Parallel Walls - The New American Townhouse

Introduction to The New American Townhouse

by Alexander Gorlin

Click here to see the published version.

Within the past ten years there has been a resurgence of the town house. The retreat from the central city to the suburbs has abated and the return to the urban core has been accompanied not only by the restoration of derelict structures but also, surprisingly, by much new construction. This renewed interest in living in the spaces of the traditional city has ironically allowed a reinvestigation of the town house type, abandoned by modernism for so long (although it once was a central focus of activity by architects such as Le Corbusier during the initial rise of modern architecture in the 1920s). This trend is not limited to cities like New York, where the town house was already established, but has also emerged in places like Dallas and Denver, where there never was a dense center. The desire for pedestrian-scaled places to live, where people interface with computers and each other and are free from dependency on the automobile, was also a response to the introduction of the problems of the central city into the suburbs. The ideas of Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk and the research of the Institute for Architecture and Urban Studies in the 1970s were valuable for their reintroduction of the idea that a city grows, not fully formed from the head of Zeus, but within a set of restrictions that, when properly applied, encourages creativity rather than stifling the new. As opposed to the limitations of pattern book places like Disney's Celebration, the lessons of the development of London, Paris, and New York demonstrate that urban codes and rules have absorbed and encouraged variety and innovation in the creation of the city.

The town house is one of the basic building blocks of the city. Defined by two parallel walls and vertically oriented circulation, it is commonly three to five stories tall, the maximum comfortable climb by a person. It is therefore a housing type intimately related to the human size and scale. The town house is both an individual actor on the stage of the street and also a replicable unit that can be combined to make urban configurations that extend the plan of the city. It embodies many important issues concerning architecture today- the obligation of architecture to the city; the nature of that urban presence; the relationship of the city to suburbia; the tension between the public, exterior facade on the street and the private, interior domain and the correlated formal issues of the facade, wall, screen, transparency, translucency, luminosity; and the making of plans that are also models for housing at a larger scale-all within the formal typology of the prismatic box, the "most difficult" of the four types characterized by Le Corbusier, but the one he called "most satisfying to the spirit."

The town house is a typology of enormous restrictions, and therefore a laboratory of creative possibilities within a very limited realm. The parallel walls that define the town house type were established by certain structural and economic considerations that allow only a few options regarding circulation, floor area, entry, and functional organization. And yet some of the greatest houses of the last two centuries have been town houses, such as Sir John Soane's ho use, built in London in the early nineteenth century; the Maison de Verre by Pierre Chareau, built in Paris in 1931; and Le Corbusier's town houses: Ozenfant, Cook, and Planeix. The latter were built despite Le Corbusier's polemic against the very urbanism of the street that the town house implied. Le Corbusier wrote in 1929, "The street is a drain, a deep slit, a narrow corridor... the street wears us out, finally it disgusts us." Today no one calls for the destruction of the central city and praises the superhighway as the correct scale of the future as Le Corbusier did, or desires a dispersal of the city into a suburban sprawl, as Frank Lloyd Wright endorsed. On the contrary, the city is acknowledged once again as a locus of creativity, the place of social interaction where there is the call for a "culture of congestion," (3) to use Rem Koolhaas's term. The avant-garde position in architecture now espouses the human-scaled city.

The form and organization of the contemporary American town house is derived from a multitude of sources: ancient Rome, the London house, the French hotel particulier, and their offspring in the work of the modern masters Soane, Chareau, and Le Corbusier, as well as examples in the United States. Important to the selection of projects in this book is that they be urban and modern (in the sense of a critical reinterpretation of the type rather than a traditional copy from the past). Essential to the idea of a pedestrian-oriented city that is not incompatible with modern architecture is the realization that Classical or Victorian Gothic are not the only good styles, a stance that opposes some of the rhetoric of the New Urbanism. The typology of building does not dictate style, as the traditionalists would have us believe.

In discussing the town house as we know it today, it is important then to begin with the Roman town house as described by Vitruvius, the best examples of which are preserved in Pompeii. They define the type with such precision that they are also praised at length by Le Corbusier in Towards a New Architecture. He saw the houses of Pompeii as excellent examples of the possibilities of an animated architecture with in a very confined space, as well as having larger urban implications. They fit within the grid established by the north-south axes of the cardo and decumanus, the cross axis that orients the Roman city. A hierarchy of place is created in which the city is organized around the open space of the public forum as the private house is planned around the atrium and peristyle garden. Incorporating the idea of standardized parts, the Roman house was representative of a type that flourished across the empire.

Characterizing the Roman town house were a number of elements that remained constant but could be varied in plan. A wall defined the street front, often with shops backing onto the ho use. The entrance vestibule created a transition from the street to the domain of the house, leading to the fauces, or "throat," that opened onto the atrium, a high central space, often with an open skylight that collected water into the impluvium in a pool below. On axis with the front door was the tablinium, either the master bedroom or a depository of the family records, and the most important room of the house. The peristyle garden, surrounded by a portico, lay beyond and was the ultimate focus of the house, completing the metaphorical transition from the city to the countryside in an architecturally rich setting of modulated shadow and light. As Le Corbusier described: "Again the little vestibule which frees your mind from the street. And then you arc in the atrium; four columns in the middle (four cylinders) shoot up towards the shade of the roof, giving a feeling of force and a witness of potent methods; but at the far end is the brilliance of a garden seen through the peristyle which spreads out t his light with a large gesture, distributes it and accentuates it, stretching widely from left to right, making a great space. Between the two is the tablinium, contracting this vision like the lens of a camera. On the right and on the left two patches of shade-little ones. Out of the clatter of the swarming street, which is for every man and full of picturesque incident, you have entered the house of a Roman."

