du jour. And now the mighty "Tuscan" encroaches at the global scale: new housing in places like Orange County, China, a recently constructed suburb near Beijing, and similar suburban developments adjacent to Bangalore echo the southern Californian template of total bogusness. "/>

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Comments (39) Posted 04.08.05 | PERMALINK | PRINT

Lorraine Wild

The Scourge of "Tuscan"



From the cover of Tuscan & Andalusian Reflections.

One of the editors of Design Observer asked me to write about Southern California. "Write about Orange County!" he said. Well, I live about 25 miles north of Orange County in the old middle of Los Angeles (yes, there is a middle) and while there are many things to like about it, there are a few things to abhor: and one of those things is the creeping encroachment of a new visual style in building — hard to call it architecture — that has already covered Orange County and threatens the visual ecosystem of Los Angeles like an errant weed that blew over in a shipping container from some other place and proceeds to choke out all other organic growth. Some call this style "Tuscan."

The neighborhood I live in, like many older neighborhoods, can be carbon-dated by a glance at the specific eclectic styles of the houses. Built between the mid-1920s and the mid-1930s, this part of mid-Wilshire consists of houses in four styles: "Spanish," "Tudor," "English cottages," and "Colonials."

No "French," no "German," no "Dutch," and no "Tuscan."

The "Spanish" houses are of course the most specifically Southern Californian of the lot. That style (tile roofs, plain thick stucco walls, relatively small windows) was a pop romanticization of the conquistadores and the ranchos of earlier days. There are actually a few (very few) real historic houses and missions in the area that provided a template for the style, and there were plenty of customers for both good and bad translations of the style.

The miniaturized "Tudor" manses and the more humble "English cottages" could perhaps be seen as declarations of allegiance with the Johnny-come-lately status of the "Anglos" of California settlement. And the "Colonials" of my neighborhood are the architectural equivalent of Depression-era comfort food, part of a larger national craze for a reassuring reference to the earlier days of the Republic.

(And there are also a few oddities in the 'hood: a couple of Krazy-Kat type "pueblo moderne" houses, and an extremely contemporary two-year-old house, winner of an AIA citation, which, while in construction, many neighbors thought was either going to be a gas station or a 7-11).

But occasionally a house is razed, and a new one built in its place, and lo and behold it is transformed into "Tuscan," a new stylistic aberration in the neighborhood. The appearance of this faux Italianate style (tile roofs, stucco walls, shuttered windows and crenellated corners) is not all that different from the "Spanish" but it seems a world away from the coherency of the rancho house. This is not helped by the fact that the new construction in this style is generally too big and proportioned poorly, and made of materials that are veneers, blatantly more contemporary than the image that they are constructing. Real Tuscan villas possess a sort of laconic elegance from their relatively unornamented rustic style: the rough hewn here is more of the Home Depot "I forgot" variety. And the houses sport "great rooms" and "master bedroom suites" and beveled or stained glass windows and brass fixtures that no Tuscan house ever witnessed.

Where whole new neighborhoods are still being constructed (i.e., Orange or Riverside counties) "Tuscan" is the style du jour. And not only for domestic development; some of the most successful shopping centers and malls (some so large that they are literally new town centers) ape the details of San Giminiano or Lucca, albeit at a metastasized scale.

"Tuscan" is sometimes called "Mediterranean," and one argument for the style, with its patios and porticos, is that it is appropriate for our dry seaside climate. But given that it is the visual style of a particularly aggressive period of development, it has become the new signature of sprawl, Southern California style. The environment seems to have nothing to do with it. (For photographic evidence of the "Tuscan" creep to other less balmy locales, see Rick Valicenti's Suburban Maul documentationof new domestic architecture of Barrington, Illinois).

Honestly, no one builds a Spanish style house anymore (ok, maybe in Santa Barbara). And it's true that the older eclectic styles were hardly an accurate quotation from their own historical sources. So one of the interesting questions is: why is old faux preferable, or more tolerable, than new faux? What did the designers who worked for the developers of the 1920s have to work with that seems different than the designers of today? Is scale the culprit? Or is it that the old kitsch somehow addressed, in the most indirect or repressed way, a degree of the history of the actual people who inhabited the place, whereas Italians have not invaded Southern California, so what the heck is this?

I know that 30 odd years after Venturi, Izenour and Scott Brown published Learning from Las Vegas or Jencks published The Language of Post-Modern Architecture it perhaps seems a bit retro to complain about the presence of a cacophonous visual style on the popular scene. The post-modern era taught us to respect styles as languages and codes for messages of social value. Perhaps it is not so much styles per se, and "Tuscan" in particular, that I am whining about, but the transformation of styles generated from the heart and the brain that actually contained meaning, to lifestyles generated by highly paid marketers and branders that are deliberately emptied out of meaning. As a culture do we all really accept the mantras, mores, and cranial laxness of "lifestyles of the rich and famous" brought to us by Kaufman and Broad, Pulte Homes, Related Companies, and countless other developers of the Southern California and American landscape — as of higher value than any type of searching or questioning? Or is it just that so many of us really, really like pasta? Indeed, the comfort of the consumer — the insistence that any inconvenience or interruption to a daily life of little moments be suppressed — trumps criticality, and the critical moment is reserved only for the technicians who observe the focus groups behind the one-way mirrors. The evidence of the consequent blind and lazy landscape splays out all around us.

