment.)

Second, Utah homes (and most homes, really) lack craftsmanship. I can forgive this with smaller, lower-income homes. Those people just want a place to live. But it's the larger homes that annoy me. Attention homeowners: it is painfully obvious that your stone/brick fascade is only one inch thick, rather than that you actually built the house out of stone. It doesn't look nice; it looks fake. It looks like a theme park--like Disneyland's Fantasyland. Case in point, look at this absurd offering from Utah's largest home builder. This isn't an ugly custom home--it's a tract home! Imagine an entire neighborhood of ugly little cookie-cutters, each with their own medieval tower!?

(Utah law doesn't even require an architect to touch most of these homes. They're designed by committee, always with more concern for business than for art. If stucco is cheaper than siding, slather that sucker in stucco. If square foundations are faster to dig and pour, then square it is!)

I've actually been thinking about writing a blog like this for some time: the architecture here in Minnesota is often quite beautiful, and it warms my little snobbish heart. But the recent debates (about great literature vs. the lousy tastes of the unwashed masses) have gotten me thinking.

If you'll pardon my French, who the hell cares what I think about architecture? I hate massive tract homes with little yards and stone fascades--but what does that have to do with you? I like what I like, and that's fine. But why do you have to care what I like?

The people who live in these "ugly" houses can lead very happy lives. They have Thanksgiving dinner in their "ugly" dining rooms, and they have their family photos taken on their "ugly" front porches, and they play catch with their kids in their "ugly" backyards. Whether or not their house is what I would deem to be architecturally great doesn't affect their enjoyment of the house in any way whatsoever.

In fact, I'm 100% positive that people are going reply with a comment that says they hate the Stockman House. Do I think that it is in fact architecturally superior to the tract home with the tower? Yes. Do I think that any eight-year-old kid could resist a house a with a frickin' tower on the front porch? No. It'd be an awesome house to grow up in.

In other words, my enjoyment of architecture is not diminished by the fact that less artistic, less finely-crafted homes exist. And someone else's enjoyment of their home is not dependent upon how architecturally significant it is.

For crying out loud, people, it's okay to like different things.


At 7/29/2008 11:41 AM, Blogger Jeff Savage said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

At 7/29/2008 11:42 AM, Blogger Jeff Savage said...

Great post, Rob! I agree completely. I'd only go with the tower if it had slots to pour boiling oil on the hometea--um I mean unwanted guests.

At 7/29/2008 11:57 AM, Blogger Pat said...

Good - because I like the tower!

(LOL - not really, but it sure would be an improvement over the "Utah ugly" shoebox I'm living in!)

At 7/29/2008 1:04 PM, Anonymous MoJo said...

I love architecture. I love fashion. One thing I learned in my fashion classes was that fashion follows architecture.

I have some pictures of Kansas City on my blog, with an example of the Italian Renaissance Revival movement, our knockoff of Sevilla, Span (obviously not residential), and our Greek Revival.

We have A LOT of prairie style (especially where Thomas Hart Benton's house is).

Really, you go anywhere in the midwest, and you're going to have pockets of Queen Anne Victorians and Eastlake and painted ladies, stripped-down Gothic revival. At the moment, I'm thinking about Quincy, Illinois, in particular (my husband and I got married in Nauvoo), but historic houses are undergoing renaissance everywhere, it seems.

I think the problem in Utah is because there is none of that. The only real example of 19th century architecture is the Salt Lake (and its ilk) temple, up into the Avenues, and in Provo, BY Academy and the Ivy Tower (is it still called that?). Utah just doesn't have enough history to have made an impact on architecture or establish an architectural heritage.

At 7/29/2008 1:05 PM, Anonymous MoJo said...

Spain, not span. Been doing too much coding lately.

At 7/29/2008 1:55 PM, Blogger Deren Hansen said...

Clearly it's okay to like different things. It's also okay to need different things. But I think you've touched on a deeper question about the center of gravity of our collective values.

Is a residential structure a home to cherished and passed on through the generations, or is it a place where you'll live for a while?

Is a book something to be cherished and returned to time and again, or is is something that was amusing once?

Clearly, the world needs both kinds of structures and both kinds of books because people have different needs at different times.

But if the majority of people lean toward either end of the spectrum (like residential developers in Utah), There is, I think, reason to ask what that says about our collective values.

At 7/29/2008 2:08 PM, Blogger Karlene said...

