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Where Does Architecture Reside?

Jun 01, 2015 11:34AM ● Published by Matthew Schlueb

It's that time of year when kids get out of school, backyard barbecues are fired up and home improvement projects get underway. To make some pocket money during the summer when I was a kid in high school, we would find a house in the neighborhood with peeling paint and spend weeks scraping, priming and painting the siding and trim.

These days you won't find kids doing such things—wood siding and trim has been replaced with vinyl and aluminum. Vinyl siding doesn't peel, but after several years of exposure to the sun, colors do begin to fade. And often before that happens, homeowners tire of their house colors and long for makeovers.

This got me thinking about the changing colors of American homes over the years. What makes preferences shift, for example, from the mid-century modern pastels to the brighter palettes that followed in the 1970s and ‘80s? I did some research and indexed the major historical periods of architectural styles starting in the Colonial days, all the way to the current time period, and what I found was quite interesting. The range of popular colors slowly narrowed during the early years, reaching its tightest point in the mid-1800s during the Greek Revival. Then the Victorian era came along and colors exploded, reaching a peak at the turn of the century during the Art & Crafts movement. The range of colors again declined through the 20th century, transitioning from Art Deco to Modern to Post Modern. 

Following this trend in color hue was color saturation—the intensity of a color on a scale from its most vibrant, pure form to its absence as a gray tone. Saturation decreased as well during the Greek Revival period. Colors then gradually increased in intensity until the middle of the 19th century, when they began to trend back into the more muted palettes of the present. So it seems we are currently in a period of declining color variety and vibrancy.

This doesn’t answer the question as to what causes our preferences to shift. But looking at the colors

comparatively, sequenced in chronological order, it was easy to see ties between colors in adjacent periods as they shifted slightly in saturation, either up or down. Since periodic change is a human condition as we tire of the ‘same’ after some time has passed, it is no surprise that a color may become dull to our eyes and a brighter version may become more appealing. In this way, it makes sense to see how many of the colors shift as saturation is trending over time upward or down as a whole.

Recently, I visited the home of a prospective client who owns a house built in the 1800s. True to that period, the foundation was made up of irregular-shaped sandstones puzzled together with a grapevine mortar joint. The cedar siding, a full 10-inch exposure, was painted a deep slate blue. Though it was not likely the original color from the period in which the home was built, it complimented the property nonetheless.

I was asked to help them add a bathroom to the first floor, something typically missing in a house of this age. Back then, plumbing had not found its way indoors. Along with a bathroom, there were a few other requests to modernize the property, and that is where an architectural dilemma arose. The homeowners did not think of the property as one of the first farmhouses in the area—a rare, dwindling example that historians seek out—but instead as their home, where they planned to raise a family, making functional efficiencies more of a concern at this point in their lives. Yet as an architect, I see the historic significance of this house as it stands. Is my responsibility to the people hiring me to make changes or to the structure that deserves preservation?

This situation is not uncommon as culture continues to evolve and is juxtaposed onto things made of a particular time and place. The homeowner of this house will likely not be the last family to live within these walls; generations will follow and eventually one of them will value the historic materials and details, which by then may be long gone. Should the current family simply be stewards, temporary occupants of a house that will see centuries of homeowners come and go? Or do the needs of a growing family that has mortgaged hard-earned money outweigh its history?

To be honest, I don't know the answer to this question. My views have gradually formed over the years, to believe that architecture resides in the inhabitant and not the structure, akin to ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder.’ Moments in a house are shared, but experiences are individualized. Each person treasures his or her own personal memory from a moment. Their perception is defined by their relationship with the people, event and space in that moment. Each is unique, and therefore the house is something quite different for each person living there.

So in reality, the home in which we live is not the house, but someplace in our minds. The things in our daily lives—a back door squeak, a faucet needing a familiar touch to turn off, sunlight cast in the same corner each morning—these are the things that define a home. And yet, they only become meaningful to the person living with them over time. When that person leaves the house, their home goes with them in their memories; it is not deposited in the structure that they left behind.

Maybe this is why a family living in a deep slate blue house today does not inherently perceive the same farmhouse from the 19th century. The meaningfulness of the farmhouse was held by those who used it back then. The daily things that make a house a home, the essence of architectural space, is therefore within the memories of those who live within the space, not something inherent to the space itself.

This is how I have come to see it. In this context, the idea of historic preservation would place more importance on those lives and memories from the past over the lives of those living in the structure today in an attempt to capture a moment, a time capsule, a museum—but no longer a home. Yet in this case, the present owners seek a home.

I guess this is why so few farmhouses remain from hundreds of years ago; there are more families seeking homes than historians seeking time capsules. I’m not sure if this is right, but I suspect that what remains of the farmhouse materials and details may seep into the memories of the current homeowners as they go about their daily lives. The squeak of an aged timber floor will become a familiar sound as they cross the room. Maybe these small things, nuances in our perceptions, are the saturations that carry on in a house as the colors on the surface change with each new inhabitant. 

Matthew Schlueb is a registered architect and owner of SCHLUEBarchitecture. For questions or comments, contact Matthew at nhm@finalmove.com. This article is part of an ongoing series addressing architectural issues for homeowners.

Home+Garden architecture form vs. function paint colors preservation
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