Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
October 8, 1999
Alice T. Friedman Women and the Making of the Modern House New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2007. 242 pp.; 30 color ills.; 110 b/w ills. Paper $29.95 (9780300117899)

Alice Friedman begins her book Women and the Making of the Modern House: A Social and Architectural History with the question, “Why were independent women clients such powerful catalysts for innovation in domestic projects?” She answers it through a series of case studies devoted to twentieth-century houses built for single women: the Hollyhock House, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright for Aline Barnsdall, a wealthy producer of avant-garde theater who was also a friend of Emma Goldman; the Schroeder House, designed together by the cabinetmaker Gerrit Rietveld and his client and lover, Truus Schroeder; the Villa Stein-de Monzie, one of Le Corbusier’s most important houses and the dwelling of Gabrielle de Monzie as well as her friends Michael and Sarah Stein; the Edith Farnsworth House built by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe as a weekend retreat; the Constance Perkins House, the work of Richard Neutra; and, finally, Robert Venturi’s house for his widowed mother, Vanna. A concluding chapter looks more briefly at two more recent houses, both in California, one designed by Morphosis for Ann Bergren, and one by Frank Israel for Sharon Drager.

In this account, which includes some of the most celebrated houses of the twentieth century as well as several known only to specialists, Friedman clearly demonstrates the way in which the specific needs of unmarried, divorced, and widowed women dissatisfied with domestic conventions that did not fulfill their requirements prompted their architects to break new ground both socially and architecturally. She is careful not to generalize on the basis of deliberately dissimilar examples about the relationship of female patronage to the development of modern and postmodern architecture; instead she gives readers a series of detailed and insightful portraits, whose richness lies in their specificity. The result may not satisfy those looking for overarching theoretical pronouncements on the relationship between gender and architecture, but it is certain to captivate and persuade a far larger readership. Indeed there are few recent examples of writing about architecture that are both so satisfying to the scholar, based as Friedman’s work is on meticulous research in archival and other primary sources as well as careful study of the building’s themselves, and to the lay reader, who is likely to be captivated by her talent at telling a story and by the publisher’s generous inclusion of numerous illustrations, many in color. Chapters from this book are consequently likely to be assigned frequently in courses on modern architecture; indeed they would be suitable for even more introductory classes in architecture and art history.

Women and the Making of the Modern House is important for two reasons. First is the clear relationship Friedman illustrates between social and architectural innovation. Second, she provides an important model for the writing of architectural history, especially that of buildings designed during the twentieth century by prominent architects.

In recent years the degree to which experimental form can be equated with radical politics has repeatedly and accurately been challenged. Friedman believes, however, in a “fundamental connection between orginality in design and radical challenges to prevailing categories of normalcy and difference” (p. 131). Within the limited circumstances of her study (all of the clients were comfortably situated economically), she demonstrates that individual women have had both the economic power and intellectual motivation to make compelling demands upon the celebrated architects they hired. Although only some of the men employed by the women upon whom Friedman focuses were fully sympathetic to their clients (Wright and Mies clearly less so than Rietveld, Neutra, and Venturi, for instance), all were motivated by these determined women to produce some of their most original work. Liberated from their assumptions about the form of the single-family house, these architects created spaces that, as Friedman repeatedly demonstrates, enhanced the ability of many of these women to construct the atypical households in which they would be most comfortable. “By making and sustaining new connections through spatial organization,” Friedman concludes, “architecture goes beyond mere form to act as a cultural force for change.”

Nowhere does Friedman romanticize this process, however. Instead she is at her best in a perceptive chapter on the Farnsworth House. Here she demonstrates the limited way in which Mies, despite designing one of the twentieth century’s most exquisite houses, failed to satisfy either the needs or the desires of his client. Not only did Mies’ scheme cost twice what Farnsworth was prepared to spend, it provided her with little of the privacy she sought in a weekend retreat. Farnsworth responded by refusing to install the Barcelona chairs, upholstered in pink suede, apparently recommended by Mies, which, she wrote, would “make the house look like a Helena Rubenstein studio,” and by suing the architect, whom she had once regarded as a close friend. Although she lost in court, Farnsworth garnered much sympathy, including from Elizabeth Gordon, the editor of House Beautiful.

Friedman believes that the problem with the Farnsworth House was not the amount of glass per se, but the architect’s subordination of use to form, a position she buttresses by a comparison with the Glass and Guest Houses Philip Johnson erected for himself in New Canaan. Despite the apparent similarity of the two glass houses, Johnson’s dwelling is, Friedman argues, far more informal. Furthermore, its coupling with the bunker-like Guest House provided Johnson with the retreat Farnsworth lacked. Friedman links Johnson’s strategies of blatant display paired with secretive retreat to his position as a gay man in the immediate postwar period. “Rather than actually enabling outsiders to satisfy their curiosity about what went on inside (as the Farnsworth House did),” she notes, “the Glass House screened, distorted, and overtly denied visual access through the landscaping of the hilly site and by a series of architectural devices, especially the long, tree-lined driveway that leads to the house from the main road and entrance gate.” For Friedman, “This handling contributed to the irony of transparency and to a more acute representation of the double-sided nature of domestic life, particularly for gay men who were compelled to hide their private life from outsiders” (p. 152).

As her discussion of these two houses makes clear, Friedman’s greatest contribution may not be her demonstration of the important role played by women clients in the creation of several of the twentieth century’s most experimental houses, but her method of injecting social history into the study of modernist monuments. She is a fine formalist. Indeed her description of the Farnsworth House is one of the most perceptive to be penned about such a structure since William Jordy’s classic chapter on the same architect’s nearly contemporary Lake Shore Drive Apartments:

“Even from a distance one is struck by the elegance and simplicity of its form. Eight slender columns of white-painted steel support a transparent glass box; two horizontal planes—crisp, parallel bands of steel hovering above the ground—represent the floor and the roof. Though barely making physical contact with its site, the house seems securely anchored in the green sea that surrounds it; there is a toughness and immutability to the structure, which contrast with the thinness and apparent insubstantiability of the forms. With its low terrace and ladderlike suspended staircases, the house appears to be a life raft or a tent platform, a place of refuge from the turbulence of nature.”

Nonetheless, buildings remain for the author primarily places to be inhabited. Too often recent writing about the architecture of the past century in particular has been divided between socially-oriented scholars, who for the most part take as their subject vernacular buildings, and historians of the intellect, who focus on the ideas of the profession’s most famous practitioners. Friedman amply demonstrates that even the most beautiful and brilliantly innovative buildings are always more than aesthetic objects and that the methods so often applied only to the study of ordinary structures have just as much about those that we recognize as some of the most extraordinary of all.

Kathleen James
University of California, Berkeley