Little Boxes on the Hillside

The 1972 Malvina Reynolds song, “Little Boxes on the Hillside” criticized the homogenization of a culture obsessed with materialism and upward mobility that was displacing any sense of character, place or individuality, set to a self-referentially folksy tune. As much as the song is a critique of post-war American values, in my view it is perfectly well suited as a critique of post-recession residential construction on Queen Anne.

There are few blocks remaining in our historic neighborhood that are not host to a “contemporary modern” box of a house, the sole purpose of which it seems is to provide the requisite rooftop deck. Neighborhoods are living, evolving things. Not every house on Queen Anne needs to be an early 20th century bungalow, or one of the stately beauties that popped up on its south slope after the introduction of streetcar service in 1902. But every house should be a good and respectful neighbor.

One of the more architecturally eclectic parts of the hill is Queen Anne Park. The area was developed over a period that straddled the Great Depression and post-war prosperity. The majority of its homes enjoy a mutual respect based on scale, construction quality and site consumption despite the decades that separate them. This characteristic allows for a certain quality of life, the value of which is difficult to quantify. But key to that quality of life are two elements: air and sunlight. In residential neighborhoods, these elements are preserved by rooflines that angle or step back to allow light and breezes to move past, around and over them to surrounding properties; and by limiting the footprint of a home to no greater than half of its lot to preserve livable outdoor space.

A Dryvit-clad house with a rooftop-deck looms over a neighboring home in Queen Anne.

Over the past decade it has become sadly predictable that when a Queen Anne home is torn down, a characterless, three-story, box-plus-rooftop-deck will spring up in short order. And this home will be built to eat up as much of the lot as possible to maximize the size of the dwelling below deck; resulting in rooms so large that there is no need for clever, efficient design. The effect on surrounding neighbors is immediate and negative. Less natural light will shine into their homes, and fewer cool breezes will travel through their backyards during our cherished summer months. And if one is fortunate enough to enjoy a peek-a-boo view, it will likely be obstructed by 4,000 square feet of Dryvit-clad belligerence. Many are embellished with a dizzying array of surface materials; some corrugated sheet metal here and there, a few token rectangles of board siding arranged in competing directions in a feeble attempt to convey the illusion that there is something architectural going on.

But these homes are not only discourteous neighbors; they do a disservice to those who live in them as well. Sacrificing easily accessible outdoor space to accommodate a rooftop deck is problematic at best. Unless the designer of the home had the foresight to give up deck square footage for a top-floor room with a half-bath and storage for cold drinks, (or at the very least a dumbwaiter) the deck will rarely see use. Several homes with rooftop decks can be seen from my house and I have never, not once, seen anyone use them. It’s a pain to haul stuff up and down from there. It’s a pleasure to step out into a well-designed and landscaped backyard and wave to your neighbor, whose name you know, enjoying theirs. The sense of community and quality of life imparted by thoughtful design cannot be overstated.

This modern Queen Anne home features distinct façade articulation, high-quality materials and construction. The protruding steel-and-glass window arrangement wrapping the corner balances the weightiness of the brick. The absence of vertical boards at the corner of the horizontal siding shows the care in construction taken to miter the wood for perfect alignment.

 

That is not to say that all contemporary modern homes being built on Queen Anne are discourteous neighbors, even some of the boxy ones. It’s a delighted to see a modern home designed with sensitivity to scale by an architect and client who understand that modernism cannot be successfully executed with inexpensive materials, stock windows and spec-house quality construction. Lack of decorative detail in modern design is deceptive; it requires high-quality materials applied with jewel-box-precise construction to be pulled off. And with any style of architecture, a well thought out and harmonious relationship to site and surroundings allows a home to be a standout rather than a sore thumb.

This modern Queen Anne home features a curvilinear roofline, extensive glazing and Corten steel cladding. High-quality materials and construction methods like these are important factors in successful modern design.

With no enforceable design ordinances in place to discourage construction of the less courteous boxes on the hill one can only hope that this trend will subside before our streets become dark canyons and our historic sense of place is lost. Until then it appears that, for the most part, they will all be made of ticky-tacky and all look just the same