And now the mighty "Tuscan" encroaches at the global scale: new housing in places like Orange County, China, a recently constructed suburb near Beijing, and similar suburban developments adjacent to Bangalore echo the southern Californian template of total bogusness.

I know there are much bigger problems in my urban zone than the nasty Tuscan blight: social inequity, a shortage of affordable housing, adequate education or healthcare, and crushing traffic. On the face of it, to bemoan "Tuscan" is like complaining about Hitler's moustache. But if the Venturis and Jencks and my faux-relative Oscar Wilde are right, that surfaces are telling, then the particularly graceless escapism of the "Tuscan" is all too meaningful: not amnesiac, since there is nothing to forget, but more catatonic, in its total disconnect from contemporary reality.

I hope I live long enough to watch the descendants of DoCoMo struggle with the issue of the historical preservation of the copious architectural products of the first decade of the millennium: the image of an image, signifying — what?
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re: 'the transformation of styles generated from the heart and the brain that actually contained meaning, to lifestyles generated by highly paid marketers and branders that are deliberately emptied out of meaning.'

Can you imagine a more suitable standard for So Cal. sprawl?
Ahrum Hong
04.08.05 at 09:19

Any meaning we might obtain from style alone is an illusion or only a memory. However, there may be great utility and beauty in regional and historical styles if we(as design observers)look beyond the surface, through the apparent flatness- into the transparent nature of space, the vertical nature of the human spiritual condition is revealed. We just might find a sign of life- as well. Cheers from Niccolo in Denver.
Niccolo
04.09.05 at 12:17

Isn't the point that these are just cheap immitations? I have the same situation where I live (England); many of the new houses that go up are faux-Georgian. Some of them are OK - they are forced to fit in with the real Georgian. The ones that aren't are lame, half baked attempts at the style, carelessly throwing in modern elements where it was too hard to fabricate something authentic.
It seems to me that the problem is not enough postmodernism. Maybe that's a bit much to ask from big commercial property developers. What is needed, in my opinion, is really good attention to detail when immitating old features, but also clever and insightful use of features from other (clever and insightfully chosen) styles.
quis
04.09.05 at 05:48

Yes, I think real detail and craftmanship are aspects of "styles" which are inspiring. Many traditional forms are also more reponsive to environmental concerns than many "modern" boxes. Post-modern,or PoMo as we used to call it, is just a cartooning pastiche, is not to be confused with historical or vernacular styles by observant architects. But the methods of production have changed, and it is diffcult to deliver any pure "style" these days.
Niccolo
04.09.05 at 09:20

Last weekend, while attending AIGA San DIego's Y conference, I was generously accomodated in San Diego's Old Town district. The few blocks, including the main one, that I got a chance to see were a Faux-Tex-Mex that — in good Design Observer terminology — gave me the willies. Tex-Mex alone - the visual style, not so much the food (who doesn't love a good burrito?) — is irritating to me, so experiencing a very forced environment of Tex-Mexery was just too much to handle. Like the Tuscan, Tex-Mex's roots can be quite beautiful and well done but I don't think either of these two translates well into the 21st Century.
Armin
04.09.05 at 09:40

Lorraine—I think the problem with much of what you talk about is not "style," per se, but proportion and a simultaneous trying too hard and not trying hard enough. Don't go without the "water feature" or the stone counter tops but don't bother demanding less-rough grit in the stucco—one of the easy calls if you want something to be more like the Santa Barbara courthouse and less like the SoCal Levittown boxes of the Garden Grove of my youth.

The ill-proportioned 1980s mansionization of Westwood and the like preferred faux chateaux as a style but the results were the same. Attempts to impress are so rarely impressive.
Gunnar Swanson
04.09.05 at 11:39

For us Americans, rustic Italian seems to strike just the right balance between the exotic and the comfortable. This is even more pronounced when it comes to cuisine, from Olive Garden on down (or up).
Michael Bierut
04.09.05 at 03:28

Might it just possibly be that "Tuscan" is just one of those elements that crappy architects keep in their "scrapbook" of influences. Whoops, wrong thread.
John Kaliski
04.09.05 at 04:46

"So one of the interesting questions is: why is old faux preferable, or more tolerable, than new faux?"

Whores and old buildings...

(Sorry—couldn't resist.)

For me, encountering The Architectural Monstrosity du jour is a two-pronged emotional event: the cheapness in the rendering provokes a deep, deep sorrow while the blatant, solipsistic disregard inherent in building one's hideous monolith right up to the property line and paving over the rest (see: Beverly Hills flats) enrages me.

Similarly, I curse the road-hogging, gas-guzzling, parking-space-usurping SUV-driver while simultaneously pitying her delusional/foolish feelings of safety/superiority.

Bottom line: for me, everything is forgiveable save meanness and a lack of wit. Tuscan-style "villas" (and the Escalades parked in their driveways) are egregiously guilty on both counts.
Colleen
04.09.05 at 05:33

This phenomenon may have something to do with the HGTV model where something "designed well" must have a coherent theme. Watch any show on the channel, and the decorator will always tell the homeowner about their new themed room. Often, it is a Tuscan-themed room, probably because it is part of a shared vocabulary, and like Michael said, strikes the right balance between exotic and comfortable.

