• Samantha Miller

What's in a Home? - May 3, 2022

Updated: May 15

As a landscape architecture student, I have been focusing these past two days on trying to grasp the defining characteristics and principles of west coast modernism. While I know what it's like to live in a home, it isn't easy to wrap my head around how one designs how others may live. In landscape projects, we work with temporal spaces. Spaces where people wander or go where we dictate, where people either pass through or linger. The film Coast Modern provided an all-encompassing summary of what west coast modernism is all about. This movement's 'beautiful failure' was theatrically displayed, and the narrative was captivating and clear. While I believe I was able to absorb most of the architecture jargon, the primary concept I could relate to as an MLA student was the discussion about Richard Neutra’s evolutionary biology background and how that affected his principles in design. Understanding how human evolution, tendencies, and patterns play into the organization of west coast modern homes was the missing link that connected my studies in landscape architecture and the content of this course. This concept was mentioned briefly in the film, but I think it's critical in understanding west coast modernism and how the architects organized space.


One of the primary theories that evolutionary biology contributes to design is the ‘savanna hypothesis.’ During Neutra’s inaugural speech to the ASLA in 1970, he discussed this theory and its relation to design (Lamprecht, 2021). Urban planner and designer Angela Hartsell explains how integrating elements of the savannah hypothesis can improve the quality of life in metropolitan cities in the article Savanna hypothesis in the human–urban nature relationship (2020). She writes: “By incorporating tectonic elements of the savanna hypothesis (open areas, scattered trees, water, uniform grassiness, and vantage points [Balling and Falk, 1982]), urban planners and designers can facilitate the comprehension, refuge, resourcefulness, perception, and survival that Balling and Falk (1982) advocated as keys to high quality of life” (Hartsell, 2020). In understanding this theory, among others in the evolutionary biology field such as prospect-refuge, it becomes clear how these principles influenced Neutra's design approach. I am interested to see if these principles of the savannah hypothesis are evident when visiting the home.

Image from "Testing Prospect-Refuge Theory: A Comparative Methodological Review" by Dosen and Ostwald (2012). Retrieved from https://bit.ly/3FOVNst.

After our lecture from Leslie yesterday and watching Coast Modern, I thought I had a well-rounded, rather basic understanding of these principles. However, things got blurry again when I listened to the lectures given by Michael Perlmutter, Sherry McKay, Chris Macdonald, Richard Cavell, and Matthew Soules. Perlmutter has an astounding ability to capture not simply the architectural work but uses photography to situate the project on its site, highlight relative scale, and express lighting conditions and weather. The WCM House Series lecturers provided a unique perspective on the four houses. Before these lectures, I was under the (probably far too confident) impression that the movement is defined by celebrated post and beam construction, low-pitched roofs, site-specificity, and indoor/outdoor living. But, these lectures pushed me to notice everything different about each of the homes, not what united them all as west coast modern homes. For example, the stunning photographs and discussion on the Merrick house highlighted the importance of verticality in this home. I was sure west coast modernism was about low-lying and low-pitched roofs. Or how B.C. Binning had potentially integrated elements meant to play with what we expect to experience or see in a home. By the end of the day, I had come to a satisfying conclusion that while west coast modernism is somewhat all the principles I thought it was, it is, more importantly, a way of living and playing with the expectations and standards we hold as a society about what a home should be. It was a necessary shift from living in mass constructed boxes to living in spaces that shape and engage with us. It shifted from living the way we were to a more responsive, evolutionary-based living.


Works cited:


Hartsell, Angela M. "Savanna Hypothesis in the human–urban Nature Relationship." Open House

International, vol. 46, no. 1, 2020;2021;, pp. 18-29.


Lamprecht, Barbara. “‘The Landscape Architect Cannot Come Later!".” Venetian Letter, 26 July

2021, bit.ly/3wgby8G.

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