The House of the Tragic Poet in Pompeii features an unusual asymmetrical plan, a device that would become important for future interpretations of the town house. Again, Le Corbusier writes: "And here in the House of the Tragic Poet we have the subtleties of a consummate art. Everything is on an axis, but it would be difficult to apply a true line anywhere. The axis is in the intention, and the display afforded by the axis extends to the humbler things which it treat most skillfully {the corridors, the main passage, etc.) by optical illusions. The axis here is not an arid thing of theory; it links together the main volumes which are clearly stated and differentiated one from another. When you visit the House of the Tragic Poet, it is clear that everything is ordered. But the feeling it gives is a rich one. You then note clever distortions of the axis which give intensity to the volumes: the central motive of the pavement is set behind the middle of the room; the well at the entrance is set at the side of the basin. The fountain at the far end is in the angle of the garden."

The London town house and its American offspring, in various forms from the mid-eighteenth century to the present day, uses Roman plan elements such as the atrium - often two stories in height - as a means for illuminating the interior, and the similarly organized progression of defined spaces from the street to the garden. For the contemporary architect in particular, it is Le Corbusier's later abstraction and reinterpretation of the classical devices of the London town house that provide the links to the past from which ideas develop in a vocabulary suited to our time. London is a city of the town house, and the developers who built the city packed as many as possible into the valuable street fronts, as they were responsible for the construction of the street as well. These economic forces and the limit of structural joists to span across the party walls determined the dimensions of the house type. Typically long, narrow lots were laid out, extending back from the street into a garden that was served by a secondary service alley. These "terrace houses," as they were called, sliced through the city at right angles to the street and housed all classes from the poor to the aristocracy within the same architectural typology.

As the French writer Louis Simond wrote in 1817, "These narrow houses, three or four stories high- one for eating, one for sleeping, a third for company, a fourth underground for the kitchen, a fifth perhaps at top for servants-and the agility, the ease, the quickness with which the individuals of the family run up and down, and perch on the different stories, give the idea of a cage with its sticks and birds." The relationship of the levels of the townhouse to the street was unusual as the street was built up, so that the basement was a half level down. The original grade was maintained only in the garden at the rear of the town house. The custom of building vaults under the house and sidewalk was carried over from medieval times, and a storage area was provided under the sidewalk to the edge of the street. Inside, the plan consisted of one room at the front and one at the rear with a corridor and stair to one side. This was different from the houses on the Continent as noted in Muthesius's The English House of 1904, where he remarks that the French and Germans have rooms en suite, opening directly onto each other, whereas the English prefer the privacy afforded by a separate circulation zone. In addition, the English predilection for vertical living precluded apartments spread horizontally, which were not introduced to England until 1850.

Andrea Palladio's Four Books on Architecture provided an innovative model for the London town house. By joining the portico, previously reserved for the Roman temple and, subsequently, the Church, to the neutral facade of the Italian vernacular farmhouse and the medieval urban home, Palladio revolutionized domestic architecture by giving it a gridded order and dignity with an enormously flexible vocabulary that could be adapted to city or country. Inigo Jones, who visited Italy in 1614 and acquired copies of Palladio's books, was the first to bring the style to England. The sober grid of square windows punched into the plain brick facade characteristic of the Georgian town house was first enlivened with pilasters and set on a plinth in the Palladian style by Jones in his Covent Garden town houses of 1638. Unfortunately, this aesthetic direction was allied with Jones's patron, Charles I, whose subsequent beheading signaled a political climate that also severed the Palladian style from the facade of the London town house. It was almost a hundred years before the facade would regain any classical embellishment.

The Fire of 1666 burned over four fifths of London and instigated a series of building regulations that did more to determine the vocabulary of the town house than any specific style. Most building regulations in America also came into being after disasters of incendiary origin, such as the Chicago fire of 1871. After the London fire in 1667, the Act for the Rebuilding of the City of London was passed. Regulating building practices for the first time, the act promoted fire resistant brick and stone for construction, decreed the precise thickness of walls at different heights, fixed the sizes of interior wood joists and ceiling heights, and required that larger houses have first floor balconies. Houses were divided into four classes "for better regulation, uniformity and gracefulness." Each class was proscribed to be of different heights from two to four stories.

Subsequent acts legislated more details. The Statute of 1707 outlawed all wooden eave cornices, substituting stone, and raised a horizontal parapet that hid part of the gable. giving the effect of a flat roof from below. Another law in 1709 pushed the wooden window frames back from flush to four inches behind the face of the brick facade, adding a measure of solidity to the street front. Windows changed from casement to double-hung sash, giving a more uniform look to the elevation. (Many years later, Frank Lloyd Wright would wage war on what he called the "guillotine window" and revive casements both for their ventilating capabilities and for their informal sensibility). Culminating the various regulatory laws was the great Building Act of 1774, which was drafted by Sir Robert Taylor and George Dance. It was far-reaching legislation whose effect was to codify existing tendencies in construction and to decree by implication an aesthetic sensibility of restraint and plainness.

