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11 November 2012

'Women and the Making of the Modern House: A Social and Architectural History' by Alice T. Friedman

"Some of the 20th century's most popular and influential architects were not far seeing when it came to women as clients"

Too many independent books stores are closing these days.  I picked up this book in a lovely shop in the center of town.  About 3 years ago they were in trouble because they could not compete with Amazon.  They stayed afloat with old books, second hand books.  They closed because they cannot compete with ebay.  I do like to browse and these stores carry books beyond the usual commercialized best sellers.  Without this book store I would not have run into this gem.  The title alone was interesting, the book itself and the houses are impressive.

The book is a "social and architectural history" with a concrete twist.  All the houses described in the book were commissioned by women or by families where the women played an unusual role.  The 20th century brought many changes to how women viewed themselves, spent their own money and chose to live.  It is a natural extension of a new identity that the houses women commissioned would have several breaks from the way men built homes.  Women use their homes as men would use a conference room.  To women the community begins with the family, but does not end there and these homes often reflect the larger role women wish to play.

Some of the 20th century's most popular and influential architects were not far seeing when it came to women as clients.  I was at times shocked by how Frank Lloyd Wright treated a client by misrepresenting her character to bolster his own reputation at a point in his career that no longer needed it.  Ludwig Mies van der Rohe was even nastier.  He created a famous glass house for a female client that put her on show.  There was by design no privacy or even the option to invite a guest because he assumed a single woman would have no guests.  Yes, it was a glass box but what Friedman does is contrast this glass house to another famous glass house of the time that solved the issues of privacy and the right to intimacy (the owner and architect, Philip Johnson, was gay).

All is not moaning about men though.  The house that Robert Venturi built for his mother is unique and intellectual, yet sensitive to his mother's wishes and habits.  My personal favorite is the Constance Perkins house built by Richard Neutra.  He built this house on a tight budget.  What he delivered is the result of listening to an intelligent client.  The house is perfectly suited to her life socially and privately.
The essays are intelligent and well researched with exhaustive bibliographies.  I learnt too much to describe here.  Different houses are discussed along with their social context and of course female inhabitants.  The essays are not overly long and now that I have read all of them once I can go back to individual houses and reread.

Alice T. Friedman
ISBN: 9780810939899

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