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What’s Happened to Architectural Record’s Record Houses issue?

I received Architectural Record’s Record Houses 2017 issue today. It was once the reference standard of residential architecture. Long before the internet, before the housing bubble, before HOUZZ, inclusion in Record Houses was the signature distinction for residential architects. The issue has long been a barometer for a small but important part of the architecture profession.

 

Not surprisingly the issue has changed. I know this truth personally, as I had a Record House in 1985, then Record Kitchen and Record Bath projects featured in its pages in the 1990’s.

 

Prior to the mid-1990’s, the Record House issue often included as many as 20 projects, mostly domestic (when Record was the American Institute of Architecture’s magazine). There were restorations, spaceships, sculptures, machines, and very serious International Style High Modernism. There were often stories of means and methods and occupants. It was interesting, showed change, diversity, even the nobly nuts efforts.

 

It’s now become more predictable. Except for the delightful cover project, architects have for the most part seen this issue before. Why? Editors are now reduced in number, and the media landscape has changed. When the housing bubble blew big, Record’s monthly home feature well expanded to include a dozen or more house projects in a magazine that once had precious few other homes besides the “Houses” issue. Competition to the houses issue exploded in the bubble, too. Fine Homebuilding was filled with architect designs of a craftier focus. Dwell set up a robust Modern House venue, and Residential Architect debuted with a diverse focus. AIA chapters created “House” categories in their competitions.

 

Then, fifteen years ago, the internet exploded. House projects became the primary focus of glitzy new websites, and soon forums like HOUZZ simply overwhelmed the exposure of “contemporary” and “traditional” homes far beyond the reach and scope of Record Houses.

 

So, perhaps in contradistinction, Record Houses became consistent, following the Mother Ship’s editorial direction as manifest by its desire to focus on “projects that incorporate innovation in program, building technology, materials, and form.”

 

The editorial note in the Record Houses 2011 issue stated that their mission was to “motivate architects to test limits and move the discipline forward…There is a good likelihood they don’t have all the problems solved, all the kinks worked out— they invariably are imperfect…” No kidding. The architect/owner of the cover house couldn’t let his child out to play because the home’s sunken courtyard was too dangerous.

 

And of course they had to have flat roofs. In one stretch in the first decade of the 21st century, I noted in a speech to AIA architects that I had not seen a pitched roof in Record in three years. A defensive editor then sent an architect colleague of mine a print out showing that I was in error, there had been three pitched roofs over that time. Out of forty homes.

 

The flat roof/box shape/“innovation” ethic meant that the lens for inclusion in the homes issue became smaller. Fewer homes were published per issue (often a dozen, or less) and more “world” homes. This evolution meant that diversity was not a priority.

 

Fifteen years ago, I sent a one sentence note to an editor, now gone, who liked my work. I cut to the chase and simply typed: “House: made of wood, pitched roof—should I send for Record Houses?” (I thought it was pretty good.) “No,” came the instant reply.

 

Despite the global focus of Record Houses, the aesthetic of the editors’ selections remains remarkably consistent: High Modern is the focus, like the rest of architectural journalism and academia. This is not about change, but about the perpetuation of an aesthetic, now old enough, ironically, to be seen as “historic.” It’s the crisp, clean architecture of the perfect box.

 

But lost in the sauce is the zestiness of competing views. There is no vernacular—that seems to be anathema. There is no context—that criterion seems somehow impure. There is no allusion, no historicist ingenuity. These aesthetics, regardless of how ingeniously they’re applied, apparently pollute the classic imagery.

 

The 2017 Record House cover shows “The Connected House,” in Paris. It’s a wildly fun organism of white, designed by Jakob & MacFarlane Architects. There was spice in the Modernist stew. But it floats on the issue’s predictable sea of High Modernism, its spontaneity rendering the rest of the issue almost stiff and stodgy.

 

The editors proudly declare, “Over the years our Record Houses collection have veered from quirky, quixotic, and idiosyncratic to the ruggedly vernacular or elegantly modern…What are the ties that hold them together? Practicality? Modest Budgets? Efficient layouts? Not Really.” Hold together? It’s obvious that a certain surface style holds most of the issue together.

 

The editors go on to exalt the “experimental,” “imaginative,” “unexpected materials,” but the overall feel of most of the other projects is familiar.  It’s essentially the same aesthetic, the same simple boxes, the same toolbox of voids, masses, shapes and cantilevers, applied all over the world. But there were some exceptions, some curvy steel, some shapely wood, even a few (gasp!) pitched roofs. Maybe that’s a harbinger of change. Sometimes spice can completely change a dish.

 

Still, Record Houses remains a safe space for Correct Architecture. Like most things in celebrated 21st century architecture, diversity is less important than defendability. The tone deafness is not about the homes in the issue: they’re all great. The myopia is in the houses missing from the issue, which is made even more obvious by this year’s cover project. Record Houses used to be a compendium; it’s now become an instrument of correctness.

 

Record Houses simply presents a clear vision of the world many architects aspire to: top-down, design-first homes, where image is both distilled and “innovative.” Given the fact that the vast majority of homes, new and old, do not share this ethos, it’s almost a fantasy land. I love this land, too, but it’s an incomplete picture.

 

Far less than 5% of houses designed and built in America have architects helping to create them. Given the recent history of Record Houses, it’s not hard to see why.

 

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