It reminds me of a great quote from painter Camille Pissarro:

"See, then, how stupid the bourgeoisie, the real bourgeoisie have become; step by step they go lower and lower, in a word they are losing all notion of beauty, they are mistaken about everything. Where there is something to admire, they shout it down, they disapprove! Where there are stupid sentimentalities from which you want to turn with disgust, they jump with joy or swoon. Everything they have admired for the last fifty years is now forgotten, old-fashioned, ridiculous." December, 1883

More than a hundred years later, we're still facing the same dilemma. What's worse, is we face it with Camille Pissarro prints adorning people's Tuscan-themed homes.
Ryan Nee
04.09.05 at 08:59

I conjecture that the degree to which old faux is preferable to new faux is in the extent to which it has been broken-in, assimilated, and made part of the cultural landscape. The houses are inhabited, renovated and repainted. The landscaping and trees fill in and mature, and individual character develops. We come to know the houses and neighborhoods not as bland, new developments, but as the places that our friends and relatives live. In other words, the Spanish and Tudor styles are more part of California's history since, not before, the 20s. They are tolerable because of how they relate to California's present, not its past.

It's possible that these Tuscans will eventually gain patina, change hands a few times, and fit in better. Sadly, some neighborhoods now create barriers to ever developing this way, especially the more exclusive ones in areas like Orange County. Larger houses in larger developments create, through simple, brute massiveness, a momentum that is increasingly difficult to overcome, and neighborhood CCRs enforce a level of conformity that stunts the community's growth.

derek
04.10.05 at 12:12

[quote] This phenomenon may have something to do with the HGTV model where something "designed well" must have a coherent theme. [/quote]

Speaking of themes--there is another movement afoot in California. Homes in older Eichler neighborhoods (Orange County, Thousand Oaks, and the Bay Area) are suddenly hot purchases and afficionados of mid-century modernism are restoring them. Many are also upgrading in a manner sensitive to the original intent of the architects but making them comfortable for current lifestyles. See the winter 2004 issue of "Atomic Ranch" magazine for an example of one in Southern California. http//www.atomic-ranch.com This is another form of architectural nostalgia but unlike the tuscan mansions these homes are relatively modest in scale and designed to blurr the lines between inside and outside thus becoming integrated with the land and climate of California. (full disclosure: I live in one.)
uniquephemera
04.10.05 at 01:53

If the picture in this post is supposed to represent something wrong then maybe the problem is snobbery?
David Sucher
04.11.05 at 10:09

There is a certain amount of integrity associated with authenticity. And a lack of integrity with inauthenticity. But people seem to make a lot of decisions for reasons that cannot be understood rationally, logically. So why they go for the Tuscan look probably has a lot more to do with where they are emotianally and socially than anything else. It's where they are socially, their cultural standing, that is exposed in their decision to buy into this architecture. Older homes, older styles, are much less charged and, as others have pointed out, their associations are more diffuse. The people who go for Tuscan homes are right out there blurting out how they feel and who they are, how they see themselves. And this is embarrising not only because of the content of their expression, but the bareness of it, the rawness of it.
Trent Williams
04.11.05 at 11:06

Does this phenomenon relate perhaps to the generalization that surbarban living is so dull and lacking in substance that their residents try to construct facades that mask their dullness?

In the suburbs of Toronto they build huge ugly houses that are a bric-a-brac of historical styles, which all add up to a cocophony of blandness where style and modernity is eschewed for niceness. "oooh Barb, your house is sooooo nice (and big)".

I would imagine the problem is even worse amongst the high earners of California.
Ben Hagon
04.11.05 at 12:10

I knew that someone would accuse me of snobbery.

But that really isn't it, at all. It's not really even a question of suburban versus urban, because the "Tuscan" that I'm complaining about is being built in both places, new in the suburbs and as a renovation style in the middle of the city.

My question about the difference between old faux and the new faux is serious, though my spouse points out that if you look in the literature written about Los Angeles in the 1920s you will find many writers bemoaning the taste for eclectic styles and the thinness of their visual effects (the very same houses that now look civilzed and "of the place"). So time is an issue here. And the post from Derek above brings up a yet another interesting factor: that many of the new "Tuscan"-style neighborhoods have covenants that prevent owners from altering their houses: a sort of legal Botox to arrest the patina of time. So "Tuscan" is here to stay!
Lorraine Wild
04.11.05 at 05:31

Far be it from moi to accuse anyone else of snobbery.

And as the post itself admits and then seems to ignore -- it's simply not very important:

"...much bigger problems in my urban zone than the nasty Tuscan blight: social inequity, a shortage of affordable housing, adequate education or healthcare, and crushing traffic. On the face of it, to bemoan "Tuscan" is like complaining about Hitler's moustache. But if the Venturis and Jenks and my faux-relative Oscar Wilde are right, that surfaces are telling, then the particularly graceless escapism of the "Tuscan" is all too meaningful: not amnesiac, since there is nothing to forget, but more catatonic, in its total disconnect from contemporary reality."

What's telling is that the author compares real problems in specific language -- "social inequity, a shortage of affordable housing, adequate education or healthcare, and crushing traffic..." with a vague catalog of discontents in very vague language -- "...not amnesiac, since there is nothing to forget, but more catatonic, in its total disconnect from contemporary reality."

