A FEW DAYS AGO, MY FAMILY AND I TOURED FRANK LLOYD WRIGHT'S Pope-Leighey House in Alexandria, Va., and the visit put in sharp relief the contrast between how we live today and how many Americans lived a couple of generations ago.
Not that this house, built in 1939, was especially typical of its time. Many of the innovations Wright included in the house -- such as its long, horizontal lines that transcended interior-exterior walls, simple building materials, furniture designed for the house, the dining room and living room sharing essentially the same space -- probably stuck out pretty noticeably in a neighborhood of small Georgian-style homes.
The Pope-Leighey House is a shining exemplar of what Wright referred to as Usonian houses, a new form of relatively inexpensive homes that were well designed for average people and used basic materials. The houses would be based on Wright's notion of democracy in home-owning, which called for simplicity of living and for bringing the family together. (Never mind that Wright himself could live rather lavishly and, thrice married, he wasn't such a great family man himself.)
What's most interesting about the house, at least to me, is its relatively austerity. Wright not only designed a house for his clients, but was also trying to craft a lifestyle for them, too. With only a total area of 1,200 square feet, the Pope-Leighey House has few closets, for example, and the ones it does have are small, suggesting that if you can't find a place to store everything you have, then you probably own too much stuff. (There is no attic or basement, and most owners of Wright homes like this, we were told, might put up a shed in the back or store things elsewhere.)
There's scarcely enough room in the bedrooms to do anything more than get out of bed and dress. Bedrooms, Wright believed, were for sleeping. Once you performed that function of life, your obligation was to spend time in common rooms with your family or outside with nature, which figures prominently in nearly every Wright design.
Wright's covered his walls, interior and exterior, with Florida cypress paneling, and he discouraged the hanging of pictures or other ornamental items that might disturb the organic atmosphere he was trying to create. He also made sure there were book shelves built into every room (except the bathroom, where you should only spend as much time as it take to, well, you know), as he favored reading.
Like most of his structures, Wright designed these houses to blend into the natural surroundings, almost as though he had melded them together. (His most brilliant and well-known experiment using this principle was perhaps Fallingwater, built into a hill with a waterfall flowing under it.)
But different as it was in design and as a social experiment, methinks the house was not such a radical departure from others in its neighborhood and others around America's cities, suburbs and rural areas at the time.
You don't have to have a degree in urban planning (which I do) to see that most of the houses built well before World War II, and even many others shortly after, did not give their owners the kinds of space and amenities that were common to every new house built after, say, 1960.
My own house, built in the mid-1920s, is a bungalow that originally had two small bedrooms, and perhaps a third if you winterized a back porch. Needless to say, there was only one bathroom. The kitchen was very simple. Closet space? Forget about it, though there was a basement and attic.
Many of the Georgians and Federal-style homes in the Washington area where I live are also tiny, compared to today's standards, most with only one bathroom on the second floor (a major hassle for families with young kids or elderly who cannot get up and down the steps easily).
What that tells me is not that the people who lived in those houses were doomed to daily misery; in fact, they were probably very happy to live in what was considered nice accommodations for the average middle-class family.
No, what it says is that we, of this generation, have grown up expecting much more -- and in some people's cases, much much more -- than our forebears did, and probably a lot more than we actually need.
I personally can't understand how the early owners of my house raised families as large as, an perhaps even larger than mine. We added on to the house (it's still not huge, but it feels more functional than before) just because we felt it would be a hardship to squeeze so many of us into it. But that was just what people of earlier generations came to accept.
Today, so many are building homes that make sense only for families of 8 or maybe even 12, even if they only have a couple or no kids. And they feel they can't live without many gadgets and furnishings. (So as not to offend any friends, I won't mention any specific item, but you know what I'm talking about.) They don't see these items as luxuries, which would be one thing, bur rather as necessities.
I'm no Luddite, and I'm not saying we should do without central air conditioning (I would die), garbage disposals (can't think of living without one), electric dishwashers (I could live without it, but it is nice) or cable TV. But, not to sound smug, but I also like having just enough space, which I do at roughly 2,400 square feet, and I don't miss a lot of the high-end amenities I see elsewhere.
I'm mostly thinking of the size of many houses I see these days, which are really big, some of them. They make you wonder about the cost of heating and cooling, as well as the maintenance and, of course, all the stuff people buy to fill up that space. I also don't understand the need in many homes to put a TV -- and big ones! -- everywhere. I watch a fair amount of TV, but I don't need it everywhere I turn.
There's no question that Wright's Usonian ideal was just that: something that sounded attractive to some in principle but was probably hard to achieve on a practical level (though some of the Usonian elements made their way into widespread home architecture, especially after the war). But what's noticeable is how far we Americans are today from that ideal and from a simpler and more frugal standard of living most of our parents and grandparents experienced -- and survived -- not so long ago.
Photo above taken from http://www.virginia.org/site/description.asp?attrID=41799