Driving through the mountains of the American West to look at houses is an interesting experience for East Coast and deep South residents. Western residential architecture is decidedly unique, but there is more to it than that. It boasts a very homey feel. It seems almost earthy to some degree. But what is really striking about it is that Western residential architecture reminds us of a simpler time.
Of course, we are not talking about tract homes that too often remind us of Malvina Reynolds “little boxes on the hillside.” Tract housing is about as generic as one can get. No, the real intriguing examples of Western residential architecture are the single-family homes built on individual plots of land.
Homes Built from the Land
Sparano + Mooney knows this type of architecture inside and out. The firm specializes in Contemporary, Mountain Contemporary, and Mountain Modern Design. They design homes throughout Utah, Idaho, and a number of other Western states. Every home they design looks like it belongs in the local environment. It doesn’t look like it was forced into the space.
Their design hearkens back to a day when homes were built from the land rather than on the land. They remind us of a day when people built their homes using whatever resources they had nearby. Homes were simpler back then, even if they were big.
Modernism and the Postwar Boom
It is interesting to follow the history of Western residential architecture from the turn of the 20th century forward. From the late 1890s through the start of World War II, homes in Western states were mainly designed around American Craftsman or Modernist philosophies. Again, simplicity was the thing. Even houses built by the rich and famous were not over the top.
When World War II finally managed to draw America in, austerity became a necessity. Western residential architecture fit right in. But then after the war, the U.S. became a hotbed of residential construction featuring cookie-cutter houses in large suburban tracts. Enter Malvina Reynolds and her clear dissatisfaction with postwar suburban construction.
Meanwhile, corporate America seemed obsessed with building Modernist towers and expressionless office blocks designed to showcase their wealth and influence. Architecture was losing its character to a combination of corporate ego and cheap suburban sprawl. The two decades ending in the late 1970s were not kind to architecture.
The West Was Still the West
While New York got the Twin Towers and Chicago got its Sears Tower, the West was still the West. Sure, bigger cities like Los Angeles and Seattle embraced the postmodern revolution for commercial buildings, but they got their fair share of tract housing, too. Yet custom residential architecture remained true to the traditional ideals of the old West: simplicity, space, and locally sourced materials.
Today, you can still see hints of the 1970s and 80s in Mountain Modern and Mountain Contemporary designs. Some of the same architectural principles still apply, like floor-to-ceiling glass designed to bring the outdoors in with fantastic views. Materials are still locally sourced whenever possible. Best of all, homes are designed to be part of the local landscape. They rarely compete with it.
While residential architecture in other parts of the country work hard to remind us that the world continues to evolve, Western residential architecture continues to hearken back to a simpler day, a day before global war, suburban sprawl, and corporate eccentricity.
Maybe that’s why states like Utah and Idaho are enjoying a construction boom. People are longing to get back to that simpler time. They want to get back to living life rather than merely existing.