Syntax of change in the mid-twentieth century American house

Alice Vialard, Sonit Bafna

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How strongly is the spatial organization of a building related to its and its physical aspects and its stylistic attributes? The question is of particular relevance to space syntax theory since historically much of the analytical work on the morphology of buildings has been weighed in favor of spatial analysis partially resulting from the assumption that genotypical attributes are essentially lodged within the spatial syntax of a building and that the corporeal, or stylistic elements, carry much of the phenotypical information. Relatively scattered studies, by Hillier, Hanson, Peponis, Steadman, Amorim and Bafna over the years, as well as well empirical work by Henry Glassie on Virignian folkhousing and Mark Girourad on English country houses, have challenged this assumption, but a coherent reformulation is still not available. We offer additional insights into this issue through a study of parallel change in the formal, stylistic, and spatial attributes of the genotypical American house. Our data are drawn from the catalogues of the Aladdin Company, which was a major supplier of mail-order houses during the first half of the twentieth century. Our material is drawn from 35 catalogues (produced between 1908 and 1954), giving us access to detailed plans of 2687 houses, of which 760 were new models. We systematically chart changes in these new models, noting the proportional relationship between width and depth, footprint and floor-areas, number of floors, and the articulation of the front-façade, including the shape of the roof-line, and the presence of culturally significant elements such as porches. We also chart corresponding change in the spatial structure of the house, noting the shift in overall integration values, the location of integration core, and the distribution of connectivity values. Innovations in our methodology include (over and above the general approach of recording of systematic change in morphology over 50 years), a marking of genotypical change through the change in depth between the most integrated and the most connected rooms of the house. We show that the changes in the spatial form of the house systematically correspond to changes in the physical attributes, such that at times the spatial form lags as it accommodates to changes in the physical form, and that these changes correspond with well documented general social change in American domestic life. The findings additionally give us material to challenge a dominant assumption within anthropological thinking (particularly in the work of Susan Kent and Amos Rapoport) that architecture only reflects the life and does not actually have any formative influence on it. A final implication of this study is that it allows us to make a case for systematic analysis of the spatial structure of the house as critical factor in deciding the suitability of mid-twentieth century houses for cultural preservation.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationProceedings: Seventh International Space Syntax Symposium
EditorsDaniel Koch, Lars Marcus, Jesper Steen
PublisherTRITA-ARK- Forskningspublikation
ISBN (Print)978-91-7415-347-7
Publication statusPublished - 4 Jun 2009
EventProceedings of the 7th international space syntax symposium, KTH, Stockholm, Ref -
Duration: 4 Jun 2009 → …


ConferenceProceedings of the 7th international space syntax symposium, KTH, Stockholm, Ref
Period4/06/09 → …


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