I wonder if the problem is indeed not snobbery at all but simply too much time on one's hands?
David Sucher
04.11.05 at 08:31

So much for close reading. Just as no one dies from a fever, I believe what I am suggesting in that very paragraph Mr. Sucher thinks is so vague is that the "Tuscan" is a surface symptom of our contemporary inability to deal with what is real in terms of the built environment. I guess one could argue that the visual characteristics of our culture are interchangably meaningless, but then I question why one would use one's copious leisure time to read something called "Design Observer."
Lorraine Wild
04.12.05 at 12:15

The issue of snobbery - or perhaps better stated, discrimination - as one observes the designed environment - is worth exploring. As others in the thread have pointed out, CCR's that resist time, the sense that "Tuscan" also stands for a branded lifestyle that is as much consumed as it is lived, the thinness of the detail that is the result not so much of the lack of craftsmanship but the fact that craftsmanship in contemporary production mutates into building systems, the often unstudied proportions, plastic and foam details, the sense that many of these buildings consume their local and regional environments, whether suburban or urban, in ways that are not particularly sustainable, all this and much more conspires to suggest to the discriminating observer that surface readings are telling - and may be related to a reading of equally signifcant societal ills.

Surely there are good examples of Tuscan derived building; I happen to be fascinated by the luxury homes depicted in this thread's opening photo. These architects have derived a hybrid mix of sixties open courtyard and pavillion house planning many generations removed from "modern" courtyard and pavillion plans of the thirties through sixties, all wrapped in a Tuscan suit of clothes (Howard Barnstone, a Miesien practicing in Houston, Texas did much the same thing - but much better - starting in the early sixties). The houses illustrated are also more than than ok because they are always very comfortable; but for me, once I start to more carefully observe their details and indeed ponder the whys of the translation from the real deal, my wonder at their comfort is redirected, and not towards being able to recognize good faux from bad faux; I feel completely capable of making this distinction and comfortable declaring it. Rather, my wonder is directed, as the original post intimated, in questioning why our popular design culture limits itself so much of the time to such narrow definitions of visual comfort, and how these definitions of comfort - indeed this Tuscan moment - can be redirected to more diverse emotions, experiences, and forward, not backward, looking visual languages and environments.
John Kaliski
04.12.05 at 01:52

This is a topic dear to the heart of my Italian boyfriend, Dante. When he first arrived in Canada in '73, Italians were "spaghetti-eaters." Today, Italy is pillaged for everything from food to architecture. Every time a new highrise goes up slapped with an "exotic"-sounding Italian name (often gramatically incorrect), he just about goes through the roof.

This desire to transplant from other cultures is a disturbing one, especially, as pointed out, it strips on a veneer of fake aesthetic. The culture that they are trying to invoke is, in fact, beyond them. What makes a tuscan village so appealing is not just large stone walls and small windows, but narrow, uneven streets; smells of food, animals and people; sounds of carts, mopeds, goats and arguing italians; old, fat people in doudy attire; small squares where people gather to hang out (seemingly without much else to do) and smoke; and of course the entire ethnic culture that surrounds all of this.

It's a classic sales job. People think if they buy the shampoo, they've have hair that flows like silk; if they buy the Tuscan house, they'll live an exotic life.

The vast majority of residential architecture makes me crazy. Why it continually looks backward is beyond me. In Vancouver, architects have been creating the faux-Colonial housing development for decades ... and yes, they always get the details and proportions wrong. Where is the innovative use of new and local materials? Where is the reference to place (the place one is in)? Where is the recognition of local history? Where is the attention to and design for climate and conditions? etc ...
I simply don't understand it.

The only comfort is that these things are usually so badly built, they'll be falling down in 20 years. Stage sets is really what they are.

marian bantjes
04.12.05 at 10:44

Is it possible that "theming" is what is real in the early 21st century? I think it's at least as real as "style" was in the early 20th.

What's real about theming? It provides the required brand identity in a culture of commodity. The culture that requires such things is quite real. It has grown from the large-scale long-term joint efforts of marketers. One cannot ignore the enormous influence of advertising and media in creating reality in this era. As much as the "Tuscan" fakes or misappropriates the "real" cultural products of a different time and place, it fits precisely the cultural milieu of Orange County in 2005. There it is! People are paying millions of dollars for it. What more evidence do you need?
Dystopos
04.12.05 at 11:36

Does the fact that people that "pay for it" make it ok?
John Kaliski
04.12.05 at 12:07

"So one of the interesting questions is: why is old faux preferable, or more tolerable, than new faux?"

Because people become snobbish farts as they age?
z
04.12.05 at 04:19

Honestly, I have no idea of the meaning of ' "Tuscan" is a surface symptom of our contemporary inability to deal with what is real in terms of the built environment.'

What inability? We build crappy cities (by-and-large) but not because we lack the ability to deal with what is "real." (Whatever "real" means.) The problem is that don't know how to handle the car. That's basically it. We have problems but let's not make thing even more difficult by using language -- such as the quote above -- which obscures things and makes a practical problem into some sort of philosophical inquiry.
David Sucher
04.12.05 at 08:24

My thanks to "z" for giving this geezer a clue: who knew that "Tuscan" was the hip style of modern youth? Those crazy kids.
Lorraine wild
04.12.05 at 11:39

I found this at David Sucher's site and contributed the following:

David Sucher: I left comments at The Scourge of "Tuscan". Maybe it should be The Scourge of Too Much Leisure?


Comment from Brian Miller to David's posting: The house pictured doesn't look very much like the type of house they are complaining about, David (it looks like first generation period revival from the twenties to me??) If I'm wrong, and they are complaining about that design, then your response is on target (the house looks pretty darn good). On a related note: John Massengale over at V&V commented in passing about the trendiness of mid-century modern. My response was that people are reacting to the horrific McMansions (that ARE the subject of this discussion and are designed in a cheap TRADITIONAL style-which proves that in today's debased visual culture, traditionalism is not a panacea for bad design.


