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Home Sweet Bungalow Home

This is an essay by Witold Rybczynski, of the University of Pennsylvania.
It is an excerpt from Looking Around, A Journey Through Architecture
Copyright 1992 by Witold Rybczynski.


One year, I asked my architecture students to design a small house. To help them, I pinned up drawings of several suburban cottages and bungalows built in the 1920's. These houses are of slight historical interest (their designers were not celebrated architects) but they do exhibit a modest and unaffected charm, as well as considerable ingenuity in combining many and varied rooms in small, convenient layouts. Despite the constraints of budget, their makers managed to bestow on these little houses all the requisite attributes of domesticity - inviting trellised porches, intimate bay windows, dining alcoves, and cozy fireplaces.

My young charges were not impressed. Surely I wasn't suggesting that they had something to learn from such ordinary buildings? After all, the tyros argued, they had elected to study Architecture (I could sense that the word was capitalized) and for them that meant flights of fancy and imagination, an escape from the mundane and conventional world represented by these prosaic buildings.

I was not altogether surprised by their reaction. As a student, I, too, had spurned the commonplace indigenous bungalow. There was a feeling that modern architecture - like sports cars, wine, and art films - was a European invention. The architects my classmates and I esteemed were Le Corbusier and the Finnish master, Alvar Aalto. Both men had designed family homes, but their domestic architecture could not be confused with suburban cottages. The houses of Le Corbusier were exciting white sculptures, unmarred by anything as trite as a screened porch; they had roof gardens instead of front lawns and expanses of glass instead of bow windows. Aalto's romantic villas were more recognizably domestic, but they appeared to be situated in sylvan surroundings, not cheek-by-jowl with suburban neighbors. These houses were filled with elegant chrome-and-leather furniture (or bentwood, in the case of Aalto); not a plump chesterfield or a La-Z-Boy in sight. We likewise admired the work of the American architect Louis Kahn - precisely because his taut, flat-roofed houses with their unusual windows and spartan materials rejected traditional suburban values.

There had been one illustrious architect who had designed suburban homes, dozens of them - Frank Lloyd Wright. He called these houses "Usonian" (a term he coined to emphasize their native U.S.. character) and in them he skillfully combined inexpensive materials, such as plywood and concrete, with extremely compact floor plans. In the 1950's, the last decade of his life, Wright promoted masonry building techniques that allowed owners to build houses themselves, without a contractor, thus further reducing costs. "I did it for the GI's, " he said.

Although Wright's suburban designs were publicized in popular magazines such as House and Home, they were largely forgotten after his death in 1959, overshadowed by more extravagant residences like Wingspread, and by striking designs like the Johnson Wax Building. In any case, the architectural profession was never interested in the problem of the "little house," which it left to the developer and the builder, whose popular and often unsophisticated designs were disdained and deplored. Architects-to-be, we scorned the suburban wasteland and looked down on the poor fools who were forced - or worse, had chosen - to live in such unimaginative buildings. The fact that for most of us the poor fools were also our parents was only grist for our sophomoric mills.

That was certainly true for me. Since the age of thirteen I had lived in a suburban bungalow. The one-story house, situated on a small plot, was surrounded by similar homes. That was in the 1950's and sixties, when the bungalow had evolved into its definitive form and had become the most common type of house on the North American continent, both in big-city suburbs and in small towns like the one in which my family lived.

I did not think about whether our house was ugly or plain, cozy or uncomfortable, or whether it looked like all the other houses on the street. (It did.) It had an empty front lawn, matching those of our neighbors, and a back garden with gooseberries, currants, a crab-apple tree, and the obligatory patio. I never thought of our house as something special; it was just the way we all lived, and I accepted this accoutrements of small-town life much the way, I suppose, an Inuit accepted his igloo or a Plains Indian his tepee.

Today I look back on my bungalow home with an affection that has caused me to reconsider my earlier prejudices. The house, which was built by a local builder (without architectural assistance), managed to provide a comfortable setting for family life in only 1,100 square feet. This postwar model was smaller than its 1920 antecedents and lacked refinements such as a dining room, but like most bungalows it provided privacy in several small bedrooms and a place for the family to congregate at the center of the house in the form of a living room with a picture window.

The Picture Window (a term already in common use by the early fifties) was important, because it was the single extravagance of houses contrived for convenience rather than architectural effect. The picture window usually faced a distinctly unpicturesque street, but it was designed less for viewing out than for viewing in. It was a place for displaying special objects, like lamps or Christmas decorations. The American architect Charles Moore has likened the votive function of the picture window to that of the traditional Japanese tokonoma, a place of honor in the home used to exhibit a favorite scroll or flowers in a vase.

The large window proclaimed probity and openness, as if the family had nothing to conceal from the outside world, but the suburban bungalow of the fifties had another, hidden face. Although half of the house was subdivided according to well-established domestic traditions into rooms for cooking, eating, and sleeping, the other half was a large, undenoted, and unfinished space that was concealed from public view and whose arrangement and use were left to the inclinations of the homeowners. I mean, of course, the basement. It was in the basement that the apparent conventionality of suburban living was suspended and the personal idiosyncrasies of the family were let loose - in private. Here was the den, playroom, family room, or rec room, often decorated with an individual exuberance that would not have been out of place during the Gilded Age.

Looking back, I think I spent most of my free time in this subterranean world. It was here that I had my train set, my model-making materials, and my puppet theater. Dodging behind the furnace and the hot-water heater, my brother and I played swash bucklers with a pair of aluminum foils, or gangsters with tommy guns made from wood and lead pipe. Part of the basement was "finished"; I can't remember what we called this room, and it seems to have had no single purpose. Sometimes it was a guest room, sometimes a place to look at my father's vacation slides, and sometimes a kind of party room. It was also where we watched television: "Have Gun, Will Travel," "Father Knows Best," and, every Sunday evening, the burlesque of Ed Sullivan.

The architectural pretensions of the suburban bungalow were modest; no wonder they have been largely overlooked, and even scorned. Picture windows and basement playrooms do not stir the soul of the art historian, or of the architecture student. Still, the bungalow was no mean achievement. A homegrown product, it has effectively accommodated family life for more than three-quarters of a century, and for a very large number of people. If the difficult conditions of the 1980's - exorbitant land costs, high interest rates, rising gas prices, changing family structures - seem to be overtaking the bungalow, that is not necessarily cause for celebration. Finding an equally successful solution to the current problem of the American family home will not prove easy.

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