Sunday, August 19, 2012

Architecture & the Automobile: Go Further

For better or worse, we Americans love our cars.  There are now more cars on our roads, or in our garages, than there are licensed drivers.  It has not always been that way.  The trend started innocently enough in 1908, when Henry Ford introduced the model T automobile. Using assembly lines and interchangeable parts, Ford was able to manufacture automobiles for a price so low that even middle class families could afford to purchase them.  And purchase they did! Automobile ownership rates soared and a revolution in mobility was under way.  The American free spirit was unleashed!
                                                                                                         
Assembly Line
Ford Model T
The country began to change as a result, and not always for the better.  Planners took note and began to make "improvements" to our infrastructure, such as adding and widening roads and installing "free" parking lots as sprawl began to take hold. Old style suburbs featuring spacious second homes for the wealthy which were accessed by rail, fell out of favor. Modern suburbs featuring affordable starter homes for the middle class which were accessed by the automobile became commonplace.  While there were advantages to these suburbs, they were countered by the problems of traffic (including accidents and deaths), air pollution, increased consumption of oil, and social isolationism.  Still, most Americans were advocates of the advancement of the automobile culture.


Among the biggest advocates of the automobile was Frank Lloyd Wright, who was enamored with the automobile and among the first to integrate it into architecture. One of his concepts for an ideal residential neighborhood, Cloverleaf, seems to be designed around the "motor-car" more than man, or nature. His Usonion houses, beginning in the late 1930s, popularized his concept of carports. Prior to this development, cars either remained outdoors or were stored behind the main house in a make shift carriage house.  Wright, in describing the carport, would say "A car is not a horse, and it doesn't need a barn." He placed automobiles in elegantly designed carports near the houses' entrance. The procession from the exterior spaces of the carport to the interior spaces of the house allowed for a taste of nature and a bit of decompression.

Carport at a Usonian House (Rosenbaum Residence)

Wright's elegant carports soon gave way to another attachment to the house - the garage. Since Levitown and its immitators did away with service alley, the garage, large and clunky by its nature, was simply attached to the side of the house.  A driveway coming directly off the street did even more to assure that the garage would be the focal point of the house. One result of this change is that the charming historical revival style houses that proliferated earlier neighborhood suddenly looked less charming, with a garage tacked onto the side. Over time the garage evolved into a two car garage. Now three car garages are common and the problem has only worsened. For whatever reason, most homeowners and homebuyers seem to be content with this compromise. Perhaps they have been offered few options.  TNDs have addressed the problem by reverting back to the alley approach, allowing the street facade to be designed recalling the style of houses before proliferation of the automobile.  Another result is that homeowners pull straight into the garage and through the mudroom into the side of the house.  The Foyer, with a well thought out procession of spaces, sees little use.

3 car garage
"Snout" house
Until recently, our love affair with the automobile has had a significant impact on our society and our architecture.  There are however some positive signs that perhaps we are beginning to cope with some of the negative aspects of our car culture.  There is a slow but definite return to the city where mass transit and proximity to services combine to result in fewer miles traveled per household.  That means less traffic and pollution.  Teens and young adults now supplement the car with other forms of social media - Facebook replacing Cruising. The unpredictability of oil prices and governmental regulations have resulted in manufacturers offering more automobiles with high rates of fuel efficiency and low emissions.  Ford, the manufacturer who ushered in the car culture, now has a new campaign slogan, "Go Further"to usher in its newest lines of fuel efficient, hybrid, and electric vehicles.  

I encourage architects to do a better job of recognizing and adapting to changes in our automobile culture.  The connection of automobiles to architecture will remain relevant for the foreseeable future. We can also learn a few things from the evolving automobile industry, in terms of making our building more efficient and sustainable while still satisfying the customer.  Perhaps "Go Further" should be our slogan as well.


Automobiles evolve fairly quickly.  Every year manufacturers usher in their new models.  Architecture tends to evolve much more slowly.  Fashion, in contrast to both, tends to evolve at lightning speed.  In the next post we'll explore the connections between architecture and fashion.  Join me soon for Coco Corbu.