A later generation ofVictorians would christen it "The Black Act of 1774" for its almost total banishment of ornament. Four categories or "rates" of town houses were denoted by specific economic values and square footages: the "First Rate" house was more than nine squares (900 square feet) and valued over £850; the ''Fourth Rate" house was less than £150 and less than three and a half squares (350 square feet). Different structural requirements governed each "rate" regarding foundations, party walls, and other building components. As John Summerson has pointed out, the act standardized types of houses previously built by speculators and created a straitjacket of uniformity from which variation was difficult. Ornament was constrained to nat incised panels consistent with the prevailing neoclassical style; wood was virtually eliminated and replaced by an artificial stone, "Coade stone"; and bay windows that had once been generously proportioned were now limited to a projection of ten feet or less from the facade. The standardization encouraged an insistent homogeneity and often resulted in a dreadful monotony, which John Ruskin in The Stones of Venice decried for the loss of detail, color, and sculpture of medieval street architecture "from the Grand Canal to Gower Street; from the marble shaft, and the lancet arch, and the wreathed leafage, and the glowing and melting harmony to the square cavity in the brick wall."

Individuality was largely confined to the interior under the strictures of the Building Act. The best example of such interior innovation was the house/museum of Sir John Soane, the prominent and inventive architect of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. His London town house is a self-portrait, an architectural statement of the most personal kind in which Soane's eccentric genius is expressed through a series of spaces that distill many of the great architectural themes of his career while framing his exceedingly strange collection of architectural fragments and furniture. The property included parts of three town houses that Soane had purchased, with his office in the first, No. 12 of 12-14 Lincoln's Inn Fields. Renovated and reconstructed over a period of forty years, the house is a labyrinth of space excavated from within the body of the three adjacent urban structures. The center house, Number 13, completed in 1812, was brought forward from the building line and is faced in white Portland stone, with a tripartite arch motif in contrast to the more neutral rectangular windows of the two neighboring town houses. Shallow incised ornament crisply defines the plinth of the central entry block that opens up to a series of narrow pilasters on the upper floor to blend in with the adjacent brick facades, perfectly complying with the restrictions on ornament prescribed by the Building Act of 1774. The monumental character of the arched facade is emphasized by two stone sculptures based on the Erechtheum in Athens and Gothic capitals from the fourteenth-century Westminster Hall set into slots between the arches as unstable pedestals rather than as the sturdy base for a lintel above. These act as signs of the two competing styles and moral codes governing architecture in England at the time: the Gothic and the Classic.

One is unprepared, though, for the mad space of the interior, in which Soane explores not only his own dark psyche but also the ancient idea of the house as that space traditionally framing life's passage from birth to death. The plan extends the traditional London town house laterally into two adjacent houses. The resulting "complex" is a manic variation of the Roman atrium house, organized around three courts: the Dome Room, the Monument Court, and the Picture Gallery. In section, these spaces break open vertically. Around these main "courts" fragmentary vistas unfold between rooms. On the basement level a view down a series of shallow arches alongside an Egyptian sarcophagus evokes the sublime terror of Piranesi's prison etchings. Soane himself said of the vaulted, pavilion-like breakfast parlor, "The views from this room into the Monument Court and into the Museum, the mirrors on the ceiling, and the looking glasses, combined with the variety of outline and general arrangement in the design and decoration of this limited space, present a succession of those fanciful effects which constitute the poetry of architecture." The complex and dynamic interplay between spaces, the sense of being in "rooms within rooms," gives the impression of the house as a microcosmic, domestic expression of the urban scale outside. At the same rime, it is also a triumphant dialogue between deeply personal and idiosyncratic interior spaces and a restrained, civically oriented facade, a modern duality that continues to appear in town house design.

When combined in units, the London town house could create urban spaces in squares such as Covent Garden and John Nash's Regents Park. John Wood Sr. and John Wood Jr. created an extraordinary series of urban spaces in Bath, where the town house became the module for the swelling oval of the Circus, the serpentine undulations of Landsdowne Crescent, and the expansive curves of the Royal Crescent. The monumental facades masked fairly ordinary town house plans. The Circus turned the Roman Colosseum inside out with a tripartite facade defining a circular space intersected by three streets. The Royal Crescent was more definitive, with a grand series of Ionic columns atop a plinth supporting a generous cornice and enclosing on one side-only one half of the original design was built-a space recalling the plan of the Colosseum. The sequence of urban spaces, from Queen Square to the Circus to the Crescent, endured as a model for British urban planning until the beginning of the twentieth century.

Curiously, in the newly independent United States there were very few public squares designed with the town house as a unit. Exceptions are Louisburg Square on Deacon Hill in Boston, which was the partially executed plan of Charles Bulfinch; Jackson Square in New Orleans (originally of French origin); Rittenhouse Square in Philadelphia, one of four eight-acre public parks William Penn laid out in his plan for the city; and the squares of various New England towns. Obviously the American Revolution encouraged an independence in the new country's thinking about urbanism that distanced itself from the planning of London. However, the pattern had already been set in the older cities of New York, Philadelphia, and Boston to follow the model of the London town house as the example of the standard element of housing in the city. Differences slowly developed, and it took the entire nineteenth century to develop wholly American traditions, which were eventually swept aside with the coming of new architecture from sources as disparate as Frank Lloyd Wright and European modernism. A closer study of the development of the New York town house illuminates some of the immediate background of the emergence of the present American examples.

New York was a Dutch colony until 1664 and derives some of its architectural features from its mother country. The house was raised on a short flight of stairs called a stoop, after the Dutch stoep, which allowed a lower basement level to be inhabitable with clerestory windows. This arrangement was similar to the town house in London, where the street itself was built up to provide for light and ventilation to the basement. The stoop gave a monumental character to the modest brick town houses: setting the main level on a plinth gave it more importance and recalled the Italian concept of the piano nobile, which places living areas on the second floor, away from the dust and dirt of the street. The Federal style (175G-1820) was actually Georgian, but after the Revolution this name was not politically correct and therefore changed. It was characterized by a straightforward brick facade, a gabled roof with dormers fronting the street, and a carved wood doorway set in the frame of the brick opening. Inside, on the lower floor, were the kitchen and dining room, with two parlor rooms on the main floor, bedrooms above, and the stair located alongside one of the party walls. The dining room was not brought up to the main parlor floor until much later. Building lots in Manhattan were originally twenty-five to twenty-eight feet wide, but became as narrow as twelve to eighteen feet due to the increase in the cost of land on the island. Stairs in wider lots were originally at the back with a window, but when lots narrowed, the stair was placed in the middle with a skylight above. These houses were often nor the work of architects but of builders who used pattern books such as Asher Benjamin's American Builder's Companion or Minard Lafever's The Modem Builders Guide, each with different styles to choose from and including instructions in basic methods of construction. The Federal style was modest in its appearance and presented a sober background as the more dramatic Greek Revival style started to take over.

