Kenneth Frampton on Aalto, Corbusier, detached houses, the suburbs &c.

The video below, produced by Slow Home Studio in Calgary, Alberta, is a short, brilliant, unrehearsed lecture by renowned architect, architectural critic and historian Kenneth Frampton on the history of the detached house in our era. Worth watching the whole thing – but the complete transcribed text is below.

“First of all, you know the pathos of each little box being isolated from the next in many cases, particularly as the time goes on and new subdivisions are made I noticed as athe plane landed that these boxes are placed ever more closely together. And so there is a pathos of the individuality – the question of what choice do people have. And that’s one of the paradoxes of the market society I think. Because in many aspects the market is rigged and the people don’t really have a choice, right? The market is rigged by the combination of the banks and the mortgage companies and the building regulations and the home-building industry and it’s all symbiotically connected . Why is it that Germans and Austrians and Swiss are willing to live close together, the middle class I mean, and the Anglo-American middle class are generally speaking not willing to live close together. I mean but they do of course end up living close together, it’s an absurdity, because they’re living close together anyway! But their houses must not join…”

“I remember you know looking at the suburban house and it struck me even then, and subsequently I’ve often thought about it, where the front garden and it’s not so true in N. America actually, but in England the front garden is treated like a kind of parterre, then there is the house and the back garden is where people grown vegetables or did at that moment. In a way it’s a sort of filtered down, 18th C sort of gentry model. The front is the kind of classical garden in front of the villa, and the back is the farmland. It even goes back to sort of Palladian roots. That I think is connected probably to the first shocks of industrialization. I think that the whole Arts and Crafts movement was in a sense an attempt to compensate for the ruthlessness of the initial industrialization.  I think that’s even true in the New World so to speak, in the Americas, this idea of this uprootedness is sort of by definition you could say. We forget I think they extent to which in Europe the agrarian populations were also uprooted and packed into workers’ towns and used in relation to industrial production and so on. And that internal migration in Europe to do with industrialization also had a sort of psychosocial impact on society. And in a way I think that’s the kind of issue that architects ought to try to confront or recognize.”

“I think  it was easier for, say, the Scandinavians to make this transition because they weren’t so heavily industrialized in the first place and they didn’t have such huge populations, so that the scale… there wasn’t the same level of uprootedness I don’t think. It seems that Aalto is one of the few architects that was really able to address this issue, was able to produce a kind of warmer residential fabric accessible to the society.” [See earlier blog post on Alvar Aalto’s Villa Mairea. Photo of house below]


“It’s very hard to find the ground in which to produce an alternative discussion, to raise another kind of consciousness – it’s hard.

[Frank Lloyd Wright’s] Usonian house is an astonishing thing and I’ve said for a long time I think the Usonian house is the last time anyone tried to render the suburb as a place of culture. The invention is astonishing and the number of Usonian houses he was to build… but in a way they’re all very modest compared to today’s extravaganza. They’re very beautiful places to live in but they also mean you’d have to be prepared to live a relatively modest life, a very comfortable life but a modest life. And well it’s amazing the Usonian house I think, and in a way I think Wright is undervalued I think in general. And there of course the question of the image of home is right there, if Aalto is one case, Wright would be the more pertinent case to give as far as North America is concerned.”

Above is Frampton’s own modest house in Pennsylvania, where he lives with artist Silvia Kolbowski, an editor of October magazine for many years.

Look at Frampton’s ideas in Modern Architecture: A Critical History (Fourth Edition) (World of Art)
and a collection of decades of his writing: Labour, Work and Architecture.

Thanks to my friend Jonathan M. for tipping me off to this video.


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3 Responses to “Kenneth Frampton on Aalto, Corbusier, detached houses, the suburbs &c.”

  1. jessica Says:

    Great post! When Bing Thom was talking about space for families at the Anti-casino rally, I was thinking about my own situation as a renter in a basement suite (yuck!). This Usonion house is brilliant. I wonder if the City of Vancouver would ever consider its design in one of its attempts at social housing…. but I have to go and read the previous post now too…

  2. LB Says:

    Thanks Jessica and I agree – the Usonian house was such a lost opportunity. We need to get away from the current situation, anyway, in which we have overly small condos being built in these godawful towers everywhere with inadquate room for families, creating a completely child-free downtown, while meanwhile in the suburbs and rich neighbourhoods ever-larger detached houses are being built. There has to be a way of controlling the condo/rental apartment market in such a way that its spaces are large enough for people to actually live comfortably. This of course means limiting profits for the developers who run this town. And as for detached houses, people need to start thinking about the fact that they don’t need 5-10,000 square feet, that heating and maintaining those spaces is wasteful and expensive. The great thing about the Usonian house is its clever use of space. Japanese houses are similar – if a house’s interior setup is designed properly, it doesn’t need to be as massive.

  3. jessica Says:

    I mean the Chris Hedges post.

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