Friday, July 14, 2017

Book Review: The American Idea of Home

The American Idea of Home: Conversations About Architecture and Design by Bernard Friedman
University of Texas Press, 2017
Hardcover, 228 pages

In 2012 Bernard Friedman put out American Homes, billed as "1800 years of American residential architecture in 11 minutes." Started in 2006, the short film owed much to the work of Lester Walker, particularly his book American Homes: The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Domestic Architecture, as well as a bevy of architects that he interviewed "to give the audience a glimpse into the many decisions that go into designing a home," per the introduction to his new book on the subject. I was not familiar with the documentary (its trailer is below), but the interview transcripts assembled in The American Idea of Home make clear that Friedman's film had to leave out much of what he learned from Walker, Richard Meier, Kenneth Frampton, Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown, Tracy Kidder, Paul Goldberger, Thom Mayne, and other familiar names in architecture, residential and otherwise.

The new book includes thirty of Friedman's interviews in five sections: the Functions and Meanings of Home; History, Tradition, Change; Activism, Sustainability, Environment; Cities, Suburbs, Region; and Technology, Innovation, Materials. Like any book that goes this route, there is plenty of overlap in these sections, be it in the themes, the voices fitted into this or that section, or their responses to Friedman's questions. As an entrepreneur and filmmaker (read: not an architect), Friedman's questions are not overly academic, which is refreshing and makes the book an enjoyable read overall. That said, it's clear Friedman knows his stuff, in terms of both architecture and the architects he spoke with.

Highlights are many, but some of them include Lester Walker, whose great books and drawings influenced Friedman; Kenneth Frampton, an outspoken proponent of collective housing over single-family housing; Douglas Garofalo, the Chicago architect who died in 2011, not long after their interview; Andrew Freear, the head of Rural Studio, which is now focused on low-cost ($20K) houses; and David Salmela, the great Minnesota architect who's not afraid of pitched roofs. Those hoping to see examples of the architects' work will be disappointed, though, since each interview is accompanied by only one photo each, their subjects drawn from something said in the interview. This is a statement of fact rather than a criticism, since it makes sense that words are given priority in a book of interviews, here giving readers plenty to think about relative to the broad topic of how people live in the United States.