What Exactly Is a Modern House?

Last year marked the 100th anniversary of the Schindler House in LA, often hailed as the “first modern home” in California history.

Of course, when critics say “modern,” they’re not referring to just the standard meaning of such terms–obviously a home cannot be both “modern” and a century-old at the same time.

So what exactly does this nomenclature mean when it comes to properties like the Schindler House and its cousins in San Francisco?

Well, pull up an industrial geometric chair and we’ll tell you all about it.

What Does It All Mean? “Modern” is often shorthand for “Modernist,” an artistic and design movement popularized in the 20th century.

Trying to strictly define Modernism is pretty much setting yourself up for failure; some academics devote their entire careers to debating such things and never come to a consensus.

But in terms of architecture, Modernist homes rejected many of the rules and expectations of classical themes in favor of experimentation.

While most new styles are of course characterized by a break from what came before, Modern homes were much more extreme in their experimentation and their sometimes wild-eyed abandon of centuries of design assumption. In the past, bold new designs were always the exception–whereas to the Modernist, such things should be the norm.

The New & The Nouveau: Whereas many older styles typified beauty with intricate baroque detail, Modern homes emphasized bold and clean lines, planes, and geometric shapes.

But unlike, say, the anti-baroque agenda of the Craftsman style, which championed humble designs, Modern homes reserved the right to be big, brash, and attention-getting.

Instead of traditional materials like wood and brick, facades may emphasize glass, steel, or concrete. (Note that these materials were also fast and easy to mass-produce, so as to build more and more homes and keep up with the population boom.)

And rather than ornate and circuitous floor plans, Modern homes emphasized open spaces, “flow” from one room to the next, and greater ease of transition from interior to outdoor environments.

In the past, many of these features would have been considered tacky, undignified, or inelegant. But in the minds of 20th century architects, utility and comfort should determine trends, not tradition or preset aesthetics.

It’s ironic that so much of Modern architecture and design turns off a great portion of the public, because one of the fundamental philosophies of Modernism was that pleasing people’s needs should be paramount.

Such As? For some of the most everyday examples of Modern San Francisco architecture at work, consider the legacy of developer Joseph Eichler.

For a look at some of the more, let’s say, experimental approaches to the period, landmarks like the De Young Museum or even the Transamerica Pyramid represent some of the feistiest trends of the time.

Of course, buildings like the Pyramid are themselves now considered classics in many people’s eyes, and even a bit conservative compared to many newer high-rises.

But of course, that’s the way of the world: Modernism is set in stone, glass, and steel, but modernity is a spirit as flighty and ephemeral as any other.

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