Brief History of the Decline of Western Residential Architecture

DIY Home Design & the Psychology of Home:

There are many books about home design but I wouldn’t recommend anyone design their home based solely on them.  Nor would I recommend anyone use stock ‘home plans’ magazines.  The problem with either source is they lack a fundamental understanding of the psychology of “home”; which relies on an in-depth understanding of traditional home design which, in turn, relied on an in-depth understanding of classical architecture.

Classical architecture is governed by ‘rules’ of proportion and scale derived from the human form.  Psychologically, we unconsciously recognized such proportions and scales in our surroundings and we, therefore, tend to feel an empathy with them.  They feel welcoming to us and we feel ‘at home’ with them.

Why Most Contemporary Architects and Designers Don’t Understand the Psychology of Home – A Brief History:

About 100 years ago a group of egotistical architects thought (correctly) they could make a name for themselves by coming up with an architectural philosophy differentiated from the traditional, classical-oriented philosophy (with which they were neither particularly successful or skilled).  Being sensitive “artsy” types they were among those concerned about the backlash against industrialization by the traditionalists and hoped to tap into the growing idea that the world’s woes were not the result of industrialization but the result of weak state governments incapable of suppressing regional self-determinations and the ambitions of the ‘mob of society’ (democracy).

The devastation wrought by World War I, the demonstrated potential of fascism during the war, and the political and economic upheaval that followed it, gave these anti-traditional, anti-liberal democratic architects momentum but not enough that the ‘Modern’ architectural forms they were advocating became very popular in Europe prior to WWII.  In the United States, however, they found fertile ground for their “Modernism” ideas in a nation that was becoming highly industrial, wealthy, and in need of architects to build its rapidly growing cities.

It wasn’t difficult for them to design ‘Modern’ themes which switched from ‘powerful governments seeking to suppress regional and individual aspirations’ to designs for ‘powerful industrialists seeking to suppress worker aspirations’.  Either only required the simplest of forms; the more oppressively plain, the better.

Hadrian’s Wall & Monuments of Oppression:

You may ask, “How does design accomplish anything relative to how people live or think?”  Good question.  Why did the Roman Empire build Hadrian’s Wall?  In some places it never got taller than 10’0″ (3 m).  So what was the point?  It sent the message, “We are here and this is to where the Roman Empire extends.”  It had an impact on those who found themselves on one side of the wall or the other in different ways even though it was often just a pile of rocks.

In a similar way, the imposing structures built by industrialists and the corporations they control are meant to convey their wealth and power relative to everyone else.  In contrast, workers living in tenements have no illusion about where they stand relative to the industrialist.  This symbolic intimidation tends to work very effectively on those with little or no hope of attaining a similar status of economic or political power.  By the way, no (successful) revolution has ever been orchestrated by the lower stratum of society.  And architecture can send the very powerful message of where one stands compared to others and, therefore, discourage any challenge to the status quo.

“All Animals Are Equal, But Some Animals Are More Equal Than Others.”

Eventually, the wealth and prestige backing the ‘Modernist’ architects led to co-opting American architectural institutions concerned with education, construction, and fraternity.  Then, after the urban devastation of WWII, the ‘Modernists’ returned to Europe and, with American financial backing and resources, re-built the cities of Europe in their own favoured style.

“The Fox and The Grapes” and “The Emperor’s New Clothes”

Despite propaganda to disparage traditional architecture (which persists), by the 1960s it was clear individual homeowners had rejected the ‘Modern’ and ‘Post-Modern’ movements (except for the Prairie style) but, by then, the ability to find traditional, classically trained architects had become exceedingly difficult.  Like the ’emperor’s new clothes’ few architects are brave enough to acknowledge the obvious shortcomings of Modernism and call for the revival of classical training.

Today architects with an appreciation for traditional architecture exist but they tend to be self-taught or graduates of preservation curriculum and usually only after being encouraged by a discriminating, traditional or preservation-minded client.  Such architects tend not to write DIY home design books; nor do they tend to create stock home plans for magazines.