Sticks, Stones and Glass Houses

Not only is hot-off-the-runway couture fashion financially out of reach for most people, it’s just not practical for everyday life.

And that’s also true of high-concept architecture, since it’s essentially the same thing.  So why get angry at a one-off building designed for a rich client, even if it seems entirely impractical? However, this is exactly the reaction I’ve encountered a number of times when telling people how much I adore Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House in Plano, Illinois (1945),

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or its little brother, Philip Johnson’s Glass House in New Canaan, Connecticut (1949).

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Cut from the same cloth, these two beauties are all glass, a little bit of steel, and would both completely suck to live in if they were plunked down in the middle of a subdivision.

But that’s not the point.  These two homes, in quiet, pastoral settings, work wonderfully for what they are: big ol’ sculptures that a person can also happen to live in.  They were never meant to be prototypes for houses of the future, and their architects never thought they’d roll out these designs for the masses.

Yet, just like in fashion, their influence did trickle down to you and I.

Architects, reading trade magazines and scholarly journals, started to incorporate details that borrowed heavily from the two glass houses and, indeed, the progressive European buildings that came before (Mies van der Rohe was designing glass buildings as early as 1921 in his native Germany): open floor plans, big picture windows, more gently sloping rooflines (as opposed to severe hip roofs) and better connections to the back garden.

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Some architects/builders in warmer areas such as California, were building semi-glass houses in tract neighbourhoods for the average person. While Joseph Eichler and the Alexander homes

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are probably the best known of this group, there were others (building what we now call “Likelers”), and the style even got up to the Greater Toronto Area, where traces of California can be found in Don Mills, Scarborough and Mississauga’s Applewood Heights.

And for those who didn’t want to live in a semi-glass house but still wanted to participate in the future, there were all sorts of businesses or restaurants where one could experience the same thrill.

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Not everyone found this new look sexy, of course. As early as 1956, The Crack in the Picture Window

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found fault with suburbia, and, later, in 1981, Tom Wolfe wrote a bestseller that really took the romance out of the style, From Bauhaus to Our House.

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Yet many of us still crave transparency: just look at the condo boom of the early 21st century in many major cities.  While not quite the same as suburbia, new and glittering glass boxes in the sky are the new starter homes for many.

But energy is no longer cheap; we can no longer just dial up the thermostat to combat heat-loss. If we still want to live in glass houses, we’ve got to find financially responsible and, more importantly, ecologically responsible ways to do so.

Part 1 of our webisode series on homes airs Monday March 24th!

Yours in coolness,


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