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COMMENTARY : Unrolling Blueprints for the 21st Century

August 20, 1994|PETER DeFRANCISCI and DIANA DeFRANCISCI | Peter and Diana DeFrancisci, who are father and daughter, work together in Orange County as architect design consultants and in real estate sales. Peter's work as an architect and land-use planner has included projects such as Century City in Los Angles and the Del Amo Center in Torrance.

Once upon a time, California residential architecture was considered the cutting edge, the avant-garde, of residential design. California designs were as much in demand around the world as American cars. That was long ago. Today the "American dream" is a nightmare. Although a home purchase is the single largest investment the average American will make, new homes fail to meet the minimum daily requirements of today's lifestyle and are totally inadequate for tomorrow's.

Why do we buy poorly designed, poorly planned homes? Why are we so oblivious to what our homes look like or how they function for us? Why have we forgotten that architecture is one of the arts? Why aren't we more demanding?

The great Austrian-born architect Richard Neutra led the first California design revolution in 1929, when he built Lovell House in Los Angeles. "A continuos flow of space is suggested by the vast sheets of glass and thin supports" is the way Neutra described it. He experimented with a light steel frame that permitted large glass areas and introduced the sliding glass door.

His innovative concepts regarding the relationship between indoor and outdoor space pushed the envelope of residential design and changed the American lifestyle forever.

People discovered their home need not be confined within the boundaries of the perimeter walls, and they discovered the back yard. New industries were spawned: Everyone wanted back-yard patios, back-yard barbecues, swimming pools, indoor-outdoor landscaping, sliding glass doors. The California lifestyle became the dream, and the greatest land rush in California history began.

From 1945 through the '50s, California design fever swept the country. Schools of architecture rediscovered Neutra, Frank Lloyd Wright and the Bauhaus School of Design. Students were taught principles of design-composition-color-materials.

Great painters such as Mondrian were reinventing geometric shapes and proportions and the dynamism of composition. Sculptors such as Alexander Calder taught architects to "Free your minds so that you may feel in terms of space and volume what the eye cannot see." What an exciting time: We had discovered the thrill of design.

We celebrated Neutra's 100th birthday in 1992, but we have very little to celebrate; design and philosophy have remained frozen. The Lovell House looks innovative, super modern , in fact, by today's standards.

If you drive down a street of "custom homes" in Orange County, you will find a strange mixture of English half-timbered, French chateau, Cape Cod, Mediterranean (Italian, Spanish or Moorish) and assorted castles without moats.

It is much simpler for the buyers who want to buy a tract house. These buyers get to select from the thousands of monotonous rows of stucco boxes with various shades of pink tile roofs that blanket the hillsides like a garish quilt. We call it the "Taco Bell syndrome."

California builders have perfected mediocrity. The scale of this thoughtless repetition is numbing.

Today's buyer is better educated, more knowledgeable and uses the home in more ways than ever before. Many people are spending more time at home working, and more will be. The "super information highway" is upon us. What planning is there to accommodate it? Developers are instead still building traditionally dysfunctional floor plans. Television has been the prime source of home entertainment for more than 45 years, and yet people moving into their dream home still have the same question: "Where do we put the TV?"

They should be asking where to put the home office, fax machines, computers, audio-visual and exercise equipment. A now-famous writer had his word processor in the laundry room when he began to write. There is no attempt to produce a plan that recognizes contemporary lifestyles.

California design has been in gridlock for more than three decades. Fraudulent, poorly executed designs are not in keeping with California's rich heritage of creative design. The relationship between contemporary lifestyle and design must be recognized. We must free our minds and emancipate residential design--break the lethargy. Let us rediscover the thrill of discovery.

The art of architecture is deeply rooted in its past, and only by studying the past can we design for the future, if in between we understand the present.

We have many talented architects; let's give them a chance. Neutra once asked, "Is planning possible; can destiny be designed?" The answer must be . . . yes!

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