Journal | Article
Re:Visioning the Transitional
What does one call immediately post-WWII residential architecture other than “transitional”? These houses no longer exhibit traits of Craftsman-style, Queen Anne, American Four-Square, or any number of other architectural styles thriving prior to WWII; but yet they often retain some of the bungalow sensibilities of these previous genres. They are not Modernist, Ranch-style, or Mid-Century, either. They were borne out of the period of the birth of modern suburbia and growth of manufactured housing. New efficiencies in housing design and construction, the burgeoning middle class of Americans, and an influx of “new” workers lead to a rapid outward expansion of American cities as the economy and culture rebounded from years of war. This new way of building and housing was being explored coast to coast, and efficiency did not leave much time for aesthetics or planning. These structures are today time capsules representing the values of the period; not necessarily of art or architecture, but of expediency and optimism looking to a bright future.
Here is a typical San Diego version of a transitional-style residence in an older suburban development that rapidly developed immediately following the end of the war (note: within each pairing of images in this post the second image is a brief GIF animation that may take a second to load).
Every era needs to author its own story. As with any expression of human endeavor, there is validity in remembering the what, why, and how we were. These transitional structures are now approaching 60 years old – a lifetime here in the West. Many are unfortunately being felled under the guise of needing more closet space and two-car garages (yes, they had little closet space and single-car garages because, in-part, we as a population had less stuff – we were “doers” rather than “consumers”). These houses may soon be the next protected class of residential architecture.
This owner is not interested in changing the bones of the structure like so many others have done with their transitional-style houses in an attempt, most often in0vein, to give their homes some “Style” with a capital “S”. Instead this owner is interested in accentuating what is good and honest about the design while making greater use of the exterior spaces surrounding the house (it’s only three blocks from the cliffs!).
The Sunset Cliffs neighborhood was established by the Spalding family (yes, that Spalding), who built two “mansions” that were for a long time almost the only structures on the bluffs above the cliffs. The Spalding’s plotted the the land and built the Spalding (Sunset Cliffs Natural) Park, a local attraction and gift to the City to encourage early “suburbanites” to move to the new neighborhood. It did not really take-off until 1948 with an influx of transitional structures being built by a few local builders with set house plans (it’s not uncommon to see several houses in a row almost identical; that is, before they were “remodeled”).
The streets of Sunset Cliffs are aligned perpendicularly to the cliffs, restricting views to the ocean from the homes lower on the hill. The best views within the first three blocks from Sunset Cliffs Boulevard are often public from the streets and sidewalks (how democratic!) and semi-private from front yards. Many home owners have captured these views by building terraces, patios, or decks in front of their houses, as is being proposed here.
This results in a unique interaction between neighbors, much like in traditional urban neighborhoods with families sitting outside in the evening on their stoops, kids playing in the streets, and families taking a brisk walk to either cool down in the summer or warm-up in the winter after dinner. These contemporary suburban stoops are a bit more private as they are farther from the sidewalks, but they function in much the same way as neighbors greet each other on their evening strolls down to watch the sunset.
That’s only half of the project. The other half is in the back yard (or helping to form the back yard). It includes a new sideyard fence and arbor located back from the existing fence – exposing the houses corner once again and creating a softscape buffer between the concrete parking space beside the original driveway and the fence.
The back patio is a large expanse of concrete that has had a series of wooden trellises over 40 years providing shade and privacy. This proposal envisions a replacement “trellis” of shade fabric under tension stretched between a new steel arbor and the house structure. This fabric is easy and inexpensive to replace when the consistent salty-moist air does it thing while the steel will outlast all previous wooden structures that succumbed to this environment.
An odd-scaled and rotted wood deck, also destroyed by proximity to the ocean’s relentless moist air, is to be replaced with a larger deck with a concrete paver system. This new deck creates a traffic through-way from the master bedroom door to the yard, and two areas of repose with built-in benches with storage – one in shade and one in the sun for maximum flexibility. Oh, and a fire pit for the chilly evenings at the beach (one on the front terrace, too!).