The narrower lots that were more common by the time of the Greek Revival style pushed up the height of the town house to four or five stories above the basement level, and the flights of steps of the stoops became more monumental, with intricate black wrought ironwork balustrades and handrails. Elaborately carved doorways with pediments and columns stood forward from the facade as freestanding elements, and the entry vestibule was pushed deeper into the body of the town house, creating a play of shadow and light with large cornices crowning the roofline above. Henry James described an example of the style, Dr. Sloper's house in Washington Square, as "a handsome, modern, wide-fronted house with a big balcony before the drawing room windows, and a flight of white marble steps ascending to a portal which was also faced with white marble." The Greek Revival style eliminated the gabled roof and dormer and substituted a more severe horizontal cornice line.

The archaeological and romantic interest in ancient Greece, partially fueled by Greece's struggle for independence from the Ottoman Empire, was expressed in town house design through the focus on the freestanding columns of the entrance portico. This culminated in 1832-33 with Colonnade Row (on Lafayette Street in New York and attributed to Alexander Jackson Davis), which employed a double-height open loggia of Corinthian columns on a one story-high rusticated plinth.This series of sixteen adjoining town houses was acclaimed as the most magnificent residence in the city at the time, a massively monumental assembly creating a street from recalling the models of Bath and the terraces of Nash in London of 1780s. It also pointed out the general lack of coordinated, street-long town house edifices that were more common abroad.

As in England, the conflict between Classic and Gothic extended to America, however without the polemically charged atmosphere. The Greek Revival eventually succumbed to the darker, more somber tones of the Gothic and Italian Revival styles, which made extensive use of brownstone, a type of sandstone quarried in New Jersey and Connecticut that, when freshly cut, is pink but soon turns brown due to the presence of a hematite iron ore inside. Vincent Scully eloquently summed up the brownstone's appeal: "As the true urban culmination of the century the somber brownstones appeared, stately and marvelous, looming above the iron speared sidewalks, bold and warm in their presences, varied in their forms." Brownstone spread and became the predominant color of New York, beloved by some and despised by others, such as Edith Wharton, who claimed it was " the most hideous stone ever quarried" and made the city " hidebound in its deadly uniformity of mean ugliness."

As the city moved rapidly uptown, with fashionable neighborhoods changing frequently, the styles of town ho uses mirrored the architecture of the day, reflecting the confusion that characterized the nineteenth century. The public face of the town house was reticent in its immutable mask of conformity and in the subdued Federal style. By the late nineteenth century the display of wealth became an accepted and encouraged attitude in the Gilded Age as reflected in the colonization of New York's Upper East Side, with Fifth Avenue known as "Chateau Country." Architects such as McKim, Mead and White and Richard Morris Hunt led the charge, designing palatial French, Italian, and Gothic confections where private luxury was no longer confined to the interior but ostentatiously displayed in the architectural mass and detail of marble and limestone facades. Often entire European interiors were imported and installed to instantly gratify the urge to acquire not only wealth but also culture and taste. This eclectic cacophony lasted until the rise of modernism in the city.

At the same time the town house model was used in a denser and more compressed form, called tenements, for the lower classes. This was as much a consequence of the dimensions of the grid super imposed on Manhattan in 1811 by the New York State Commissioners Plan, where blocks of two hundred feet by eight hundred feet were subdivided into lots of twenty-five feet by a hundred feet. Far from being an act of genius, as Koolhaas wrote in Delirious New York, the width of the blocks was too narrow for the necessary service alleys common in grid planning such as in London and Philadelphia. Town houses were built not only for the poor but also for the rich on as much as ninety percent of the lot, squeezing all light and air out of the site. Laws were passed calling for light wells and minimum distances in rear yards, but a consequence of the block size is that even today many grand Upper East Side town houses built in the late nineteenth century have as little light and ventilation in the rear as tenements on the Lower East Side. Space became the ultimate luxury in New York. This situation lasted until the 1880s when the extreme density and rise of real estate prices started to change New Yorkers' attitudes toward living in apartment houses.

In other cities it was different, with the tradition of Philadelphia's town houses dating back to William Penn's plan for the city laid out in 1685 by the surveyor Thomas Holes. This was soon after the London fire, and from the beginning brick was used extensively as the maJor material of construction. The large-scale blocks laid out by Penn were eventually broken up into smaller lots with service alleys and led to a type of town house peculiar to Philadelphia called the bandbox, a tower house, with one room per floor, set along secondary streets in courts or mews facing each other, often at the rear of larger houses. As small as sixteen feet square with a winding stair inside, they could be as high as five stories tall. The other common Philadelphia town house type was one room deep and then narrowed to allow a side yard. The stair to the upper level was in a space called a piazza; and the rear back building, where not developed into bandbox types, became stables. The basement was suppressed in Philadelphia, for the kitchen was deep below grade, and the ground-floor parlor was the most elaborately furnished room in the house.

