April 22, 2009

A Comparision of Houses

This last weekend, I took a pleasant spring day to explore some of the great architecture that is found in the Greater Washington Area. Just down the road in the southern part of Alexandria, amongst the sprawl that has grown about George Washington's plantation of Mt. Vernon, is the little known gem of Woodlawn.

The garden front of Woodlawn Plantation by William Thornton

Built for Major Lawrence Lewis and Nelly Custis, the adopted granddaughter of George Washington, the house is little known outside the area other than to architecture and history buffs. The house was built by William Thornton, the architect responsible for the original design for the Capitol of the United States. Finished in 1805, the house is a prime example of Georgian design in the United States, and in my opinion, one of the most beautiful houses in the DC area.

Now just down the hill, a more striking comparison is not likely to be found anywhere, with an icon of Modernism sitting nearby. One of Frank Lloyd Wright's "Usonian" homes, the Pope-Leighey house sits in a wooded glade, deigning to be equal claimant to the mantle of architecture. Built in 1939 in Falls church, the house moved to the plantation by the National Trust for Historic Preservation when in the 1960s highway construction threatened its destruction.

The contrast between these houses makes for an excellent lesson in the failures of modernism and the sucesses of traditional construction. Now some might argue that comparing a two hundred year old plantation manor to a seventy year old modest suburban house is unfair, but I'll take a shot. The details of each house show fairly well the widely different philosophies of their designers. Woodlawn shows an attention to and understanding of natural forces and how to deal with them. The Wright house shows how the modernist ignores the nature of his materials and forces in favor of a ideological design aesthetic. I think that despite their budgetary differences, the two houses are fairly emblematic of each designer and their architectural philosophy.

Frank Lloyd Wright's "Usonian" Pope-Leighey House

After all, many of the architectural details to be found in Woodlawn were commonly found in traditional houses built by architects well into the 1920s from manors on down to even the most modest bungalows. The principles that Wright exhibits in the Pope Leighey house are fairly consistent with the design mentality of his other houses as well, so I think the comparison is fair at the level of detail.


Woodlawn itself has had some bad times over the 200 years of its existence. The foundation stones are showing a bit of wear, the brick moulds have dried out a little bit, so the shutters have had to be removed, but all and all, for its age the house is in good shape. It was hit in 1896 by a hurricane, but I doubt much of the slate roof has had to be replaced, and the cornices look like they may have had a few coats of paint and maybe gotten replaced here and there. But the structure of the house looks to be intact. (I'm not exactly sure about the history, but I'm just guessing this based on inspection.)
The slate roof of Woodlawn looks great even after 200 years.

The Pope Leighey house on the other hand looks haggard in comparison. The unpainted wood siding is starting to dry out and look rough. The "cornices of flat unpainted boards look to be literally falling apart. Other than the brickwork, which looks decent, and likely was rebuilt entirely when the house was moved in the 1960s, the house's exterior is in rough shape. One detail in particular as you'll see is striking. Frank Lloyd Wright's trademark cantilevered roofs, found here as anywhere, are failing.

The inherent problems of the cantilever, the sag is apparent and problematic.

Looking at this photo, you can see how the cantilever has sagged so far as to separate it from the wall it is next to. Elsewhere you can see how over time, the wood of these cantilevers has succumbed to the trials of time and begun to sag. When snow falls on this flat roof, and has no where to go, the stresses on this roof must be tremendous, and thus the roof begins to fail.

This one detail alone illustrates how the ideology of the cantilever, the flat roof is hardly a good thing. And this house was meant for the working class! (Wright however was never able to make his Usonian houses as cheaply as he promised.) Now all buildings need maintenance, but to unnecessarily compound problems of snow, water and wind are in this case not just stupid, but criminal. This is the sort of architecture that is being held up as the ideal. Thanks Frank. Thanks for giving us a house that after seventy years is falling apart.

Cornices of the Pope-Leighey House are falling apart.

I would be willing to bet any amount that per square foot, per year, the costs of maintenance for Frank Lloyd Wrights house are not only greater but likely outstrip the costs at Woodlawn by a fair stretch. I'd also wager that a house built contemporary to Wright, and of wood and of similar modest budget with traditional details is unlikely to be suffering such calamitous problems.

The side pavilions of Woodlawn could easily be a modest home.

We do a tremendous disservice to our future generations by ignoring the very real problems with modern architecture and its inherent failings and unsustainability. When architects overlook them because of the ideology that everything must be new or innovative is a profound mendacity. Until we expose the falsehoods of the Modernists who say that their architecture is just as sustainable and good as traditional architecture, we will continue to have an intellectual and financial millstone tied about our necks.

4 comments:

SamtheLima said...

I love the way that traditonal details are not only beautiful, but practical. Form really does follow function when it comes to the basics of classical architecture. Examples: columns = vertical support, entablature = horizontal support, cornice = gutter and drip edge, pediment = no nonsense water shedding device, etc. Great post!

Anonymous said...

I understand the point you're trying to make, but it's an unfair comparison.

Pope-Leighey was based on a model meant for mass production and it's been moved from it's original site. A fair comparison would be to compare it to a frame vernacular house, c. 1800 that's been moved and not properly maintained the last 20 years. If you can even find that many frame 1800 houses, most of which have long worn out and fallen down.

Boots said...

Anon: I don't think it's that unfair of a comparison. Having moved the house means that it was probably re-constructed when it was moved, given the amount of brick in the base.

I think the Wright house probably has been maintained over the past 20 years, but to no avail. The cantilever is inherently subject to failure, and the cornices just let water stream down them to let water set into the wood and ruin them.

There are plenty of 1800s wood frame houses. You should go look at the little frame houses in Alexandria that until the 1970s were mostly poor housing, and most of them are in pretty good shape.

Vinay said...

http://www.architectsban.webs.com as http://www.seekangroup.com Read more about Green eco architectural designs are reusable materials, green designs etc.. ..… Create an Eco friendly Green design… Save Earth.. http://www.interiordesignersbangalore.com/" as of natural materials http://www.interiordesignersinbangalore.com with almost modern concepts using A few quick ways to reduce your personal carbon footprint: employ eco-friendly methods of travel, eat, minimize use of plastic products and save electricity, water, paper and use of non-toxic alternatives http://www.architectsbangalore.com Carbon Footprint is a measure of the impact human activities have on the environment in terms of the amount of greenhouse gases http://www.seekangroup.com/home save earth use architects suggested materials asdd

Blog Widget by LinkWithin