Wandering through the apartments of Unite d’Habitation in Marseilles, the late critic Robert Hughes noted how deeply architect Le Corbusier believed that its clean-lined modernism would “improve” its inhabitants:
Nobody wanted those plain, morally-elevating interiors with paper lamps and craft rugs and slung chairs and Cubist tapestries. And they are now crammed with exactly the sort of gaudy, fake period furniture that Corbusier struggled against all his life. He could never understand why the French kept wanting it, but they did – and they still do.
There is an obvious line of descent from Corbusier’s utopian ambitions to contemporary minimalism, which reappears every decade or so in various guises: the high-end love affair with Dieter Rams’ sleek designs for Vitsœ, Ikea’s self-assembled blond-on-blond furniture lines, the lifestyle brands curated (what a word) by the likes of Matha Stewart and Marie Kondo, and brief enthusiasms for minimalism, feng shui, and similar aesthetics.
And yet, like the French, we in the United States keep wanting the gaudy and the fake.
Here, on a residential street in Venice Beach, is an exterior house wall, its sandstone-hued stucco showing off fissures that reveal the brickwork underneath.
For three centuries the rich and not-rich have chosen façades that ape a French village in gentle decline. The theme extends indoors to interiors painted in terra cotta tones and then distressed in imitation craquelure. The same theme reappears in angry fencepost lions, heraldic devices embedded in vertical concrete slabs, and brass Indonesian hinges, doorknobs and other hardware.
I share my neighbors’ nostalgic, individualist aesthetic. My own tastes run to picket fences – wooden pickets, not plastic ones. Squinting, I can imagine myself living in midcentury midwestern town. If others prefer the dowager walls of a Tuscan villa, well, more power to ‘em.
It used to be that Los Angeles excelled at such fantasies (The “Snow White cottages” of the 1930s, featuring turrets and steep-sloped seemingly thatched roofs were an early example – see Atlas Obscura for more on this). Now, of course, such eclectic miscellany characterizes the suburban edge of many cities worldwide. Call it “maximalist design,” in which a residence becomes a cabinet of curiosities.
If mass and affordable housing for the homeless ever gets past neighborhood hostility, it will be designed, no doubt, for the homeless rather than by them. It too will embody certain utopian ideas of improvement. When public service clients decorate these new spaces with bric-a-brac, spoiling the grand social project’s pretty uniformity, we will know that the project has succeeded.