In Baltimore, a somewhat younger city close to Philadelphia, the town house developed along the same lines and eventually became the predominant type. It was common to see unified street fronts of town houses such as Robert Mills's Waterloo Row of 1816 (demolished) in Baltimore than in other post-Revolutionary cities. The Poppleton Plan street grid of 1812 was more functional for town houses than the New York model of the previous year. The blocks were 350 feet long with service alleys in between rows of houses that marched up and down the hills of the city. From the most modest to the largest, many were distinguished by white marble steps, a simple device that, like Palladio's addition of the portico to the Italian farmhouse, gave great dignity to the house. As Vincent Scully has stated, "the proportions are decisive; the buildings are high enough to give the street a shape, the doors and windows showing the scale of human use, the red brick of the defining walls varying in tone and therefore seeming to flow in and out down the street, the window cornices marking a beat, syncopating the rhythm, the major cornices giving the whole street- shape a volumetric definition." H. L. Mencken, a native of Baltimore, called them " those old placid rows" and elaborated, "Why should a man of today abandon it for a house of harsh masses, hideous outlines and bald metallic surfaces. The eighteenth-century house fits a civilized man almost perfectly."

In Boston, the Beacon Hill and Back Bay maintain sections with great concentrations of town houses. Asher Benjamin himself lived on Beacon Hill, where many of the town houses, with their swelling curves of bay windows and wooden cornices, were of his design. The architect Charles Bulfinch had planned a large curving square as the center of the Hill. Only partially built, it became Louisburg Square, which is still a magical place, an oasis of green in the midst of the amply curving houses surrounding it on all sides.

In Chicago, the fire of 1871 destroyed much of the city, prompting regulations that banned wood construction in the downtown area. Architects rushed to the city, including Frank Lloyd Wright, who built town houses for Robert Roloson in 1894 with steeply gabled ends recalling his own house in Oak Park. Louis Sullivan also came; his houses had sensual, flat ornament that was kept tightly wound to the surface, adorning framed areas. Among the other notable Chicago town houses was Alta Vista Terrace of 1900-04, with approximately 480 feet of town houses of divergent styles giving a lively texture to the long facade.

The planning strategies of the Parisian residential models comprise the other significant source of the contemporary American town house today, not so much in relation to the development of the traditional brownstone as to its influence on Le Corbusier and his development of the modern urban typology. The French hotel particulier was originally built to house the nobility in close proximity to the king, but by the nineteenth century the term signified the Paris town house for any class. As opposed to the London town house, the hotel was set back from the street behind a gate and courtyard, with a garden in the rear. Although the facade was usually symmetrical, the plan was not, with unexpected adjacencies and irregularities within the frame of the urban site. This strategy was employed by Claude-Nicolas Ledoux in 1772 in the Hotel Guimard, where a monumentally symmetrical arched portico is on axis not with the main entrance hall but with the boudoir, apparently in sly reference to Mlle. Guimard's reputation as a famed courtesan. Inside, the dining room is sandwiched between the bedroom and bath, inverting and overlapping the private and public spaces of the house. The intricate asymmetries of the hotel often reflected the convoluted intricacies and intrigues of the French court.

Substantially preceding the categorization of the London town house, the architect Le Muet's seven grades in Mauiere de bieu bastir pour toutes sortes de persouues of 1623 standardized the types of Parisian urban houses into a hierarchical typology based on the cost and size of house. It was not unlike seats in the Paris opera, where the width was reduced as one moved further away from the stage (a form of class system still firmly entrenched in the airline industry). The grades (here first grade was the smallest, as opposed to the London system) ranged in size from a rower with one room per floor, at twelve by twenty-one and one-half feet, to a house measuring forty- five by one hundred feet. All of Le Muet's designs arc for town houses directly fronting the street, with discussion of the proper furnishing of each room, closets, the placement of the bed, the dimensions of doors, and the height of rooms (thirteen to fourteen feet on the first level, to eleven to twelve feet on the third level). Although there is a basement, it is below grade, not a half level down as in London. Kitchens were on the ground floor, living rooms on the the first, and bedrooms above.

The town house unit provided the module for the construction of two magnificent squares in Paris, the first being the Place des Vosges (Place Royale), constructed in compliance with an order of Henri IV in '1598 that  established a code governing the planning of the facades, which would then be built by private individuals after signing leases from the king. Originally planned as a combination of units for silk workshops and houses, the manufacturing aspect of the plan was eventually eliminated, with ho uses atop a unified, open arched gallery of shops. All of the facades were built to a consistent design, but the plans of the houses extend enormously in depth, merging with the surrounding streets. The houses arc wider than most London town houses at forty-eight to fifty two feet; the roof above was gabled with dormers facing the square. Louis XIV took the concept further in 1686 and built all of the facades of the Place Vendome (Place Louis-le-Grand) to the drawings of Francois Mansart, selling the land behind for individuals to build town ho uses. Even Le Corbusier praised the audacity of the idea, calling the Place Vendome "one of the purest jewels in the world's treasury.'"

