A few days back, I walked through a wonderful old villa designed by one of the top California architects of the 1920s. The house was a lyrical Spanish Revival design, meticulously integrated into its hillside site, and surrounded by pools, gardens and terraces designed by an equally famed landscape architect of the era.
I’m being coy about names and dates only because the place is currently in the midst of a sweeping "renovation" that I don’t have many kind words for.
Despite an apparently vast remodeling budget, the owners turned to a "designer" — that is, a person unqualified to legally use the term architect — to carry out the project. Now, granted, I have an obvious bias toward hiring a licensed architect — especially when tampering with the work of an acknowledged master. But judge for yourself.
The designer had gutted an entire wing of the fastidiously detailed old mansion, right down to the framing. He then commenced a remodeling program that managed to include every McMansion gimmick to be found this side of Las Vegas.
In the "improved" kitchen, for instance, ceilings were riddled with recessed lighting fixtures, countertops slathered with glitzy granite, and cabinets lavishly custom-built from acres of this year’s trendy wood. Any space that was left over was crammed full of glaring stainless steel appliances.
In place of the original home’s understated elegance and subtly patinated finishes, the remodeled wing was transformed into a showcase of conspicuous consumption.
In design circles, there’s always been a debate about how an older house should be remodeled. Some argue that any changes should remain true to the original, right down to disguising modernities such as dishwashers and refrigerators. Others believe that since we no longer live in the past, it’s silly to be bound by its aesthetic.
As a colleague of mine once put it: "Saying, ‘My kitchen should look old,’ makes about as much sense as saying, ‘I must fly to Europe on a biplane.’ "
Of course, neither of these extremes is necessarily the right answer — they’re just the two extremes on a spectrum of choices. Despite our fondness for the good-old days, there were plenty of lousy houses built back then, just as there are today. And if an old house was carelessly designed in the first place, changing its original form, even substantially, can sometimes bring dramatic improvement.
On the other hand, when an old house is masterfully designed and lacks only the contemporary niceties of efficient heating, ample electrical outlets and modern appliances, a much more delicate touch is in order. Gutting a perfectly good house just to accommodate the latest gadgets and fad finishes is not just unnecessary, it’s flat-out stupid.
In a few years, after the momentary sugar-rush of "modernization" wears off, both the architectural and monetary worth of the house are inevitably diminished.
As our aforementioned designer friend was seemingly unaware, it’s important to exercise some judgment on how — and how much — we choose to remodel. It’s one thing to "improve" somebody’s paint-by-numbers effort. It’s another to vandalize a Rembrandt.
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