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Nov. 12, 2019 | Tuesday
Editorials and Opinions
ArchiText: Contemporary style is still influential
An Eichler-based Contemporary design. (Brian Marshall/Special)

After the 1929 stock market crash, the business of being an architect became a tough row to hoe. 

Even those of significant stature, like Frank Lloyd Wright, faced a precipitous decline in their income. In Wright’s case, the response was to develop an economical design specifically oriented to the needs of those with more moderate incomes.

Coined Usonian houses, Wright stripped away all “unnecessary” complications, such as hips and valleys in the roofline, basements, interior trim, plaster finishes and so on. Garages were replaced by carports and the build became a simple construct-and-assemble process of modular units installed on a geometrical grid lifted from his standardized plans.

While “simple,” the designs meticulously enfolded what he perceived as “gracious living” within the context of 20th-century American society and domestic life. The open plan of the house was centred on the kitchen, while the relatively modest interior square footage was augmented by exterior “rooms” accessed by glass window/door walls.

Despite achieving both beauty and maximum livability at a very reasonable cost, the first Usonian house was completed in 1936 at a total cost of $5,500 (about $99,359 in today’s dollars); but its radical departure from the norm failed to capture broad public acceptance.

However, many of the key elements Wright incorporated in Usonian homes were adopted into other contemporaneous designs.

Certainly the most commercially popular of these “Contemporary” designs were created for Joseph Eichler, a Californian real estate developer.

Eichler, inspired by living in one of Wright’s Usonian houses, was an aggressive advocate of the Contemporary and he built more than 11,000 homes in the style.

Certainly the most widely seen (and imitated) of the Eichler designs is the L-shaped-with-carport set under a low pitched A-framed roof with wide overhanging eaves.

Pyramidal plate glass window walls, which rise to the eaves with integrated doors that give out to defined exterior “rooms,” are typical.

Post-and-beam elements are often exposed both on the interior ceiling and under the eaves. Finally, warm natural cladding materials serve to emphasize the horizontal, ground-hugging lines of the home.

Too often dismissed as faddish, the design expressions of the Contemporary style still have a pivotal influence on today’s architecture.