Le Corbusier's influence on the town house was crucial, though contradictory. Although a master of the type, building at least four in the 1920s (Guiette, Ozenfant, Cook, and Planeix), he excluded the type from his urban plans due to his ferocious, almost irrational, opposition to the street as as a place of "ugliness... horror... where death threatens us at every step" and "a sea of lusts and faces." He proposed to tear down much of the historical core of Paris (Voisin Plan, 1925), destroying the streets with a vision of isolated towers in an English park setting and lower undulating apartments that opened onto large courts: "The streets of the new city have nothing in common with those appalling nightmares, the down-town streets of New York." The many interpretations of Le Corbusier's plans often became low-income housing projects and the alienating "empty landscapes of psychosis" described by Norman Mailer. Fortunately, the town houses Le Corbusier built were in fact quite modest in scale and sensitive to the context of the Paris streets in which they were situated. As modern interpretations of the hotel particulier, they were conceptually based on the row house Citrohan type, one of two formal constructs that dominated virtually all of Le Corbusier 's work (the other being the horizontal Domino structural system, the basis of the Villa Savoye). In the Citrohan type, a double-height space characterizes the public living areas of the house, and the sleeping areas take up the remaining area of the upper half of this space. Stairs are parallel to the walls, as in the New York brownstone. The piano nobile is open, with living, dining, and kitchen all on one level. Its name being a pun on Citroen, the automobile company that paid for the exhibition of the Contemporary City, the Citrohan house was to be like a car, able to travel to different sites. Sketches are presented of the house in the city and on a lake, stretching into the water like a pier.

The Maison Cook of 1926 is raised above the ground for the car to drive underneath, one of the first designs to incorporate the newly invented automobile into the body of the house. Le Corbusier's Five Points of the New Architecture are illustrated in the house: the use of horizontal strip windows, free facade, a free plan, roof garden, and the opening up of the ground plane, inverting the classical rusticated base or plinth. The stair is set toward the middle of the plan, and a row of columns marches down the center line, dividing it into two distinct halves in the floors above. The main living area is raised to the second level and is double height, opening spatially to the rooftop garden. A balcony on the roof both juts out to a view of the Bois de Boulogne across the street and bulges into the living room as a suspended object. An internal facade is created at a right angle to the street, giving another scale to the interior of the house, in which the living room acquires a more public nature. In all of Le Corbusier's houses, a larger scale is implied, as he conceived of each house as a part of his larger urban vision. The town houses were seen as part of the ideal urban block. In his housing development for Pessac, though, there were a number of freestanding "urban villas" that were actually town houses set apart from one another.

Le Corbusier emphasized the type's parallel walls to direct the inhabitants' gaze, like blinders on a horse, to the view stretched out before them like a flattened canvas. This is evident in the Maison Guiette of 1926, where one of the party walls is set apart from the block of the house with a slot of glass and a balcony inserted in between. The curving walls of the interior play off the stairs, which slide along one wall in a manner that Le Corbusier compared to "Jacob's ladder which Charlie Chaplin climbs in the movie The Kid."

The Ozenfant house of 1923 was a studio for the painter Amedee Ozenfant, who was Le Corbusier's partner in the development of Purism, the movement in painting that called for a return to the object, as opposed to the decomposition of analytic Cubism. The house defines the corner of a Parisian street, with a spiral stair coiling up to the piano nobile. Above is the glass cube of the painter's studio with two angled, spiky skylights on the roof. The house has a strangely anthropomorphic, animated character, more like a Cubist portrait of a man smoking a pipe than a Purist still life.

But the masterpiece of the modern town house in Paris is without doubt the Maison de Verre designed by Pierre Chareau in 1931 in collaboration with the Dutch architect Bernard Bijvoet. With the hindsight of history, it is clearly one of the the most influential town houses of the twentieth century and the most extreme, obsessive exploration of the relationship between technology and the sensual domestic interior. It was the home of Dr. and Mrs. Dalsace and also his office. They had bought an eighteenth-century hotel particular and planned to tear it down and build a modern house, but the elderly tenant who lived on the top floor refused to move, prompting the solution of inserting a new steel framed structure directly below the heavy masonry walls of the apartment above. Within the frame were set panels of translucent glass block, each one square, with a circular lens at the center. As one approaches the house, within the courtyard framed by the masonry walls of the adjacent buildings, it seems to float in a shimmering, aqueous space. The facade appears like an apparition, an evanescent shimmer of glass set within the elegant lines of its steel grid. Two ladders extend the full height of the house with the sole function of holding floodlights to illuminate the glass facade so that the interior glows, day and night, with the lumiere mysterieuse beloved of John Soane.

Three floors were fit into the space occupied by two floors of the original hotel. As Dr. Dalsace wrote, "the first floor [...] is devoted to medicine, the second floor to social life, and the third to nighttime privacy."(19) Dr. Dalsace's gynecological offices, which look out to the garden in the rear, occupy most of ground floor, with the stair to living area on the second floor sharing the same corridor. A rubber floor, with shallow raised circular discs that match the pattern on the exterior glass block, runs through the offices and the double-height living room. From the inside the glass block affords privacy and recalls Adolf Loos's dictum to Le Corbusier that "a cultivated man does not look out of the window; his window is a ground glass; it is there only to let light in, not to let the gaze pass through." The view is blocked by a cataract of cloudy light, a diaphanous, luminous cocoon, like the dissolved edges of Atget's photographs of the ancien regime. In contrast to the glaze of light at the periphery of the room, one is confronted by the precise industrial details of the structural steel columns bolted together, and the highly articulated black wrought iron cabinets and bookshelves surrounding much of the room. The exposed structure of the steel columns gives the strange impression that they were there before the insertion of the glass house, blurring the distinction between old and new. One entire wall of the living room is devoted to old editions whose texture, along with the wood veneer cabinets, adds a measure of warmth. Sliding partitions separate the main living room from the dining area and views to the rear garden through clear glass panels set into the glass block wall. The Maison de Verre maintains a Japanese sensibility in the translucent panels and the fragmentary views of nature framed in the garden, creating a sense of isolation and apartness from the world, an Occidental reinterpretation of the principle known as sabi, seen to greatest effect in the design of the royal Katsura Palace in Kyoto. All around, elements rotate, including the door to the main stair, the wardrobe in the living room, the retractable ladder to the bedroom on the third floor, and the numerous rotating bidets. There are also screens in each of the third-floor bathrooms that rotate around the fixtures to enclose them for privacy and distinction between the room and bath.

