Guest Blog: Modern Architecture and Design Society (MA+DS)
The 21st Century Eichler – The Next Generation Renovates, Rebuilds, and Reimagines the Midcentury Icon.
While “modern” is often used mistakenly as a synonym for “new,” in reality the “Modern” (capital M) movement in architecture embodies a wholesale approach to building drawing originally from revolutions in building materials, technology and theory beginning in the late 19th century, and still progressing today. Not just a rejection of Neoclassical and Beaux-Arts styles that dominated the century prior, Modernism incorporated steel, glass, concrete and other new forms in ways that have fundamentally changed the way we view both commercial and residential construction.
Today, some of the first examples of Modernism are well over a century old. And even though, through mass media, innovative modern reproductions, and a lasting love of iconic American midcentury flair, keeps Modernism on the forefront of our social experience, the iconic post-war neighborhoods built by Joseph Eichler are now well over 50 years old. We talked to Silicon Valley-based Nicholas Severais of Draco Design and Construction to find out more about what it means to renovate a modern icon.
We’ve seen renovations of Eichler homes that run the gamut from lovingly authentic, almost wholly original “time capsules” to entirely new interpretations that maintain only the original structure of the home. What are your thoughts on the heritage of Eichler and similar homes, their preservation, and your philosophy when you are asked to bring one of these projects into the modern age?
NS: Well, I have a not exactly unique perspective on Eichlers, I’m hardly the only one who grew up in them, but it is a bit unusual among designer/builders around here. This creates a slightly different way of looking at them than for a designer who doesn’t/hasn’t lived in one. Particularly an original. I’ve lived in two Eichlers as brand new homes. First occupants. (I’ve also lived in several others, including my home since 1986, which were not new.) So, any of the life-enhancing qualities of those new homes were organic to the house. Any of the issues with them were also. Nothing could be blamed upon age and wear or credited to good remodeling. I think that because of that perspective I can be both more respectful of them and less so. Once you’ve lived with those sliding door kitchens and the small 1950’s appliances, it can be difficult to see them as a “design icon” rather than just as a nuisance.
While I feel that there is a place for those people who want to keep their Eichler pristine, original, that is not my feeling about them. I believe that the Eichlers, along with some of the other homes being built about the same time such as the Alexander homes designed by William Krisel, some of the Strengs, and so on, were an indication of the future. A direction rather than an endpoint. The exploitation of the new social structures which were prevalent in post-war California, the economic boom which allowed for many more people to purchase new homes, and the coming together of young, adventurous architects with visionary developers. Along with this, we had the explosion of new materials and systems which had been developed in the heat of wartime industry, now being re-purposed to homes. All of this caused the Eichlers, and their kin, to be a viable endeavour for the first time. Prior to that time, modern homes were primarily built for the wealthy as a demonstration of how “with it” they were. Now there were modern homes available for first time home buying young couples. This brought Modern out of the realm of the exotic and into daily life. I consider that to be the significant “heritage” of these homes. I feel that the actual, specific details are less important than the overall conceptual change in lifestyles which were both reflected in Eichler homes and created by them.
Are there unique challenges specific to restoring or renovating an Eichler or similar mid-century home?
NS: Yes, there are many. People sometimes ask how important it is to have an Eichler professional do the remodel rather than a contractor without Eichler experience. Of course, it depends to some extent on how open to new/different systems a contractor is, and many non-Eichler contractors can work on them well enough if they are paying attention to the differences. However, one of us who have been working on Eichlers for years has a whole collection of prior experience which gives us analytical tools in the understanding of how to tackle them. When you have no attic and no crawl space along with floor to ceiling glass it is very limiting where you have electrical and plumbing. Most of it is over the roof or through the slab. Just saying that though isn’t really the answer. Those of us who do these houses know how that fact affects the remodel. The roof systems are completely different than a “normal” house. A large percentage of the physical weight of a normal framed house is in the roof structure. In an Eichler, there is far less actual physical weight to start with and not much of it is up in the roof. This changes the way we look at shear requirements for example.
With the utilities being unable to simply run through walls I always advise my clients that if they are planning to re-roof that is the time to run any pipe, wire, or other systems which they may be considering. These houses must be looked at as an organic, holistic whole in a way not necessary with other homes.
