Duck Duck Book

40 – yesterday’s houses
12.19.2006, 8:22 pm
Filed under: art & entertainment

Yesterday’s houses of tomorrow : innovative American homes, 1850 to 1950 / H. Ward Jandl ; with additional essays by John A. Burns and Michael J. Auer.
Washington, DC : Preservation Press, c1991.
[MCL call number: 728.0973 J33y; two copies, no holds]

Obsession with the future is a national pastime in the United States.  Our culture provides the perfect environment for developing the combination of optimism, faith in man’s domination over nature, and creativity that is required to make futurists welcome as more than just amusing lunatics.  Attempts to get to the future faster have driven inventors, designers, and planners to great and ridiculous heights.  In hindsight, some of their ideas and accomplishments seem brave and intelligent (the standardization of sizes for building materials, solar power), and some seem unworkable or even preposterous (houses made entirely of steel, the nuclear automobile). 

Yesterday’s Houses of Tomorrow explores a slice of the American obsession with the future.  The history of twelve futuristic single-family homes is told in short essays illustrated with architectural drawings and black-and-white photographs.  Catharine Beecher’s ideal house built around the duties of the housewife and the promotion of health and well-being, Thomas Edison’s house made of poured concrete (the entire structure poured at once into complex molds), Buckminster Fuller’s Dymaxion Living Machine, the all-metal Lustron, and eight other wonders are fully described. 

The houses in the book were, by and large, intended as models for mass production.  Their designers promised they would cost less to build and to live in than traditional houses, be more fitted for the changing needs of the modern family, be healthier, more beautiful, and sturdier.  They were intended to have the potential to be within the reach of the average American financially and socially.  These houses were designed to be tools for advancing our society.  Entire neighborhoods, even entire towns and cities were imagined, filled with more perfect houses that could reflect the modern spirit of their inhabitants, possibly even drag them into the future. 

Sadly, most of these incredible houses never advanced beyond the prototype stage, though elements of some have changed the building industry forever.  It is interesting how much we have to learn from old ideas of what the future will bring.  Many of the houses Jandl, Burns, and Auer describe look eminently livable to me.  I live in a small house, and would love a rolling, expandable dining room table or a bed that would fold down from the wall either inside into the bedroom, or out into the yard on warm summer nights.  Doesn’t that sound nice?


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