Adolf Loos's trenchant writings on architecture reflect a deep meditation on the problem of the house and its implications in an urban setting. He especially touched on the problem of the street-front town house and the dichotomy between the public face and private interior, writing in 1910, "A house should appeal to everybody, as distinct from works of art which do not have to appeal to anyone [...] The work of art aims at shattering man's comfortable complacency. A house must serve one's comfort. The work of art is revolutionary, the house conservative [...] the house does not have to tell anything to the exterior; instead, all its richness must be manifest in the interior." (20) Loos admired the Georgian London town house, with its plain exterior and elaborate interiors, praising the facade's "square cavity in a brick wall," which Ruskin so vociferously condemned for what he believed was their unnecessary self-abnegation. Loos's position was elaborated in the essay Ornament and Crime, an exaggerated polemic, but one that was nonetheless taken very seriously at the time. "The evolution of culture is synonymous with the removal of ornament from objects of daily use," Loos wrote in his defense of" naked walls" against the excesses of Beaux Arts pastry cake ornament. His essays and ideas caused a tidal wave of reaction leading eventually to the minimal, flat facades of the International Style. Over a hundred years earlier, in 1774, the London Building Act had the same effect of reducing the town house facades to virtually flat screens.

In his own residential work, Loos struggled between the exigencies of the interior within the restrictions of the prismatic volume, developing the idea of the Raumplan or "plan of volumes." This was a complex internal organization of rooms and circulation in which the demands of each space collided with the symmetry of the exterior. A series of stepped sections created a dynamic and labyrinthine architectural promenade in which spaces bump against each other and views communicate between rooms, recalling Soane's house, where the same effect is created in a classical idiom. In Loos an intense interiority is achieved, where the inhabitant is framed like an actor on a stage, as in the view from the music room into the dining room in the Moller house of 1928. The refracted views in Loos's work emphasize the latent psychological drama inherent in a house, where the unexpected circumstance of meeting on the stair might be the occasion for a scene to be played out between family members.

In a town house this possibility is especially present due to the compression of the parallel walls that act as a literal stage within which all human action takes place.

Loos's town house for the French Dadaist poet Tristan Tzara presents his theories in built form. Facing Avenue Junot, on the hill of Montparnasse, the house presents a massive block with a rusticated stone base containing three rental apartments and, above, a smooth, square stucco facade into which a large rectangular opening is cut, framing a series of smaller windows. The completely symmetrical facade belies the intricacies of the interior, where numerous stairs intertwine and wrap around each other, twisting and turning, encouraging a sense of disorientation and separation from the outside world, and intensifying the private nature of Tzara's abode. The rear of the house steps down in a series of terraces that contrast strongly with the vertical plane of the street facade. Although Loos's interiors are hardly gemutlichkeit they are thankfully not neue sachlichkeit, as Loos clearly recognized that the private house was not the place for the clinical objectivity of the International Style as outlined by Philip Johnson in his exhibition of 1929. Loos provides mostly built-in furniture, allowing the space between for the display of the client's "bad taste," as he did not believe in the total control of the architect over the interior.

As European modern architecture spread to America in the 1920s, every domicile from brownstones to chateaux had to pay for their ornamental crimes and were stripped and exposed on the street, becoming bland boxes if they were not torn down entirely to make room for towers in a park. This was the fate, until virtually the 1960s, of the traditional town house, which was unappreciated in all but a few areas, such as Greenwich Village and the Upper East and Upper West Sides in New York, Society Hill in Philadelphia, Beacon Hill in Boston, and parts of Baltimore. On the other hand, due to the basically conservative nature of new residential construction in America, there were very few opportunities for architects to design town houses in a modern vocabulary.

William Lescaze was one of the earliest architects to build a modern town house in New York, in 1937. Causing a sensation upon its completion, it was set within a row of brownstones (described as "dingy" in contemporary articles) with his own office below and the living area on the top floor, like Le Corbusier's Villa Cook, so that it was directly accessible to the roof garden. A glass block front and a curving wall at ground level distinguished it from its neighbors; however, it conformed to the New York City zoning code, and was not set back from the street due to the premium placed on even the slightest plot of real estate. Also in New York, Philip Johnson's guest house of 1949 for the Rockefeller family set a blank brick wall to the street with a Miesian steel and glass cube above. Behind the wall was an open atrium and pond, giving the luxury of space and light within the walls of the city. In Chicago, on University Avenue, Keck and Keck in 1937 built an abstract brick town house that was a severe structural grid with inset louvers to modulate light. Y. C. Wong's atrium houses of 1960 in Chicago are superb examples of the privacy obtained with a brick wall, each unit organized around an internal garden court. But overall, very few modern town houses were built, as the main thrust of modern architecture's polemic was antistreet, and the town house remained detached from the program of all-inclusive urban solutions. After the early 1950s. though, it became clear that the utopian vision of modern urbanism was no longer an achievable goal; in fact, it often failed with such intensity that many housing projects were literally blown up because they were unlivable and festering centers of crime.