None of that even begins to cover the esthetic issues. For those of us who find an Eichler home attractive, in its’ basic form, there are things which we will do to them and things we wouldn’t consider. I have had the experience of designing a remodel of an Eichler which was then given to another contractor to build. It was something of a disaster. The overall spacial concepts of my plan were mostly kept but the details which define the essence of an Eichler, or any modernist home, were not well handled.
From both an esthetic and a practical standpoint an Eichler owner is better off selecting a contractor who has an understanding of the Eichler systems and some affection for the style of them.
What other areas of modernism interest you – do you have a favorite place, style or time period of “modern” that resonates with you?
NS: My favorite place is California. My favorite style is Organic. My favorite time period is Mid Century.
California has been a forward-looking environment in many ways for most of its history. In Architecture, you can go back to Maybeck, the Greene brothers, and Julia Morgan, one of the very first female architects. When “modernism” came along, even before WW2 California was a major player, though the Eastern architectural community disdained us. However, even Frank Lloyd Wright found inspiration here which fueled some of his best mid-period and late work. I think that all three of these questions are tied together. Here we have a more open, progressive, and, yes, at times, crazy social system. This generates a sense of “play” in design which is restricted in more conservative, older American cultures elsewhere. It gave rise to the post-war exodus of many young architects who wanted to find communities willing to experiment in a lifestyle for which a more forward-thinking, open architecture was one element. The weather was a factor of course as it still is today. The wealth here is often nouveau, coming from the entertainment industry, art, writing, and the growth of post-war industry and, in our time, the communications industry.
I realize that there is plenty of great modernism throughout the country but I feel that there is a vigor to it here. A willingness among the clientele to accept and embrace the experimental.
I say that my favorite style is “Organic”. By that I mean the particular style of design which embraces the “opening up of the box” as is true of most modernism, but with more of a warmth through the use of natural materials. The International style, as exemplified by the Bauhaus immigrants and their brethren; Mies, Neutra, Schindler, has always had a tendency towards a sterile, slick, machined coolness, which is attractive in its simplicity, elegance and grace. However, for many people, including myself, it is too cold an environment to comfortably live in. The use in California, particularly Northern California, of natural materials such as unpainted wood, stone, and an emphasis on the connection to nature, following the unavoidable lead of FLW, created a regional design style which I am strongly attracted to. I am thinking historically of Jack Hillmer, Paul R. Williams, Beverly David Thorne, William Cody, Gordon Drake, Joseph Esherick, Vladimir Ossipoff, Sim Bruce Richards, early John Lautner, E. Stewart Williams…well the list goes on. These were the post-war pioneers. Joseph Eichler understood at some level and was able to respond to, the trend towards this openness combined with warmth. His support of many architects in the early phases of their careers was important to their growth and acceptance in the open market. This was where A. Quincy Jones got his start, along with Claude Oakland and the others.
Later proponents of the organic, individualist, experimental style were Wallace Cunningham, Mickey Muennig, Kendrick Bangs Kellogg, and my favorite currently working architects; Robert Swatt, Tom Kundig, David Hovey, Carney/Logan/Burke. The difference between “MidCentury Modernism” as it is generally defined, and what has come to be called “Modernism” which I feel has too much of the cliched tropes of materials based Architectural Gesture, is that we often see the trend towards an industrial style which, though it can be appealing, dramatic, and at times amusing, I find to be less life-affirming than the Eichler style integration of house/land, interior/exterior, natural materials with manufactured and the efforts to create “community” within the architectural environment. Even now, 60 years later, the Eichler tracts are sought out by homebuyers not only for the houses themselves but for the sense of community which was fostered by design at the time of their creation. The Recreation Centers, the insistence upon having elementary schools within the communities, the organic creation of the “village sensibility” that still exists in these neighborhoods, is a large part of what drives homebuyers to seek out the San Mateo Highlands, Lucas Valley, and the neighborhoods in Palo Alto and Sunnyvale/Cupertino.
I can’t answer this question fully in as brief a context as this. However, I cannot leave this topic without mentioning one other major influence on my design and a man whose work I admire greatly. Ricardo Legorreta. His work with massing and saturated color, which is regionally and culturally based in his Mexican heritage, is magic to me. I reflect upon it, admire it and use it wherever I am able to.
The Modern Architecture + Design Society produces architecture and design events across North America.