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What are we looking for? /Austin

by Susan McElroy last modified Aug 02, 2005 04:13 PM
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What are we looking for? /Austin

Posted by Susan McElroy at March 04. 2005

I want to continue a very interesting topic that was originally posted on the Dallas geographic forum, but on this list as I don't get to Dallas much and can really only comment on the Austin scene.

The question of course is what people who like modern architecture/design want, and it's pretty clear that the present state of homebuilding isn't satisfying most who want to see a move away from the McHouse style of cookie cutter clutter.

I think that as much as some people think a lot about what they want to see in a home (or anything related to style, from furnishings to clothes to even food or entertainment) most people just choose what they want passively from what they see around them. I'm not sure I'd call this laziness; maybe it's lack of imagination, or self-confidence, or even time to ponder such things.

I'm pretty sure I can speak for most of the baby boomers when I say that this group learned to hate modern because by the time we were old enough to start noticing design and architecture, our 50's vintage tract houses were getting faded and beat up and worn out. We were tired of there not being anything interesting to look at like crown mouldings; or the luxury of wasted space, such as cute little nooks and odd angles to ceilings and cubbyholes and whatnot. Good ideas like ribbon windows, which I now know were meant to be paired with an opposing glass wall, had been overused by that time and led to dark, sad interiors. (Hey, cool! Let's put these things on BOTH SIDES of the house, for added pizazz!) And of course, we were boom sized families, crammed together in what ought to be the ideal sized house but what just felt to us like way too much togetherness. Never mind what it was like to share a tiny bathroom with 2-5 siblings.

Very, very few of us ever got to experience an authentic modern-style house like we see in the architecture history books. When someone of my generation does get this chance for the first time, the reaction is often of awe and surprise, especially with the mingling of indoor and outdoor space--something you have to see from the inside looking out, never from the street looking in. These places rarely have street appeal. And it sounds crazy, but they just don't LOOK as good as they FEEL.

I don't guess this is leading anywhere, except that the only way I think modern style will be accepted and into the mainstream is for designers to keep insisting, keep it visible and innovative. Sooner or later the tide will turn.

Re: What are we looking for? /Austin

Posted by Hayden at March 11. 2005

Susan, you raise some great points about your generation and the overall view of modernism that developed out of that conditioned, mainstream taste. Since I am only 25, maybe I can put into words some of my feelings about an emerging taste for modern architecture amongst younger generations and talk about what I want out of it for myself.

The world is developing so quickly now in many areas (technology, manufacturing, marketing, science, medicine, etc..) but obviously lags behind in the social realms of human experience. This can be seen as a reflection in what people want from their very personal space of existence in this world. Their most intimate motives for creation. Whether this be in choosing a relationship, a preference for a style, a career, or what house to live in, these types of things are not marketed to us like everything else. We have to pull it together for ourselves. These are the types of decisions that come from us on a different level. It is understandable to me that when it comes to this level of creation, the majority goes by what they know. Or, as you put it they 'choose what they want passively from what they see around them.' I think this is because the rest of our choices have been usurped by advertising. The intimate levels of creation are the last frontier for marketing and they are well on their way to making the connection. Enter my generation. Especially those younger than me. People interfacing with machines from birth that can show them anything they want to see or know from out there. Now we got, intimate groups of people who can actually define and grow a style online, and don't forget houses. You can actually order a house online. I don't know if this would have happened in any way without the internet. Advertising houses on TV would not be feasible within this market.

There is sort of like an accelerated evolution of ideas going on now. While, not arguably, this has been going on for some time online, it has been without an audience. Now we got blogs, tagging and message forums.. whew! Now my little screen can not only show me things I want to, but also show me things I didn't know I wanted to see. Most importantly, it can help me decide what the best ideas are. We are actually advertising ourselves to each other. Our bodies, our ideas, our style. I don't think we intend to, but hey.. I got a screen here. That is all I am actually looking at. You want to tell me something? I see text. I see myself more purely in your expression that I do another person and I will integrate you into me. It's anybody's world online. Anyone's mind, accessible by the query of a word. Can you imagine growing up like this? I just hope people choose to form these groups in person in addition to the online part (virtual reality or not.)

So this all leads to modern architecture and design because it is typified by reduction, beauty and functionality. Is this not almost a definition of evolution? There is no perfect form in nature, but there is not much excess either. 'Modern' designed things reflect an intimate and intentional expression of harmony that is in more accord with what is actual in this world. No more fluffy excess and a culture of people who want it shoved down their throat. No. Now we have a larger and richer world out there that is too large and diverse to stream over the tv. Why do market research anymore when you can have the consumers drive the market directly and in real time. Evolution folks. :) Now to see what the masses really choose. Maybe it won't look modern, but I guarantee you it will be smart as a whip. That's what I like about it all. Sustainable, economical, resourceful, beautiful (my opinion) and well thought out. Thanks for reading.