With the eventual return to the city, however, came the concurrent opportunity to build town houses as individual architectural statements. Paul Rudolph's house of the 1970s is as eccentric an investigation of the town house as any since Sir John Soane's. Set atop a brick row house overlooking the East River from Beckman Place in Manhattan, it literally erupts out of the top four floors with cubes of glass, steel, and hanging garden. One arrives by elevator to this penthouse extravaganza by way of a translucent white plastic cab decorated with miniature lead soldiers, providing a clue to the strange space to follow. The interior remains one of the more recent and conspicuous examples of a return to the town house as a site of self-reflection in the tradition of Soane: hundreds of cubist mirrors virtually recreate Versaille's Hall of Mirrors on the East River. Light reflected from the river below is used to dazzling effect. The vestibule is a Wrightian compression of space in preparation for the explosion of space and light opening out to the river and expanding in every direction. Certainly outdoing Soane's and Loos's parsimonious use of mirrors, the interlocking puzzle of voyeurism and narcissism approaches rococo excess. A transparent lucite, clear-bottomed bathtub exposes itself to the kitchen below, creating what is surely a strange overhead view for any house. The extraordinary cubic space, with its diagonal views and layered spatial effects, is a kind of glamorous, private folly in the sky.

Hans Hollein also contributed to the New York town house scene in the 1970s with the renovation of the Richard Feigen Gallery. On 79th Street the town house facade was stuccoed over with a minimal white surface, relieved only by a double chrome column, looking like elongated cells in mitosis and acting as a cultural sentinel. Remarkably, it fits into the New York streetscape among more staid neighbors and calls out, in a spirit of difference, to the chateau-style Rhinelander mansion just down the block. Frank Gehry's 1978 proposal for the de Menil town house in New York is a juxtaposition of inside and outside, treating the house as a box in which the contents have been shaken up. The interior rooms are set at an odd angle to the street and divided into two halves with a bridge between the front and back. The plan is a kind of dislocated French hotel, appropriate to origins of the de Menil family.

With the destruction of many New York town houses before the establishment in 1909 of the Landmarks Commission, a house proposed by Hugh Hardy in 1970 became a cause celebre due to a bay window that he intended to make just slightly more abstract than its Greenwich Village neighbors. Jutting out at a 45-degree angle. it immediately sent shudders of horror through the newly formed preservation community. In the end it was approved. after Hardy successfully argued that there had always been a variety of competing, bur compatible. architectural styles in the nineteenth century. It was a hollow victory though, as it has become almost impossible to experiment with the town house type, at least on the street front, in New York's Landmark Districts. It is ironic that Lescaze's design of 1937. although now part of the history of the Upper East Side, would certainly not be approved today. One of the ideas of this book is to encourage discussion between architects and the preservation community.

In Chicago, during the 1970s, Stanley Tigerman led the way for a return to the town house in his exhibit ''Exquisite Corpse,'' named after the surrealist game. in which seven architects were to asked to design seven town houses adjacent to each other as an exercise in chance and context. In NewYork, John Hejduk explored town houses as a mythical return to type in his series of theoretical projects for Venice, Berlin, and Riga, Latvia; variations on this theme were then built in Berlin. Hejduk explored the idea of row houses as individual personalities in conversation with each other. Aldo Rossi also did much to reinvigorate the discussion of the city and the row house in his book The Architecture of the City.

The two other directions that gave rise to a new interest in the town house were the closer study of the city by students and architects associated with the Institute for Architecture and Urban Studies who studied high-density, low-rise housing under the tutelage of Kenneth Frampton and Peter Eisenman in the mid-1970s. The other postmodern direction was pursued by Andres Duany, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, and Leon Krier, who revived the idea that the form of the city is the result of various codes and regulations that control and determine certain typologies, such as the town house. It was also a reaction to the desertion of the central cities in the 1950s and 1960s and the subsequent demolition of the historic cores such as at Detroit or Newark. Although the lure of the frontier and the open countryside always appealed to the American psyche, the saturation of the landscape has reached crisis proportions: witness recent open space referendums in New Jersey. It was Duany and Plater-Zyberk's idea to create new towns, which would concentrate the population in dense centers in order to prevent urban sprawl. The new town of Seaside in Florida became an experimental community due nor only to the proscribed building types but also to the presence of the eccentric developer Robert Davis, who, contrary to expectations, encouraged creative solutions to the code, making Seaside's Ruskin Place the only urban square between New Orleans and Savannah.

The twenty-five town houses featured in this book constitute a wide range in terms of construction methods, materials, and form, but all consistently defer to their parallel walls and explore new possibilities of movement, light, and space within the restrictions of the type. Of primary concern among all of these examples is context and site, though this is not expressed in the Literal references to history prevalent during the postmodern period of the 1970s and 1980s. Instead, the modern town house maintains a more subtle and abstract reinterpretation of the surrounding context, as in Schroeder Murchie Laya Associates' Urban Court House, which conflates two great Chicago architectural traditions - Mies van der Rohe's steel frames and H. H. Richardson's rusticated stone-and creates a relationship not only with neighboring structures but also with the historical traditions of the city. Current interpretations of the town house also often incorporate the idea of the Roman atrium or peristyle garden, though, again, not necessarily in any literal sense. Steven Mensch's King House in New York, for instance, features a central court with a retracting glass roof. The issue of vertical circulation must always be addressed within the town house topology, which often results in bold stairways that animate the modern town houses' architectural promenade.

Gorlin's "Stairway to Heaven" house in Seaside, FL, lives up to its name thanks to the dominant role given to a series of staircases that move up through the house and culminate in open spiral stairs that tower over the house's roof. Another strategy common among the houses in this book is the innovative and unexpected exploration of differing materials. Steel often frames wood, resulting in unusual juxtapositions of the indiustrial with the domestic. Finally, these houses embody the idea of open and loftlike space between parti walls, creating an architecture that is a physical and perceptual frame for the activities of human life.


July 23, 2000

Alexander Gorlin