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Unresolved Legibility in Residential Types

Clark Thenhaus
Applied Research and Design, 2019

Figure 1. Queen Anne corner turret.

Unresolved Legibility in Residential Types takes the reader on a circuitous and delightful journey through ten residential types, which author Clark Thenhaus uses as springboards for an array of arguments, design speculations, and polemics. He discusses how houses are “unforgivingly intertwined with cultural customs, social transformations, personal expressions, politicized regulations, habits of contemporaneity, and disciplinary theorization” (4). Each chapter loosely orbits around a type analyzed at the macro and micro scales through a set of terms and definitions. In doing so, the book deftly weaves together precise formal analysis with analysis of cultural, micro-historical, and vernacular architectural concerns.

Among Thenhaus’s key strengths are the connections he draws between typological form and contextual relationships, character, and history. He also suggests how these analyses extend into different terrains that would otherwise seem out of reach. The book offers a subtle deployment of tactical methods for interrupting what are often closed systems of formalist thought, thereby introducing vitality into what might be considered canonical architectural concerns: the ambiguous sidedness of a four-sided mountain house, the ambivalent frontality of a farmhouse porch, or the locational ambiguity of a turret at the corner of a building. As is made clear through the book’s repeated use of concepts such as “ambiguity” and “multiplicity,” in many ways Thenhaus works from and updates the long and significant legacy of Robert Venturi’s Complexity and Contradiction. While Venturi was occasionally faulted for cultivating a “taste for ambiguity in itself” (84), Thenhaus strives to demonstrate how ambiguity is the inevitable result of competing forces that are both hyper-local and exceedingly abstract.1

In weaving together strands of analysis, synthesis, and pure speculation, the book compellingly borrows from several genres of architectural writing. It is a book that refuses to be simply one thing; it is not quite a monograph of unbuilt work, not quite a book of theoretical arguments bolstered by sustained research, and not quite a treatise or simply a “survey of prosaic oddities” (12). The ten chapters are equal parts field-guide to vernacular American buildings (ranch houses, log cabins, farmhouses, row houses, Queen Anne houses, and others), historical and cultural reflection on residential motifs and typologies (replete with oblique references from cinema, popular culture, and literature), and novel ruminations on unlikely intersections between disciplinary questions applied to new and unexpected topics.  Indeed, Thenhaus admits that these types are surrogates for projective possibilities.

Thenhaus considers how analytic and typological tools extend beyond a purely morphological understanding of these house forms. He asks the reader to consider: what is the figure/ground diagram for a constellated farmhouse and its purlieu including the smattering of sheds, outbuildings, and compost piles? What is the Daltonian average of midcentury ranch houses with their corresponding window arrangements in the surrounding suburbs of Denver?2 How might the question of contextual similarity extend to the tactics of tectonic mimicry, material expression, and geomorphic likeness in mountain houses?

Figure 2. Farmhouse organization tendencies.

Figure 3. Ranch house composite average.

Some chapters use specific typological analyses to stage far-reaching questions that open up explorations quite different from where the analysis originates. This approach works well in some cases; in others it feels as if we are following five or six divergent explorations. Chapter 4, “Odd Facades & Social Transformation in the Queen Anne House,” offers an example. A discussion of the turret and its impact on the politics of preservation syncopates with Thenhaus’s own work and design projects in a convincing demonstration of how analysis and speculation can be integrally developed hand-in-hand. Chapter 5, “Kit Homes & The Mathematics of the American Foursquare,” begins with a discussion of the eponymous domestic type as read through a recap of the well-known genealogy of Palladian proportion expounded by Rowe, Lynn, and others. Thenhaus simultaneously puts forward a subtle critique of why this material has not been incorporated into the disciplinary fold of proportional tendencies and ordering grids. Thenhaus’s rereading finds points of connection between a vernacular (kit homes as reproduced in catalogues and pattern books such as the Lewis Manufacturing Catalog) and a concern for “continuity and isolated reduction” (98). These moments of friction are both poignant and unresolved, for better or worse.

Figure 4. Foursquares as built.

The fox-like attention Thenhaus pays to many parallel interests is akin to what critic Aaron Betsky has humorously labeled as “Attention Deficit Disorder” architecture, the proponents of which include architects of Thenhaus’s generation, such as Andrew Atwood and Anna Neimark of First Office and Jennifer Bonner of MALL. Whether or not this attention coheres around a singular thesis or theory is beside the point. Thenhaus makes it clear that in charting this multifarious terrain, what is at stake is an open-ended, still-evolving demonstration of finding new territories hiding in plain sight. Thenhaus has a keen sense of observation and a prodigious analytic mind that is intimately familiar with critical texts and debates from the past two decades. He has a relentlessly curious desire to question the divide that often operates undetected between “disciplinary” concerns of high architecture and the nitty-gritty stuff of the everyday world we encounter through the windshield of our cars driving around the suburbs and on evening walks around the neighborhood. In figuring out residential details with trace paper and pen, he holds on to abstractions such as planarity, symmetry, and ideas of order which are increasingly compromised by the imposition of code, bureaucracy, or budget.

Figure 5. Farmhouse control center.

In tackling this divide—an impasse between the legacy of regionalism and vernacularism versus a set of concerns from post-postmodernism and the last five years of Possible Mediums—Thenhaus attempts to find a third way, a mediator between the world of geometry, morphology, and form, and that of custom and habit, local regulations, and material details. The book is replete with drawings of varying degrees of abstraction which record and specify the nuances of these residential types but also reanimate and reconceptualize them: everything from Wittkowerian skeletal-line diagrams, site plans full of uncanny details, simplified wall sections of stacks and piles and organizational sketches of new mixed-use houses to composite elevations, plan-oblique axonometrics, shadow almost-perspectives, and many more. If we agree with Sigfried Giedion’s belief that “the backward look transforms its object” here we find a similar notion: looking around us with new eyes and new forms of attention is one of the most common themes in the work.3

The ostensible subject matter of the book is the ten residential types–that is, buildings which might be nominally identified as quotidian or prosaic—examined through “cultural customs, social transformations, personal expressions, politicized regulations, habits of contemporaneity, and disciplinary theorization” (5), and as catalysts for new and inventive rereadings. But what matters more is that Thenhaus finds, and in some sense, invents a working method for reimagining that which seems fixed and historically grounded or rigid, and for injecting a kind of delight and imagination into the everyday.


Joan Ockman, “On Robert Venturi and the Idea of Complexity in Architecture circa 1966,” in Stierli, Martino., Venturi, Robert. Complexity and Contradiction at Fifty: Robert Venturi’s Gentle Manifesto: A Symposium. United States: Museum of Modern Art, 2019.

On Daltonian average, see Greg Lynn, “New Variations on the Rowe Complex,” ANY: Architecture New York 7/8 (1994): 40.

Sigfried Giedion, Space, Time and Architecture: The Growth of a New Tradition, Fifth Revised and Enlarged Edition. (Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press, 2009): 5.

Alex Maymind is currently lecturer at the University of Southern California School of Architecture, where he teaches design studio, history, and theory, and is a Ph.D. candidate at University of California, Los Angeles. He holds an M.Arch. from Yale. He previously taught architecture at Cornell, Michigan, SCI-Arc, and other institutions. His publications include essays and criticism for Log, Thresholds, Pidgin, Real Review, and Pool.

How to Cite This: Maymind, Alex. Review of Unresolved Legibility in Residential Types, by Clark Thenhaus, JAE Online, February 26, 2021.

All images used in this review are promotional images courtesy of Applied Research and Design Publishing.