Essay / Misc.

Ranch Houses: Cool Again for the First Time

Incredi ranch chores

In case you haven’t been notified yet, let me be the first to break the news. Ranch style houses are cool! I mean officially cool, complete with their own trend being analyzed by news stories, two different hip magazines documenting their coolness, and great big books filled with pictures of them.

It’s safe to say this trend is aggressively retro, even revisionist. It only works because the conventional wisdom of the past few decades is so clearly that ranch-style houses are ubiquitous, undesireable, and nothing special. As soon as our culture reaches a consensus of taste, you can count on the polymorphously perverse to get out there and subvert that dominant paradigm.

So let the backlash begin:
You have heard that it was said by them of recent times, ranch style is no style at all. “Because these homes are uncomplicated, critics often say the Ranch style has no style. The style is also dismissed because it has become so common.” (says an article at about.com)

But the retro ranch trend says that ranch houses are just oozing style, they are style after style threaded together and mixed to perfection. They echo the simple structures of early southwest cattle ranches (hence the name) and adobe haciendas from further south, but they deliberately make the leap to west coast modernism. Squint at that low gable and you’ll see the influence of Frank Lloyd Wright’s land-loving formal vocabulary! Keep subtracting interior walls until you have an angular USS Enterprise with MOM as Captain Kirk at the bridge of the kitchen counter and all stations open to her view! Remove all ornament and expose rafters until su casa es Bau casa!

so sleek so modern Now some of this retro-ranch rhetoric is silly stuff. Most of the trend is aimed at an upper middle class with enough money to spend on interior glass brick for its ironic value.

Some of the restored houses are so tongue-in-cheek and eye-rolling that you wonder if it’s possible to “live” inside of “architecture” which has been “permanently” ensconced inside of “air quotes” to “signify” the postmodern self-referentiality of the “joke” we’re all “in” on (“Just look around you, it’s like we’re on the set of the Brady Bunch! What a riot!”)

The most striking photos in the books and magazines capture long, sleek lines and open spartan spaces that, to my mind, don’t mix with having children on site (where do these people keep their stuff?).

Some of it is stunt fashion: I DARE YOU to take the ugliest and blandest form of housing in american history and render it desireable.

And finally, this inevitably leads to a “ranchier than thou” syndrome. Serious architectural analysis of the rancher may enable us to see that this is a real architectural form with a pedigree and a tacit architectural philosophy, but that’s still going to leave a lot of us looking at our own midcentury domiciles and admitting that these things are not “true ranchers” at all, but exactly the incoherent, nondescript confabulations of G.I. Bill contractor flotsam that we always thought they were. Not every rapid-fire housing tract is full of Cliff Mays, Eichlers and Strengs. Mine isn’t. My suburb, like so many boomerplexes, is full of nearly-identical mass-produced sub-ranchers. Keen eyes can detect faint reflections of True Ranch in these midcentury constructions, but the high modernist elements (never popular with the home buying hoi polloi) have been dumbed down on purpose. The homebuilders have rounded off most of those pointy corners you could hurt yourself on. Most of the houses retain the “easy modern living” innovations like the large central spaces that keep kitchen, dining, and living rooms permeable to each other, and the glass back wall that lets indoor and outdoor interpenetrate. But the return from modernist theory to common sense sanity comes at a cost: in the absence of wacky theory, your home is back in the perpetual struggle with The Dreaded Box. Neighborhoods like mine are a partial retreat from True Ranch’s crazy low-slung conceptuality to Dreaded Box. The homes in this burb took a little Ranch and a little Box, and ended up with a cozy compromise. But every owner has given in to the impulse to torture their house over the decades: adding rooms, converting garages, replacing the giant sliding glass doors, covering the open rafters, and landscaping aggressively to camouflage that fifties look. The drill in these burbs is to poke and prod, modify and remodel, until each house finally becomes its own thing, all strangely alike in having been upgraded as part of a widespread communal effort to remake the tract. The result is yet another step removed from True Ranch, which was apparently nobody’s American Dream until it became retro chic.

On the other hand, the retro-ranch trend is an encouraging sign. Most of us don’t despise fifties architecture because we have well-formed opinions about architectural styles and have judged the architecture of that period to be inferior to our standards. Most of us hate it because it’s fifties. The recent past is the easiest thing to hate, and we can always leverage our love of the truly noble, safely distant historical buildings to add weight to our contempt for what’s at hand. This lets us love the past in a general way while looking down on anything old that we actually come into contact with. We can live as the architectural equivalents of the the sort of person who loves humanity but can’t stand people, or who applauds local culture but wishes your neighbors would stop that racket.

The only real news in the nascent retro-ranch trend is that it’s been fifty years since the fifties. Fifty years is just about long enough for “contemporary” to become “historical,” especially in American culture with its shorter memory and faster cycles, and most especially in California where twenty-five year old objects are antiques. Fifty years is enough to make ranch houses history, and now that they’re history they can be retro, falling under the purview of the Recent Past Preservation Network.

All in all, I say three cheers for the ranch house, and at least two cheers for the retro-ranch revival! Anything that opens our eyes to the actual spaces we live in is a welcome stimulant. If you think you live nowhere, in a building that signifies nothing, think again, look harder, and try to understand the dynamics of the recent past.

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