Re: What are we looking for? /Austin

Posted by Universal Constructor at March 13. 2005

Hi Susan.

Oh boy. Those of us doing contemporary work here in town, or who went to architecture school, have hashed this out over coffee, beers and lengthy 2:00 AM discussions in design studio.

I guess I'd break this down into two areas. What is available for people to buy, and Clients with a cultivated taste for contemporary work who want you to design a custom home or addition for them.

A good number of us are looking at the Spec market to sell homes to people who will see our work and want to buy it (instead of the same old stuff that you mention). On the other hand, I am currently working with some wonderful Clients that have great taste, a reasonable schedule and want something contemporary and minimal tailored for them specifically.

Really in many cities in the US these kinds of opportunities are almost equally difficult to find for truly contemporary work. Excepting maybe LA.

Maybe as you mention people experience architecture passively and can only cultivate a desire for the benefits of contemporary work if they have been in something similar at some point in their life. So to that extent if people are appraising curb appeal, or appraised value, or potential for profit, from the perspective of not appreciating contemporary work then it's really a non-starter anyway.

If however you have Clients, Developers or Appraisers that appreciate the benefits of contemporary work then maybe they can integrate the look of the project with the feel and understand the overall value.

No reason contempory work can't look as good as it feels.



Universal Joint Design Associates

Jonathan Chertok. Principal
AIA Design Associate
Austin, Texas 1 512 407 9628

Development + Design + Construction

Re: What are we looking for? /Austin

Posted by Robert Searcy at July 27. 2005

I guess if we are bouncing from the original Dallas forum to Austin, it wouldn't be completely inappropriate to bring in a Houston perspective.

As a Realtor, I deal with a lot of clients who want the clean lined look of vintage mid-century moderns. I think it is a positive sign that the houses I come across that still retain their clean modernistic roots move very quickly now, and for a premium. The ones that someone has tried to turn into a colonial, (and they are plentiful), tend to be unappealing and sit.

In the office there are several agents that deal with a lot of builders. Most do the excessive McMansion bit. I have asked the Builders about doing more contemporary work and most seem scared off by it. Feeling more traditional designs are safer and easier to sell. I have one brave soul, however, that is looking to do more cutting edge modern homes, (once I find the right lots!). He has the rational that a look at the Ikea parking lot on any given Saturday will tell you there is a huge audience that loves contemporary. Based on what is currently being offered on the speculative housing market,(at least here), that audience is being grossly under-served.

It seems like the best most available existing modern housing stock here lies in the mid-century moderns. The desire for this type of housing is driving a revival in languishing first ring suburbs, much like the desire for victorian or arts crafts homes helped revive older neighborhoods like Montrose Heights.

It is great to see overlooked areas with great modern architecture now gaining new popularity as people go back in to reclaim these homes. I do a lot in Glenbrook Valley near Hobby, ( which had been totally written off by a lot of people,but now that there is such a renewed interest in the clean lined look of the vintage moderns, the area is seeing a turn around. I get a certain degree of satisfaction being involved in that.

My perspective may be slanted in favor of these vintage moderns, but it seems like they are the ones on the forefront of modern architectural popularity here. As many buyers get frustrated trying to find one that fits their needs, some are turning to new construction. Eventually maybe we will see more building that gets beyond the obligatory Tuscany Villas and red-brick Georgian country houses on a quarter acre...

Re: What are we looking for? /Austin

Posted by Gregory La Vardera at July 28. 2005

It is really encouraging to read that you know at least one builder willing to step out of the status quo. Nurture this guy, we all want to see him succeed and out-perform his risk adverse colleagues.

To that end I want to make sure you know about my stock house plans. One of the obstacles to modern often cited by builders is that they can buy a set of traditional house plans anywhere - if they do a modern house they have to invest in a design. That's why the plans are there - so we can start to retire that excuse.

Re: What are we looking for? /Austin

Posted by Susan McElroy at July 28. 2005

I would also like to converse more about what exactly people like in these MCM's. As a non-architect, I don't always know how to describe objectively what I see as different in these houses from so-called traditional designs, and sometimes even different from new modern ones.

I always believed that the best houses are like the best writing--they un-self-consciously become one with the landscape they're built in, just as good writing conveys the sense of the author's meaning without calling attention to its construction. That may be a bit off-putting to an architect, but to me the truest sign of a well designed house is hearing that...GASP...from guests who walk in and suddenly realize they've walked into a space that isn't interior or exterior but something that transcends them both.

Also, these houses are tiny by today's standards, and it's hard to convince people that there's something valuable in that. Has anyone noticed how common it is for an owner of a MCM to have lived in it for 30-50 years? It's amazing how many only one owner references you see for these, and having been able to live in one if not for quite that long, I can see why. Reducing the interior and exterior elements to the barest essentials means you don't get tired of a style. Your eyes just get drawn to the natural scenery that is only incidentally a wall. The seasons change, the light changes, you feel at one with nature; your trees become old friends. How do you measure the value of that, and how do you explain it to someone who hasn't experienced it? It's funny that that point doesn't get mentioned that much when you read the old books on MC, but that's the one thing that makes this kind of building so easy on the spirit.

