Friday, 9 October 2015

Storybook Homes and Cinderella Houses



All you can lose is your heart is KayLynn Deveney's follow-up to the wonderful Private Life of Albert Hastings.

It's a very different book. Where the Albert Hastings book was a touching and very gentle meditation on the rhythms of old age, All you can lose is your heart is a series of images of storybook houses in New Mexico.

Storybook houses were a particular kind of house that were built in the late 1950s in Albuquerque and other areas of New Mexico and Southern California. Imagine Hansel and Gretel houses, designed for the wife, and built in the desert and you're getting there.

The pictures of the homes are quite close, and bring out key design details such as rooftops, eaves and windows. Sometimes you see the original wooden shingles (these are not made anymore due to fire laws), sometimes you see the accompanying yard, the present impinging on the idealised past.

As well as images of houses, there are also fascinating texts including an interview with a local journalist Hank Stuever and Jan Valjean Vandruff, a house designer from the 1950s.

Vandruff (who designed and built a specific kind of storybook houses - 'Cinderella' homes  - in the mid-1950s) tells Deveney that '...every home I ever designed was designed with the people in mind who would live there, but especially the wife/mother. She must have a constant free-flow of sight and communication with her husband and children; hence, the openness of the kitchen to the living room or family room, usually through a wide open window over the kitchen sink.'

In his essay, Hank Stuever goes into social history and details the drift west as homebuyers are 'lured to the business of the atomic age' - he gives a fast-forward history of the area from the ancient people, to '...the Spanish conquistadores, lost and loony... Then come the mission churces and priests, the suffering of the pueblo natives, the usurpings and the revolts,' a history that extends way before the settlement of the east by mad European adventurers and zealots. It's a history that extends to the nuclear age, duck and cover drills, and then we're into Walter White and Breaking Bad.

And there in the middle of it all, in the golden rise of individualism and consumption, the 1950s are the storybook houses. Stuever sees these homes as 'a balm against the stark and constant expanse of New Mexico...', so there is a sense of geography in how and why these homes were built. There is a sense of control in the planning that connects to the landscape, in the 'wife-centered' design that corresponds to all those texts on the panopticon, surveillance and power and control.

It also ties in to othe projects, most famously those of Robert Adams, which takes a more topographical view, and Pictures from Home by Larry Sultan which takes a more personal view.

The story of this fairytale architecture is fascinating, but it feels like there is more that could be done here, that the planning, the design and the social history of these houses could be integrated into a grander whole, that homes are designed for a reason in places for a reason, and that is a story that still needs to be told.

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