Last night I attended a community development meeting in Libertyville, Illinois. Developer John McLinden of StreetScape Development is building 26 singles family homes in a downtown infill development. What makes this proposal different is that the homes are all individually designed by architects led by architect/author Sarah Susanka. The Libertyville Civic Center was filled, standing room only, not with protestors opposed to development, but by folks eager to hear Sarah Susanka speak and have their books signed. Questions did not critique the design or complain about traffic congestion, but instead asked if the basements could be deeper, and how much do the homes cost?
I have been to community development meetings where we architects sit back and listen to angry community members call our design “butt-ugly” and too tall. I have never seen anything quite like this Libertyville meeting. Sarah spoke for nearly an hour and the crowd listened to her every word. She showed before and after images describing why architects designs are different than your typical homebuilder. The crowd gasped as if to say they can’t believe that anyone could ever live in those cookie-cutter developer homes.
Architecture schools do not teach about Sarah Susanka, instead we learn of the greats like Lou Kahn, Corbusier, and Renzo Piano. Honestly we are trained to look down our noses at architects like Sarah Susanka, who design more traditional seeming homes and appear on Oprah. But the truth is we need to listen and learn from her. She has a way of speaking to homeowners at their level. They relate to her. She convinced the crowd that a floor plan is worthless, that good space is designed three-dimensionally. She sold the importance of details and quality materials. Everything that she preached aligns with what we learned in school, but she delivers it in a way that is less offensive to regular people as housing extremes like Villa Savoye. While in fact many of Corb’s design tenets are the same as Sarah’s.
Most importantly, Sarah convinced the crowd of the importance of architects in housing.