John Kaliski's Response: Brian, I am glad that you understand the Design Observer article and thread that David seems to have so much trouble with. While the house illustrated in the "Scourge of Tuscan" is perhaps a more interesting piece of architecture than should have been used to illustrate the phenomenon discussed, I think few students of traditional housing would upon close inspection of this architecture judge it timeless.

David has written on his site that "the simple patterns and simple details shown in City Comforts (his book) are not any panacea but they provide a framework for judging new construction, for separating the simple but crucial patterns from the trivial matters of style". Given this philosophical approach, I am curious as to why the author of these wise words would take such exception to another author who in a different context and drawing from a different culture (design culture as opposed to urban culture) seems to be leading us to a very similar conclusion.

David also states in the thread in question that, "(w)e build crappy cities (by-and-large) but not because we lack the ability to deal with what is "real." (Whatever "real" means.)" I would contrast David's quote with Winston Churchill's statement from a speech about rebuilding the House of Commons after it was bombed by the Nazi's; "We shape our buildings, and afterwards our buildings shape us." If we are building "crappy" cities, what does that say about us? If we are designing architeture that many of us see as thin, cheap, and unsustainable, to say nothing of being poorly detailed and proportioned, what does this say about us? Is this not a "real" problem, indeed a cultural as well as philosophical problem that deserves to be probed and explored? My gut sense, at least in this case, is that David, a great champion of quality in city places, has a lot more in common with Lorraine, a great champion of quality in design culture, then he is willing to admit.
John Kaliski
04.13.05 at 01:11

I agree, to a point, with David (that's a phrase I never thought I would utter), but mostly on one point: if SoCo is filled with 'tripe' like the included photo, until y'all get around to aping Neutra with that level of rigor, then it's the best thing you have going. If there really is an epidemic of bad 'Tuscan' homes, then it shouldn't be so hard to get out a digital camera and prove it. Or omit the photo.

The conjunction here reads as snobbery, since it argues that venacular trends should be limited to their place of origin, even if the environmental characteristics make appropriation sensible. I assume from this post that you do not drink wines from California vinters.
miss representation
04.13.05 at 10:19

Exhibit A (from Websters)
"snob"
1 British : COBBLER
2 : one who blatantly imitates, fawningly admires, or vulgarly seeks association with those regarded as social superiors
3 a : one who tends to rebuff, avoid, or ignore those regarded as inferior b : one who has an offensive air of superiority in matters of knowledge or taste

Exhibit B (from original post)
The post-modern era taught us to respect styles as languages and codes for messages of social value. Perhaps it is not so much styles per se, and "Tuscan" in particular, that I am whining about, but the transformation of styles generated from the heart and the brain that actually contained meaning, to lifestyles generated by highly paid marketers and branders that are deliberately emptied out of meaning. As a culture do we all really accept the mantras, mores, and cranial laxness of "lifestyles of the rich and famous" brought to us by Kaufman and Broad, Pulte Homes, Related Companies, and countless other developers of the Southern California and American landscape — as of higher value than any type of searching or questioning? Or is it just that so many of us really, really like pasta? Indeed, the comfort of the consumer — the insistence that any inconvenience or interruption to a daily life of little moments be suppressed — trumps criticality, and the critical moment is reserved only for the technicians who observe the focus groups behind the one-way mirrors. The evidence of the consequent blind and lazy landscape splays out all around us.

Question: Is the asking of questions, as it regards the globalized environment of sprawl, define one as a snob?

Exhibit C (also from Websters)
ver·nac·u·lar
Etymology: Latin vernaculus native, from verna slave born in the master's house, native
1 a : using a language or dialect native to a region or country rather than a literary, cultured, or foreign language b : of, relating to, or being a nonstandard language or dialect of a place, region, or country c : of, relating to, or being the normal spoken form of a language
2 : applied to a plant or animal in the common native speech as distinguished from the Latin nomenclature of scientific classification
3 : of, relating to, or characteristic of a period, place, or group; especially : of, relating to, or being the common building style of a period or place

Exhibit D
"And now the mighty "Tuscan" encroaches at the global scale: new housing in places like Orange County, China, a recently constructed suburb near Beijing, and similar suburban developments adjacent to Bangalore echo the southern Californian template of total bogusness."

Question
Can global trends and styles that are consciously manufactured be defined as vernaculars?

Confession - I enjoy fine wines regardless of place of origin.
John Kaliski
04.13.05 at 11:54

Quote: Does the fact that people that "pay for it" make it ok?

If the question is whether it is OK, I don't know. If the question is whether it reflects real conditions of its context as much as any other style, absolutely. I would add that "styles" promulgated by moralists are less likely to engage reality than "themes" gobbled up by the carefully constructed mass market. The moral problem, for me, is that this reality is created by commercial industry rather than public society. Just because it's not good doesn't mean it's not real.
Dystopos
04.13.05 at 12:33

I am of two minds on this topic.

The newly built structure meant to evoke Tuscany reminds me of Epcot Center's various facades. We're not just talking about the suburban sprawls. In the heart of LA, several multi-unit residential complexes have sprung up over night, most with "Tuscan" theme; stucco, court yards, landscaping, names, etc. The Medici and the Orsini just on the edge of downtown are specific examples, and how can you miss Villa Park La Brea, across from the Grove. The minty freshness of something that is suppose to be old somehow unsettles me. Add on top of that, I can't figure out why they must all be "Tuscan"?