Some of Wright's houses are weird, but this one I like. I like odd, unusual things. And odd, unusual writers.

At 7/29/2008 2:19 PM, Blogger C. L. Hanson said...

That's cool you were in Minnesota! That's where I'm at right now. And even though I didn't run into you (as far as I know), I still managed to get an autographed copy of your book The Counterfeit.

I didn't go out of my way to get an autographed one -- it just came in the mail that way -- but, hey, bonus! :D

At 7/29/2008 2:20 PM, Blogger Jennie said...

Rob, I'm glad you gave us permission to have different tastes in houses. I would hate living in a Frank Lloyd Wright monstrosity. They're ugly and inconvenient, just as ugly as the silly looking modern house with a tower tacked on the front. I'll agree that many of the houses in Utah and across the West are tacky in appearance, but there are some attractive ones too and I'm all for bright, clean,convenient, practical, comfortable houses. I've lived in enough drafty, old, high-ceilinged, hardwood floored houses with bathrooms converted from pantries or "extra" bedrooms with their unique, ugly architectural wonders. I'll agree that many of the newer houses are too large for the lots they're placed on,and that's a pet peeve of mine.

At 7/29/2008 2:27 PM, Blogger Jon Spell said...

but... what about Harry Potter? I read the whole stinking blog and no mention of him whatsoever. I feel gypped! It's like getting to the bottom of a bag of popcorn and finding only unpopped kernels.*

Although, I would totally love a house with a tower like that. Do you know where those are going in?

* metaphor lovingly handcrafted just for you, Rob

At 7/29/2008 3:06 PM, Blogger Kimberly said...

We bought a house that breaks from modern traditionalism and we adore it. Sunken living room, floor to ceiling stone fireplace, wood beams and swaths of windows letting natural light pour in. The ceilings are all beautiful grained wood, and I sigh contentedly whenever my gaze lifts upwards.

It really does come down to what makes you happy. Buildings that are architecturally interesting give me delicious little shivers when I view them (the Stockman House included), and I can't help feeling a little blase about modern norms.

In general I'd say we've become a little boring.

At 7/29/2008 4:27 PM, Blogger Melanie J said...

I'm a big fan of Howard Roark but not Frank Lloyd Wright, which seems a little odd. But I think I've falsely maligned FLW in my mind for years; see, I held him responsible for the hideous tract knockoffs his designs "inspired" in the seventies. I guess that's not really fair. I'm a Gehry fan, myself, and go visit the Disney Concert hall often. But I'm not one to judge anyone else's taste because if I had my druthers, I'd be living in a quaint little woodland cottage somewhere with a room big enough to be a cozy library, no neighbors except one who would live kind of close and make really good pies to share, and small forest creatures who woud come befriend me and eventually trust me enough to speak to me. As long as my husband has internet access this should work out okay.

At 7/29/2008 5:07 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The tower isn't nearly as nasty as the roof. Is the air force developing another stealth plane? And what do they call this design:

Knight Rambler

Rapunzel Lets Her Hair Down

Lord of the Tooele

Budget Camelot

King Arthur's Barn

Just wondering if you had a name for this design. And on another note:

Thanks for the home building advice.

And on still another note:

Its okay to have different tastes. It doesn't mean your lacking. It only means that you've got some diverse likes and dislikes. And that makes life so much more long as they all like my stuff!


At 7/29/2008 5:07 PM, Anonymous MoJo said...

I'm a big fan of Howard Roark but not Frank Lloyd Wright, which seems a little odd.

I'm so with you there, but I don't think she ever answered the question if Roark was patterned on Wright.

At 7/29/2008 5:10 PM, Blogger RobisonWells said...

Mojo: I wish I'd known about Quincy when I was down that direction last week. Ah well. I'm really impressed with the midwest. Like you say, there's good stuff around every corner. I'm particularly in love with St. Paul.

And I definitely agree about the lack of architectural history. Looking at historic buildings, there are a few gems, such as the marvelous Richardson romanesque City and County Building in Salt Lake, but by and large the city is barren. (Incidentally, were you aware that there used to be a Louis Sullivan in Salt Lake? And that it was torn down to build the Shilo Inn? Yes, THAT Shilo Inn.)

Derek: I agree completely. But I do worry that when we get into discussions of collective values (artistic or otherwise). One sentiment that has raised it's ugly head several times in this debate (popular vs. artistic) is that people who fall on one side or the other are stupid/deluded/ignorant/obsessed/etc. It might be interesting from an academic, sociological perspective to look at collective values, but when we start judging individual worth based on artistic opinion then we get on shaky ground.