Texmod, I'm glad there's somebody working on reviving these old neighborhoods in Houston. I'm planning a quick trip down there next week to take some pics of my old neighborhood. I know of at least 5 or 6 nice houses that I'd like to preserve in pictures. I'll try to get in touch with your office if possible...

Re: What are we looking for? /Austin

Posted by Robert Searcy at July 30. 2005

There are a lot of factors that draw people to the mid-century style homes. Definitely the blurring of indoor and outdoor living, the lack of excess, the openess of the space, etc. are all factors. Many buyers also collect the period furnishings, (George Nelson, Florence Knoll, Hermann Miller, etc.) and put the whole package together.

There are certain factors that many find very UNappealing that may be surprising. Granite countertops for example, are considered a serious faux-pas with this set of buyers.

These buyers are definitely architectural buyers vs. amenity-based buyers. The architectural pedigrees are important to people as well. You can charge a premium for a house designed by William Floyd, William Jenkins, Lars Bang, Burdette Keeland others.

I think the issue of these homes being smaller is not necessarily always true. Many buyers want close in, but would pay more for cramped 2 bedroom/1 bath cottages. The ones in the upper half of Glenbrook Valley, for example, can get pretty large. I have a closing next week on one that is just a 3 bedroom with kind of a two part living area, but is over 3300 square feet. Another under negotiation is 3200 square feet with an atrium. The homes in Memorial Bend, another hot pocket of modern preservation, can also run around 2000 to 3000 square feet. Much more space tends to go against the grain of this set of buyers. It goes back to the lack of excess. Do we really need to build and use resources to heat and cool 5000+ square feet for a family of four?

There is a lot of information on a site for Memorial Bend, as well as the preservation site I also keep a running tally of all the available mod houses off the Houston MLS on that last one. On a national level the organization for this is the recent past preservation network There is a magazine that specializes in all of this called Atomic Ranch. They were just in Houston about a month ago. I think their site is Of course has a forum that can be very insightful into the whole thing. Everybody may already know about these sites, but if you haven't seen them, they can be very interesting for anybody interested in modern architecture.

Some of these areas such as Glenbrook Memorial Bend may be getting a boost from some positive press that is supposed to be out in the next issue of Dwell.

Re: What are we looking for? /Austin

Posted by Betty Hable at August 02. 2005

I moved from Austin and have been living in an oversized 1970s home in Corpus Christi. I wondered if there are any prefad homes or materials available down here. I've been here a year, spent too much money to bring this house up to date and wish more than anything I could find or build a home like the ones seen on this site.

Are these homes safe for the Texas coastal area? I want to downsize into a simplified home with clean lines but that won't break my retiree's budget. I would think a home of this size with the open spaces would be perfect for empty nesters, first time home buyers and retirees that are simply dreading living in a confined space associated with downsizing.

Has anybody thought of this house as a possible remedy for the baby boomers like myself that have remodeled 5 houses and just don't want to do that anymore. There are many like myself that would relish a home like the one pictured here. Of course in South Texas air conditionaing is a must have - when the thermometor hits 100 and the humidity level is at about 98-99 the breeze itself would be stifeling.

I would love to hear form any of you that may know if the prefads are available in Corpus. Bbob:zz:

Re: What are we looking for? /Austin

Posted by Gregory La Vardera at August 02. 2005

Don't overlook who are documenting the mid-century stock in Phoenix. There are also several Eichler web sites dedicated to living in and caring for those mid-century houses. There are other small sites like these for neighborhoods all over the country: Many of the Case Study Houses shared these characteristics as well.

These houses definitely have a distinct fan base, people who like modern but also like history and the bit of archeology that goes along with it, people who like the culture of the mid-century time, as well as the tiki culture. But they also share many of the concerns of the people who like and seek today's modern: the value of modern real estate, the financing of it, the search for compatible products, and making sensitive design decisions when you work on them.

All that said I think there would be a market for building and offering new houses that capture this spirit. Small understated houses that blend the inside and outside, blatantly nostalgic.

Re: What are we looking for? /Austin

Posted by Mark Meyer at August 02. 2005


I grew up in Port Aransas and know of what you speak. I have a design that I did for some friends of mine that HAD property in Port Aransas. It is a 1500 s.f. panelized project, but IS sized appropriately to be build Modularly as well. It has already been engineered for a site two blocks from the beach, and has a LOT of open space. If you contact me off-board I can send you some drawings of the project. It has been shelved recently due to some cliebt related issues, and so it is available to be developed for another client if any one is interested.


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