But I must also point out that "Tuscan" isn't new to Souther California. Lorraine mentions that Mid-Wilshire shows no sign of "Tuscan" architecture, yet a few short steps away in Hancock Park, homes built in the 20's and 30's are most definitely "Tuscan". A trip through Pasadena will also show "Tuscan" homes built in the same period. Silver Lake, Echo Park, Eagle Rock, Glendale, all contain evidence of the style. Many of LA's early apartment buildings with center court yard layouts are considered to be "Tuscan". Architect and landscape architect friends share that the popularity of these Tuscan homes in the 20's has to do with the fact that SoCal's climate is similar to those of Mediterranean cities. Before central heating and a/c, the particular style of architecture was well suited for this climate. Hence it became part of the Southern Californian landscape. So it's not entirely out of place to build new building that borrows from LA's relatively short history.
Nipith Ongwiseth
04.13.05 at 01:38

Can global trends and styles that are consciously manufactured be defined as vernaculars?

John: this is sort of ciruclar logic. After all, the Tuscan 'style' in Tuscany is consciously manufactured. People copied their neighbors, and now, historic structures. If some Italian family moved to SoCo 300 years ago and said 'hey! the climate is just like home, and they have plenty of raw materials to manufacture brick and tile' and then built a lovely villa, the result now would likely be embraced as 'historic'.

The point being that some appropriations of venacular style are not entirely unfounded. One could make the argument that modernism is not a 'placeless' venacular, and that Neutra was appropriating it to design homes in Southern California that were decidedly out of character for with the predominant style at the time -- and that weren't particularly 'original' since precursors of similar 'style' could be found. That place might be Germany and Northern Europe in the early 20c. or in a more esoteric location -- the minds of academics spread among a finite number of universities.

I have no doubt that what Lorraine posted about is true: I'm sure they are ugly, out-of-scale monstrousities carpeting SoCo. But expressing surprise at the use of 'Tuscan' seems naive, and providing a photo that is not exemplary of the worst aspects is poor research.

I also think that many of the failures of modernism that have to do with assembly and durability; go to Silver Lake -- the Neutra houses are lovely, but they look like maintenance nightmares. The typologies derived in Tuscany are fair game for that climate. Eaves help shed water and provide shade. Adobe was used as a trombe wall for centuries before anyone called them that. Tile roofs are sensible in dry climates with a lot of sun. One need not completely ape the superficialities, but one also need not throw out the tested and proven techiques of construction.
miss representation
04.13.05 at 03:03

While there are houses from earlier times that utilize Italianate detailing and motifs in Los Angeles (most are Beaux-Arts inspired), most of what one observes from earlier eras is specifically Iberian and Spanish/Mexican-colonial, not Tuscan, in origin. A good place to read about this is in the introduction to David Gebhard's and David Winter's "A Guide to Architecture in Los Angeles and Southern California". The craze for the Tuscan, both in Southern California and globally, in all its good and bad manifestations, seems to be particularly rampant at this moment in time. Does this make it a modern vernacular?

I have always thought that vernaculars were in part characterized by the means by which they are passed down as craft knowledge from generation to generation. To describe any contemporary professional design activity, Tuscan or otherwise, that is globalized, taught in schools, shaped primarily by market forces, and subject to rapid change as a vernacular seems difficult, provided one utilizes a catholic definition of the word.
John Kaliski
04.13.05 at 03:40

John: maybe it has to do with jargon. My use of it always relates to the third definition:

3 : of, relating to, or characteristic of a period, place, or group; especially : of, relating to, or being the common building style of a period or place

Passing of knowledge from builder to builder isn't a necessity. My understanding of it was that one could study the venacular forms of an area and design something in context, in opposition, etc., without having to know the people who made the houses. I think Steven Holl's Pamphlet Achitecture on rural house forms (sorry, tried to link, but it got zapped in preview) volume as an example of studying venacular forms without participating directly in their production as a legitimate exercise.

Certain time aggregates the legitimacy of a particular venacular. The ability to travel and pass information over great distances quickly has certainly perverted the evolutionary process.

I think the Napa analogy is crucial here. Tuscan typologies are not completely inappropriate. That many Iberian percusors exist have to do somewhat with political issues (colonization), but their pervasiveness has to do with the success of the type based on local climate and congruence with existing venacular, as well as political and social dominance. Likewise, people started planting grapes in Napa, and ended up with some pretty good wine (and they grow a hell of a lot of ginseng -- or is it ginger? -- in Wisconsin, of all places). The pervasiveness of Tuscan now, from a marketing standpoint, has nothing to do with my argument -- surely it is an effect of the desire for something new and entirely familiar at once, with a dash of continental aspiration as well. But that doesn't mean there isn't also a mindless hegemony of style inside the design community as well. What we learned from Las Vegas is that the dialectic between these poles is where we can still make a difference, ideally.
miss representation
04.13.05 at 04:18

Miss Representation, thank you for making me work so hard. Ok, we are discussing precision of language and that is good. You seem to agree that the first two definitions of "vernacular" as defined by Websters rule out any possibility that "Tuscan" as presented in the original post can be defined as such. With regard to that portion of the definition of vernacular that reads:

- of, relating to, or characteristic of a period, place, or group; especially : of, relating to, or being the common building style of a period or place,

you have correctly narrowed the bar to what appears to be the most amenable meaning of the word with regard to your argument. However, given that in this case and this post Tuscan is being discussed as a global, not just Southern California phenomenon, I sense that it is swerving from even this sense of the word to insist that a globally found embelmatic style is characteristic of a place or group unless one feels that all places and all groups are the same and that nothing distinguishes the plurality of groups and places that exist. It also is difficult from my point of view to argue that the Tuscan, or indeed any specific style, is truly common, as opposed to frequently present, given the plurality of approaches that are being pursued simultaneously in the building arts. I at least feel that your argument rests on a sense that the Tuscan, or any style that one could identify, is valid to the degree that it is supremely characteristic of this period. I do not think this is the case with Tuscan (thank goodness). For me it is clear that building styles such as Tuscan are primarily emblematic of the plurality of self-chosen lifestyles as shaped by the marketplace as opposed to lifeways (which are rooted in place, ritual, and culture, specific environmental characteristics such as climate and response to local color, materials and yes craft as well as technological traditions). Various forms of this argument have been made over the years by many people, most famoulsy Kenneth Frampton (whom I understand is updating his critical regionalism essay of the late 1970s and early 1980s to take account of the happenings of the past twenty years).

With regard to Napa, I do not know it that well and I agree that Tuscan typologies are not completely inappropriate there. However, I believe that what the post is talking about is not typology but what is used to wrap the type - a concept that would be foreign to most any vernacular as defined for sure by the first two defintiions of the word if not the third. Indeed Iberian percusors (as opposed to Italian precedents) are pervasive in Southern California and their success does have something to do with various forms of association that are cultural, colonial, and historical. Nevertheless while a stick and stucco Southern California house may look like its precedents it in the end does not feel the same, it does not sound the same, it has a different sense of tempature, and it is usually adapted as a conscious act as opposed to passed down as a tradition based on the limits of place. Finally (this is it for me and this thread), if indeed there is not as you state a "mindless hegemony of style inside the design community," then logically it follows that given the resulting design heterogeneity there can not be much of a capacity to produce a vernacular design common.

My sense is that the "Tuscan" symbols, emblems, and surfaces that are adapted to contemporary typologies and lifestyles are emblematic of larger social, political, cultural, and ideological currents that run through society(ies) and are the proper subject of close readings and critical discourse.
John Kaliski
04.14.05 at 01:49

John: I'm not trying to narrow the conversation -- I didn't read your CV before responding, so I did want to be presumptous about 'venacular' means as a matter of jargon to some designers (given this forum, it could be a wide range). I just wanted to clarify how I was using it.

My only point regarding Napa is that, as a matter of cultural appropriation, the wine industry is illegitimate if we are to be doctrinaire about local culture and when it should be exported or imported. Given the rapid urbanization of the entire world, expected building forms or cultural to arise orgaincally and accomodate the expectations of far more techonlogically developed cultures is an interesting design issue.

And I'd rather not belabour the point either. I suspect we are in large part in agreement with the issues the post raises, and most of my argument in irrelevant vis-a-vis developer housing, since all it is to them is simply gluing a different finish to the same plan. I just don't understand the frustration with their inclusion of a new 'style' in that morass. Well, I do, but it's undifferentiated to me. Stick some pagodas and yurts in there too -- why not? But there is a little baby in the bathwater when it comes to the usefulness of 'Tuscan' to SoCo, mostly becuase there is much to be learned from that culture and type that might benefit the area. Aping it uncritically is no answer, but nor is rejecting it out of hand.
miss representation
04.14.05 at 01:14

I think it is interesting to read the Tuscan in southern California as a turn away from an identification with colonialism toward a nativism, however mythic. Continuing off of John's suggestion that the Tuscan may be emblematic of larger currents, perhaps it represents a move in architecture from the attacker to the attacked, from the mission to the castle. I'm reminded of the differences between the International Style and Brutalism, one carries all the hope of a better future and the other concretizes the fear of it. Is the more "country" or "pastoral" look of Tuscan a move back to the true origins of America? Columbus was, after all, Italian.
Will Temple
04.15.05 at 01:27

As a 'consumer' who has recently designed himself by pure accident, I swear, a Tuscan double-storey 'suburban townhouse' I would attribute the global popularity of this style to the fact that it very stylishly accomodates the modern need for security, privacy and compactness. The style itself is therefore not at fault but the poorer renditions of it. Consider the (lack of) alternatives.The people WILL make popular a style that suits its' needs.
Mark Knight
05.22.05 at 11:47

Probably the biggest problem to pull off the design of a Tuscan house is authenticity.

When I say authenticity it is adherence to the traditional form and function of the design instead of using it as a "Metaphor" for another cheap Tract "Home".

It is the unwillingness of Builders and of Buyers to pay the cost of using quality materials and construction techniques. For example is the use of "paste-up" Rock facades stuck into Conrete instead of building real Masonry e.g., real Stone Block. It's more expensive there is no denying. It also looks better and is more durable. A properly built and maintained home made using quality materials and techniques will be more expensive to build, and it will still be functional and habitable 100 years from now. Most modern homes will be ready for razing in maybe 50 - without extensive modification and buttressing.

One of the other problem with using quality materials and techniques is that people have to think a little smaller in the size of the structure. Demanding 5000 Square feet on a 2000 Square foot budget means something is going to have to give and that something is always quality.

