2023-12-29

How Cheap and How Thin

Neutra’s Kaufmann House in Palm Springs

Note This blog was originally called “Cheap & Thin,” but the more I’ve posted here, the more that (A) I’m writing about building that aren’t particularly thin (as they’re made of concrete), and (B) I’m writing about little known architects whose descendents might not be flattered by their work being implicitly described as “cheap.”

“Cheap and thin.” That’s how Frank Lloyd Wright famously described Richard Neutra’s Lovell Health House in 1932. It’s a criticism I love not only because it illustrates how much of a dickhead Frank Lloyd Wright was, but also because it’s accurate: Neutra’s houses were cheap and thin.

And not by mistake. His designs, and the many more those inspired, were intentionally cheap and thin.

•••

Cheapness was a virtue for most midcentury architects, especially those working directly after WWII. Housing was in limited supply then, and if the modern style was going to “win” in the public imagination (which was the goal of many, including the Case Study House program), it would have to be as inexpensive as any other stick-built style.

Thinness, though, that was particularly Californian.1 Few regions in the United States offered such a perfect climate for truly embracing indoor-outdoor living. A flat roof made of uninsulated metal decking? Good enough. Large expanses of single-pane glass? Just make sure it’s not facing west. Sliding doors thrown open to the breeze? No mosquitos to speak of here.

The Redlands-born modernist Harwell Hamilton Harris once described his home state eloquently:

It was a gentle nature to begin with, that one could expose himself to [and] didn’t have to protect himself from. And it wasn’t a nature that had to be dominated. We didn’t feel that we had to tame it. It was something that didn’t require taming.

But that was then. In today’s Southern California, mosquitos have taken up residence, the temperature everywhere has risen, and the risk of wildfire is more real than ever. Neutra was very proud of building in tune with nature, and I’m sure you can still cool his homes in Santa Monica with a refreshing ocean breeze, but every one of his “naturally-ventilated” houses that I’ve visited on LA’s east side has been retrofitted with air conditioning — and not retrofitted recently, judging the rust on the big outdoor compressors.

Even in the past those naturally-ventilated designs were a fantasy. When I first learned about the Kaufmann House and marveled at its ethereal beauty, a persistent thought haunted the marveling: how could this house possibly stay liveable when it’s 120°F in the desert sun?

It doesn’t. Neutra designed the thin Kaufmann House to be liveable for just one month of the year: January. And maybe February.

And it wasn’t just Neutra. When browsing the historical permits for my own home — a modernist house in a hot-summer part of Southern California — I found one with a handwritten note on it: Homeowner reports brand-new air-conditioning system inadequate for cooling.

Modernism came of age in California at a time of unparalleled excess when it came to energy. Many thought the price of electricity would continue to fall until it became negligible, and for a while it looked that way. And then the energy crisis of the 1970s recalibrated everyone’s expectations, impacting not only the fuel efficiency of cars, but also the energy efficiency of homes. Suddenly it wasn’t just out-of-fashion to build an all-steel-and-glass home in Palm Springs, it was also illegal. (Though one wonders if the fashion followed the law a little there.)

Since the 1970s, California has restricted the amount of exterior fenestration a home can have, and today mandates that only 20% of a new building can be glass, which is an incredible fact if you’ve never heard it, especially if you’ve ever browsed a book on the Case Study Houses and wondered: why don’t they build buildings like this anymore? I don’t have exact numbers, but the Eames House can’t be less than 40% exterior glass.

Buildings today must, as contemporary builders would say, perform. Double-or-triple-paned windows, insulated walls, reflective roofs — spaces that not only use resources efficiently but also stand the test of time. (Building construction and operation combined are the leading contributor to global emissions.)

Too often, California modernist buildings wasted resources in their own time and have come down to us today in disrepair. Neither is specific to modernist design, of course, but the draftiness of an uninsulated craftsman or Victorian home is not part of its aesthetic appeal; blow-in insulation and move on. But in a modernist buildings, the thinness of single-pane windows is instrumental in dematerializing the barrier between indoor and outdoor. Something visual is lost when changing out the windows.

My wife and I recently visited an open house for a 1959 modernist house, a beautiful, minimal white building with all of the original single-pane glass. Stunning. The foliage seemed to come inside. But it was in Sherman Oaks, where, for months each year, the summer highs regularly hit the 90s, meaning the house must perform incredibly poorly all summer long, requiring a ridiculuous amount of energy for cooling.

That’s a question I’d love to find out the answer to: how hot does the Kaufmann House get in the summer?

I realize the tone of this post is quite different from that of the previous one, where I rhapsodized about modern design and implied strongly that it should be preserved for future generations. And both are true: I find no other style as inspiring as modern designs from the midcentury, and the work being done to keep certain buildings intact in their original condition is truly valuable. And in a changing climate, preserving all buildings — not just modern ones — is imperative; as is often pointed out in architectural trade magazines, the most sustainable building is the one that already exists. But then where’s the balance between a sustainable building and a historically-correct one? Should the average homeowner or business owner of a modernist building really keep a wasteful design intact in order to experience its original beauty?

In my own home, the previous homeowners made many strange decisions. Switching out all of the windows for double-pane glass and insulating the roof were not among them.

At the risk of over-quoting Harwell Hamilton Harris (I’m currently reading the monograph on his work) — Harris once said about the work of Rudolf Schindler:

Such architectural flowers were not made to endure. They charmed as nothing permanent could.

In today’s world, “sustainable” might be a good substitute for “permanent.” After all, an impermanent building is a wasteful one, especially when — as is the case today — most teardowns head straight to a dump. As is often said in architectural publications, the most sustinable building is the one that’s already standing. And when looking at a modernist building, it never hurts to consider how sustainable that particular style is, or how sustainably it performs.2

At least, that’s something I’ll be thinking about here. •


  1. Thinness in California modernism can be traced back to traditional Japanese architecture, which is quite lightweight compared to traditional European architecture. But why did Japan build thin-walled houses, especially when its main population centers are located in cold-winter climates? One explanation I’ve seen is that the vocabulary of Japanese building was borrowed primarily from medieval Chinese architecture, from a time when the main cultural centers of China were located further south in China (meaning the walls could be thin). In any event, Japanese homes in the winter are incredibly cold when compared to European and American homes. 

  2. Plenty of midcentury modernist buildings — particularly non-residential ones — were not cheap or thin, none less so than the thick-walled concrete behemoths of the Brutalist style (which I also love). And those exemplify the era of energy excess in a very different way: they used an incredible amount of resources to build. Concrete and steel are the two most energy-intensive expensive building materials to produce and, consequently, their production on a global scale emits a catastrophic amount of carbon dioxide. Today, the combined activities of the built environment — construction, occupation, demolition — are by far the single biggest contributor to climate change.