"Crackerbox." That’s only one of the unflattering names we’ve given postwar tract houses thanks to their thin, flimsy look. Funny thing is: Most of these houses are actually better built than their predecessors. Why do they look so insubstantial?
The single biggest reason comes down to a tiny little difference — in fact, it’s just a matter of a few inches. Prior to World War II, wooden windows were installed slightly recessed from the wall surface, leaving a visible recess or "reveal" showing all around. This simple feature provided a subtle visual cue that the surrounding wall had mass and thickness.
Ironically, to modernist architects of the 1920s and ’30s, this reveal was bad news. Architects such as Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe espoused walls that looked as thin as possible.
After all, the revolutionary new building materials of the early 20th century — steel and reinforced concrete — no longer demanded the massiveness of traditional masonry construction, and many architects believed that truly modern building should honestly reflect this fact: Walls should be thin, precisely because they could be thin.
Likewise, windows, rather than being mere holes punched into a heavy-looking wall, were to be treated as a sort of cellophane wrapper stretched over an ethereally light framework.
By the end of the Depression, most people believed that traditional architecture was stone dead, and that modernism was here to stay. It was around this time that a number of window manufacturers began doing their own part for modernism.
They introduced new windows with extremely slender frames — initially of steel, and later of aluminum — whose glass was purposely set flush with the outside surface of the wall, lending the ultraflat look modernists craved.
Alas, while this two-dimensional aesthetic might have been ideal for high-rise office buildings, it was not so well-received for dwellings. And despite the best efforts of modernists such as Le Corbusier to retrain the public, most people continued to believe that their homes should look massive, permanent and secure — not thin, light and ethereal.
By the time modernism’s purposely flimsy look started to bother homebuyers, however, the new windows had already conquered the housing industry. Not coincidentally, they were also much cheaper to install, which meant there was no going back to the old, labor-intensive wooden windows of yore.
It’s ironic, then, that for the last three decades, architects and builders have been on a frantic quest to make those two-dimensional modernist windows look more like their substantial wooden predecessors.
They’ve tried using clunky trim, fake stone or foam moldings to suggest a reveal where there isn’t one. They’ve tried flanking the windows with shutters to make them more massive.
They’ve added phony grilles between panes of double glass to mimic a traditional look, but in all of this, they’ve succeeded only in making the walls look flatter than ever.
Ultimately, there’s only one way to capture the look of a traditional window, and that’s to install it in the traditional way. There’s no substitute for those critical inches.