The other problem of course is that most builders and developers lack the skills and knowledge. They are whizbang Marketers and know how to put all the "cute little fluorishes" in, but could not build a real Stone Wall that will last if you paid them.
Constantine
06.24.05 at 04:41

The sample photo illustrated is actually quite nice to my taste. I am designing a few homes in California and have seen some of the Tuscan product first hand. In a central southern state (which cannot be mentioned on this forum) they have the same craze: 'T...s Tuscan'. Why I have even named some of my concept houses such, and the California versions likewise!

The problem in California specifically is that a mega developer catches a trend and brands it (sears it) into the ground with endless and monolithic repetition. Acres and acres of this style usually consisting of three or four plans multiplied in mass, rearranged, flipped/reversed, etc. do no good to the streetscape and do not mimic the Tuscan environment (streets, city plaza centers, etc) which gives a more realistic and acceptable rendition. [Theoretically this reduces costs as the framers and truss plants can mindlessly crank it out; does the savings get passed on to the consumer?]. But the end result is crass suburban sprawl, somewhat elegantly rendered, carpeting the beautiful landscape (I think of areas north of Sacramento just visited: rooflines of exactly the same height, coloration and detail that does not sufficiently differentiate, etc.)

Commentary argues about the appropriatness of importing this style into the area, the cheap construction technique, the snob element....
These arguments have been voiced every time a 'style' is brought in from outside.
If one were to keep with the true vernacular, then California should stick with teepees and pueblos, like most of this country originally populated by native Indians. As soon as you let colonial (Spanish) architecture be a part of the vernacular then you have posited a sensible argument and can stop there. No other styles allowed including Craftsman, Beaux Arts, Modern, etc.
Of course this is a bit of poppycock thinking.
As one poster argues supposing an Italian moving into the area -- noting how similar climate and topography resembles his beloved Tuscany -- will want to build a farm house stone and clay tile villa. Then it becomes a 'historical' event/model. (I am sure this has happened moreso than we assume.) Rationality.

The same thinking in California has been taken up Austin, T...s for several years now, since the hills and dry climate resemble Tuscany. There was a strong 'Mediterranean' movement previously. There is even much limestone in the ground to rationalize further. Austin does not have a K&B megadevelopment but smaller neighborhoods with not one style predominating but several, including MoCo (university influence). Even the 'vernacular' German metal roof and boxy stone chalet persists. Things look lovely there.

Ancient Greeks colonized the now Turkish coast and Sicily twenty five hundred years ago. Magnificent Greek Doric temples abounded in the latter and a full spectrum of Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian style was allowed to flourish (as the Greeks were not driven out too quickly)on the Aegian coast.
The Italians (actually Etruscans first, then Romans I suppose) really liked the temple idea -- and their gods -- so the caesars incorporated this way of building, adding in brick with concrete mortar, an innovation, and barrel vaulting to create an Imperial style. The temples were closed up to provide better shelter from the elements. (Albert Speer offered up this Imperial 'style' to Hitler)

This became a model for lesser mortals to build country houses and villas. As the Renaissance came on and after the scourge of the Goths, the Romans dug up their stone treasures and 'rediscovered' their glorious past, then reconstituted them in an ORIGINAL and CREATIVE fashion to suit their humanism and new-found artistic sensibilities. They remodeled their 'Tuscan' farmhouses and demanded symmetry, covering the rustic stone walls with plaster to simulate the marble creations in Rome, and voila: the ultimate grand Villa. Palladio is remembered best for his contribution.

Well, travelers to Italy, especially the English (the French and Germans wholeheartedly adopted the Roman/Italian genre -- adding their own indigenous touches) loved this Tuscan Villa - Renaissance style house and built several of their own models during the Georgian period. Most were rendered in brick, the local material, but some in stucco (Chiswick the most famous knockoff). British (American) colonials eventually got around to rebuilding their heritage after liberation: Georgian. Variations are found ad nauseum on the east coast. The Spanish also left their legacy in the west and south. Similar variations exist.

While this was going on the Italians proceeded into Baroque and Roccoco, then retreated into neo classicism, etc. Palladio's original treatise 'The Four Books of Architecture' was a smash publishing hit. Being the first 'plan book' of its time, this ennobled many other architectural adventurers to offer the world their own humble designs. Builders in the New World and elsewhere on the planet bought these and other 'Builder's Companions' and like books, and disseminated a plurality of styles.
Whichever attractive rendering and explanation of plan merits caught one's fancy at the moment was the style in which to build. Just as now: peruse the plethora of such magazines at B&N, and pick a plan.
This is how Western non-vernacular styles have invaded even the Chinese (I have designed two 'Mediterranean' homes for a Western style subdivision outside of Shanghai), and other countries in the Far East.

At the turn of the century the raging argument was "In Which Style Shall we Build"?
Then came world wars, machine production, the International Style/Modernism, and the mass devaluation of the construction arts in general (paralleling other currents in the arts and societal/philosophical currents).

The present interest in everything Italian ('Under the Tuscan Sun' -- most Americans select Italy and France as their number one escape destination) -- and European (French Country) is partially a result of seeking something 'different' from the extant vernacular, (which may have been beaten into the ground in any locale) either to fulfill McMansion ambitions (French Chateau), or to hearken to a simpler way, earthier (Tuscan) or rustic -- which may be a response to our increasingly frenetic electro-media-computer frazzled lives.
John Henry AIA, NCARB
07.15.05 at 09:47


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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Lorraine Wild is a designer and educator in Los Angeles. She established her own design practice, Green Dragon Office, in 1996 to focus on collaborations with architects, curators and publishers.
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