(I'm certainly not trying to put words in your mouth, Derek. I'm just saying that other collective values discussions have gone that direction in the recent past. Like, this last weekend.)

C.L. Hanson: I've been here in scenic Minnesota all summer, and I've been loving it. Only two and a half more weeks and then I'll be back in the barren, 105 degree deserts of Utah. Ugh.

Jennie: I'm sorry, but your opinion is completely wrong. (Just kidding.)

Jon: Get off my back, punk! What am I? Your dancing monkey?

I don't know where the tower houses are being built. I pulled the picture off of Ivory Homes website this morning, though. Man, I hate it.

Melanie: How are you a fan of Howard Roark? He's fictional! (Or do you just mean you like the character, not his work?)

And I'm sorry to say that, while I admire his skill, I'm not a huge Gehry fan. I'm very much in the "form follows function" camp, and Gehry's too showy for me.

At 7/29/2008 5:24 PM, Blogger Melanie J said...

I'm a fan of Howard Roark's mind, man! His mind.

Wait, you're saying The Fountainhead wasn't a biography?

And I hear what you're saying on Gehry but I like the swoopy stuff. It makes me smile.

At 7/29/2008 5:26 PM, Anonymous MoJo said...

(Incidentally, were you aware that there used to be a Louis Sullivan in Salt Lake? And that it was torn down to build the Shilo Inn? Yes, THAT Shilo Inn.)


As I get older, I find myself drawn more and more toward mid-century modern, not of the Brady Bunch tract variety, but things like Three Fountains in Phoenix and I'll cop to becoming a fan of Mies van der Rohe. The clean lines and symmetry and lack of clutter really appeals to me as my ADHD gets a little more out of control each year. I like the Farnsworth House.

At 7/29/2008 11:40 PM, Blogger Just_Me said...

I'm guilty... I'd rather have a turret than the Stockman House. And I'mone of those people who have an "ugly" living room. Actually, most of my interior isn't designer anything. My house is the classic "How Not to Decorate" you see in the all the before shots in magazines. Decorating with doilies would take time, creativity, and an understanding for interior deisgn that I just don't possess. I'm okay with that.

But if I get a dream house I'd love a turret, or a big, rambling, farm house with additions from several centuries stuck onto the original cabin. I love a house with personality. :o)

At 7/29/2008 11:51 PM, Blogger Sandra said...

Rapunzel could not possibly let down her hair from this turret, no window. She would have to use the small ugly window set in the boring side.

At 7/30/2008 2:18 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


I don't see a boring side to this delightful rambler design. Unexpected, yes. Progressive, for sure. Eclectic, pioneering, cross styling, eye popping, half redneckish, half martianesque. Some may consider it an eyesore, but there is nothing boring for sure.


At 7/30/2008 1:30 PM, Blogger Jason Katzenbach said...

Wow, I had no idea anyone cared about that sort of thing. You should post on the architectural design of these houses:

interesting blog site rob.

At 7/31/2008 8:13 AM, Blogger C. L. Hanson said...

I don't know anything about architecture, but I find this discussion of taste (and snobbishness) fascinating.

If I haven't already worn out my welcome with the Mormon lit community, I wonder if you guys would be willing to indulge a little self-linkage. I have a couple of tangentially related posts: Question mah authoritah! and Earning admiration in today's world.

At 7/31/2008 9:41 PM, Blogger Tristi Pinkston said...

If I ever build a house, I may have to hire you to design it, Rob.

At 5/09/2011 11:59 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have no idea who you are. I've just spent the last 4 1/2 months designing a modern contemporary home for Ivory to build, who insisted all along that you could change the exterior however you like, only to find out that THEY STAND BEHIND THEIR UGLY DESIGNS! We were told that our home was no longer worthy to bear the Ivory name. I refrained from telling them what a compliment that was. And now here we sit, in limbo. We are the problem chilren for Ivory. The big guys must be called in, the committee must be gathered, opposition must be raised! HEAVEN FORBID that anyone should build anything that looks different! NEVER! Dang Ivory for owning the lot we want.

Please forgive my rant and my intrusion into your blog. I'm searching for information to back up the statement that Ivory build cookie-cutter homes and there are plenty of people out there who would find it refreshing if they mixed things up a bit.


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