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Book Review: Get Your House Right (Marianne Cusato)

How can you go wrong with an architecture book where the forward is written by Prince Charles? Yes, the Prince is a political imbecile. But he is an excellent architectural expert and critic, and one of the first to push back against the fetid tide of architectural Modernism. (You can tell that he’s good on architecture from the vicious attacks on him conducted by the priests of Modernism.) He famously compared part of the new British Library to an academy for secret policemen. And the Prince enthusiastically recommends this book, which should mean something.

I also recommend it, though I am not in any way comparable to Prince Charles. But we have spent the past three years working with classical architects to design what is, presumably, the final house we will live in. Before we began the design process, in 2012, I read and absorbed this book. It informed a lot of our thinking and it guided our selection of architects. And as we move toward actually starting to build our new house, I have read and re-absorbed this book, confirming that we have, indeed, “gotten our house right.” No small part of my confidence in that design success is due to Cusato’s work.

Cusato is a “classical architect.” In context, that means an architect who appreciates and is guided by traditional architecture generally (roughly prior to 1920), and who is particularly focused on Greek and Roman exemplars, especially the classical “orders,” as the guideposts for much of that design. Usually, it means an architect who thinks there are objectively aesthetically superior ways to design houses, that it is possible to know and practice what makes those ways superior, but that those methods and abilities of creating superior designs have been mostly lost in a sea of ugliness. Such architects are more common than they used to be, but are still a tiny minority in an era when most residential design is heinous McMansions or pseudo-“French Eclectic” mishmashes, and most commercial design is modernist (though trending today away from its worst forms of High Modernism and Brutalism). Such classical architects are represented heavily in New Urbanism, found especially in the Florida Panhandle towns of Seaside and Alys Beach. They largely hew to the philosophical underpinnings of Christopher Alexander’s “A Pattern Language.” Modern working architects in this vein include Cusato herself, Steve Semes, Thomas Gordon Smith, Duncan Stroik, Matthew and Elizabeth McNicholas, Steven Mouzon, Richard Economakis, and Michael Lykoudis—many of whom are tied to the School of Architecture at Notre Dame.

Cusato’s book is laid out extremely well (as you’d expect). She explains why you need this book: in short, simply to understand the language of architecture, without which incoherence results. She then lays out nine rules around which all traditional design revolves, such as “Make the whole greater than the sum of its parts,” “design with texture,” “design with common sense” (could it work without hidden support? is it necessary?) “design for place,” and “learn the vocabulary.” These could be mistaken for clichés, except that the rest of the book is a detailed application of all those rules to every area of residential architecture, completed with precise explanations and exquisite drawings showing the topic under discussion.

Cusato devotes a chapter to each important part of a house, beginning with Schematic Design (massing, symmetry, unity and duality, proportions, inflections). She discusses in great detail the classical Orders (Doric, Tuscan, Corinthian, etc.), explaining their origins and characteristics. These two chapters form the backbone of the book. Subsequent chapters go into more detail on specific parts of the house: Arches and Pediments; Windows; Exterior Doors; Entrances; Porches, Balconies and Railings; Roofs; Cornices and Eaves; Chimneys; Interiors; Materials and Methods.

In each chapter, Cusato explains the basics of construction (and history) of the element. She then shows clear versions of each element to avoid and versions to use, annotated in detail. I cannot emphasize enough how clearly Cusato manages to make each discussion, without dumbing it down or giving short shrift to any aspect.

The only bad thing about reading a book like this is that afterwards you cringe every time you look at most modern houses. Each element of the house I live in now, for example, is ripped directly from the “avoid” section of each chapter of Cusato’s book. That can’t be helped. What can be helped are the elements of any future house I live in, and to the extent those end up better, Cusato’s book has played a big role. Sure, our architects played the biggest role. But without reading this book I wouldn’t have known where to start, I wouldn’t have known what type of architect we wanted, and I would not have been able to assure myself we were going in the right direction. With reading this book, my life is complete—or at least my house will be.

Finally, while by itself this book is both fascinating and useful, it’s probably best to read it alongside some other books, if you are actually building a house. Cusato does not claim to cover everything; in particular, she focuses little on later traditional styles, like Prairie, which do not fit neatly into the traditional Orders. Someone building a house should probably look at Virginia McAlester’s “A Field Guide To American Houses,” as well as Stephen Mouzon’s “Traditional Construction Patterns,” and probably Alexander’s “A Pattern Language.” There are also a variety of books in the same traditionalist vein that are shorter on theory and technical explanations and longer on pictures, like Russell Versaci’s “Creating A New Old House.” But of all these, I’d say Cusato’s is the most essential. If you are planning on building a house, or even buying a house, you should get it.

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