It's Super Bowl week in Chicago, and the media coverage of the Bears is starting to get weird. (More on that in a future post.) Win or lose, the day after the Super Bowl the real estate market starts up again and our search for a new house commences again.
My wife and I are expecting our second child in early March, so we need to move to larger quarters. We share a common taste in modern design, and we'd like a house that is sleek and modern and elegantly functional--like an iPod, only we'd live in it. Finding an affordable modernist house should be easy pickings in Chicago, or so you would think. Chicago prides itself on being one of the capitals of modern architecture. Furthermore, we live in Oak Park, once the home of the preeminent twentieth-century American architect, Frank Lloyd Wright. But a quick look around Oak Park reveals that the town's experiment with modern architecture pretty much ended when Wright grabbed his mistress and left town. There are a few modern-style houses in town, and some work by students of Wright, but the only lesson they seemed to have retained was how to make the bedrooms as small as possible. The backward-looking, nostalgic architecture Wright complained about is still the dominant style here. If he were to return from the dead and saw Oak Park now, he'd grab someone else's wife and leave town all over again.
So last year, before the real estate market shut down at the beginning of the football season, we went online and found a 1952 mid-century modern house in a far north suburb. We immediately scheduled an appointment with the realtor. With each tollway exit we passed, we mentally checked off another friend who wouldn't come this far north to visit us. The agent told us the couple who owned the house entertained a lot, but they must have had very small friends because the place was tiny--smaller than the place we live in how. All the fixtures and appliances were original, and since we wanted mid-century style but not mid-century function, we would have to replace them all. The electric stove, the biggest I'd ever seen, looked like it should be generating electricity rather than consuming it. Everything needed work. Even the birdhouse needed work. We declined to make an offer.
We went back online and found a cluster of mid-century modern homes in south suburban Olympia Fields, where the streets are named after Greek deities. The confluence of the extremely archaic and the absolutely modern is an interesting topic on its own, but the homes were affordable and the property taxes reasonable. Unfortunately, over the past few years my family has been moving north as the polar ice caps recede, so moving further south didn't seem like a good long-term strategy.
By then it became clear that if we wanted a modern house, we would need to build it ourselves. Again, this seemed like a reasonable idea. There were all kinds of magazines and retail stores devoted to the idea of making modern design accessible to people with ordinary incomes. However, modern design "within reach" usually means a lamp "within your credit limit." One of the most promising ideas we'd come across was the prefab modern house. The concept is simple: a truck delivers your house in a few pallets, then all it takes is a few turns of a screwdriver and presto! you've got the Farnsworth House. We discovered, however, that contractors don't like building just one prefab house. In effect, prefab costs the same as custom. Besides, in order to find an open lot we'd have to go so far out into the exurbs that our work commute would be equivalent to a flight to Paris.
By this point our plans had evolved to include green architecture, which was both stylish and virtuous. The basic tenets of green architecture fit us perfectly. First, a house shouldn't be any bigger than it needs to be, which was fine because we can't afford a big house. Second, a house should use natural, renewable resources to cool the house in the summer and warm it in the winter. Since our current place is stiflingly hot in summer and freezing in winter, anything that reversed that pattern would be a welcomed change. Third, the house materials should be non-toxic and recyclable to minimize the environmental impact when it's eventually demolished. Well, we may compromise on this point. I'm not sure "it's an easy cleanup when you tear it down" is a feature that adds much to the resale value.
So we approached an architect about adding a modern, environmentally-friendly addition to an existing Oak Park house. The architect was very nice about humoring us, and he agreed to come up with something feasible once we found a suitable place. So we've been looking at houses with this plan in mind, and in every house we draw an imaginary line where the cramped 1920's bungalow would end and the bright modern house would begin, and that line is invariably just inside the front door.
In our search for affordable modernist architecture we keep running into old modernist literary ironies. An aesthetic born in the age of mass production is now reserved for wealthy connoisseurs. Plebeian materials like cement have been transformed into McMansion-budget items. Frank Lloyd Wright believed that a progressive architecture accessible to the middle classes would lead to a happier, more egalitarian and healthier democracy. That ideal remains unrealized. It doesn't seem healthy for our democracy when progressive design is reserved for the wealthy while the rest of us are stuck with fragments of an endlessly recurring past.