The scarcity of affordable housing vexes American communities from Boston to Boulder to San Francisco: while cranes loom over cities, creating ever more glamorous residential architecture, working-class families are priced out of the market. What is called “affordable housing” is, in many thriving cities, simply no longer available. When there is housing available for under skyrocketing market prices, it is, most often, substandard, poorly built and of banal and dispiriting design.
This might be a good time to look back at the Case Study Houses, a concerted effort to provide housing that was affordable, easily built, family-friendly and beautifully designed.
In the early 1940s Arts & Architecture magazine commissioned major architects of the day to design and build economic, easy-to-build model homes for the U.S. residential housing boom caused by the end of World War II and the return of millions of soldiers. Richard Neutra, Raphael Soriano, Craig Ellwood, Charles and Ray Eames, Pierre Koenig, Eero Saarinen, A. Quincy Jones, Edward Killingsworth and Ralph Rapson were some of the designers who took part. Between them, they came up with 36 prototype designs.
Each was to be easily replicable and captured the new ways that people used and lived in the contemporary home: listening to music, watching movies, entertaining and relaxing. These functions led to the introduction of open floor plans and multi-purpose rooms divided between public and private spaces. This quickly became the norm for modern house design.
Living spaces also began to stand out for creative details like sliding doors that linked the inside of the residence with the outside.
In each prototype design, the decision to use materials such as cement blocks, plywood and industrial glass dramatically reduced the project’s costs. The materials could be left exposed in their raw form or covered with a light coat of paint, and could easily be replaced in the event of failure. The low-cost trend gained even more momentum with the development of various methods to reduce heating and lighting expenses. The use of large floor-to-ceiling windows maximized natural light and their sliding fixtures allowed for optimal airflow. Furthermore, the wide incorporation of plants and green space worked to keep the home cool and comfortable.
The first six houses in the Case Study House Program were begun in 1945 and built by 1948; they attracted more than 350,000 visitors. Twenty survive today, though some in much-altered condition. While not all 36 designs were built, most of those that were constructed were built in Los Angeles. One is in San Rafael, Northern California and one in Phoenix, Arizona.
Some are located in pricy communities such as Bel Air, and all of those original Case Study Houses are treasured today as important elements of American architectural history. But at the time, those designs accomplished what they intended: They influenced millions of post-war houses built with modern materials and for modern lifestyles.