Unfolding the Eichler Design - Page 3

The evolution of the Eichler design—pivotal turns and experiments enroute to a better way of living

Because the architects were paid on a royalty basis, Eichler strove to be fair to both firms by building each subdivision with a more or less equal number of models from each firm. While each team surely made unique contributions to the designs, the success of the homes depended upon consistent principles. Elaine Jones described the collaborative nature of their creative process. " Mr. Eichler was obviously a good listener to both the firms who worked with him. Those men had to work together. If one architect wanted to make a change, he couldn't be dictatorial about it."

Typically, the architects did not take authorship for innovations. As Jones explained, " the houses came from a vocabulary of materials, and if anybody wanted something new, it was discussed among the group and planned for as a part of a controlled business process." One reason the Eichlers were so successful was that the participants worked together for the good of the overall design rather than competing for individual credit.

A feature which is more clear in origin was the gable roof. A. Quincy Jones had previously used a gable-roofed house design for a developer in Portland, Oregon. In the Northwest, where sunshine is not as plentiful or as bright as it is in California, the extra window height at the gable allowed daylight to penetrate into the center of the house even on overcast days. Furthermore, these houses were sited in a pine forest and the high windows offered views of the surrounding trees. In Eichler's Terra Linda and Lucas Valley subdivisions, the gable window allowed views of the rolling hills which so beautifully define the character of those Marin subdivisions.

Where geography was not so prominent, the architects depended upon large-scale site planning strategies to define the character of a subdivision. At the Meadows, in Palo Alto, where the existing site was flat and virtually treeless, Anshen & Allen experimented in 1950 with an abstract composition of concentric rings. The idea behind this shape was twofold. By arranging the homes in a radial pattern, it was possible to offer a sense of individuality with a minimum number of house designs.

Furthermore, the circular street pattern discouraged through traffic and so contributed to a sense of privacy and exclusivity. This layout seemed to be more compelling in theory, however, than in reality. It proved difficult for visitors to orient themselves in the rings of streets, and the gentle arc of the roadway did little to disguise the sameness of the houses.

More successful were the layouts at nearby Greenmeadow and Fairview, where the architects resorted to a more traditional village-like planning concept. At Greenmeadow, for example, the houses surrounded a park which contained a nursery school and a recreation center with a swimming pool. In a subsequent Palo Alto subdivision, residents familiar with the village-like Greenmeadow complex induced Eichler to build a swim and tennis club for them in an area previously planned for five houses.

Perhaps the most ambitious site plan was a subdivision Jones & Emmons prepared for a projected Eichler subdivision in Chatsworth, in Southern California. This project designed in 1961-'62 as part of the famous Case Study House program was remarkable for its farsighted approach to land uses and energy conservation. Here Quincy Jones imagined a site-planning strategy which would minimize the impact of the houses on the landscape, while making use of existing resources to protect the residents from the somewhat harsh high-desert climate, without resorting to air conditioning.

Jones's solution involved earth-burming around the houses to insulate the interiors from the weather and to disguise the buildings from the street.Architectural author Esther McCoy described Jones's strategy by saying, " A hole is cut in the earth and the house is slipped in." Elaine Jones defined the architect's goals for this subdivision in a monograph of A. Quincy Jones's work: "What he is striving for in (this project)," she wrote, "is a kind of earth sculpture in which houses blend with the land." The proposal, which required some joint ownership of interstitial landscaping, proved to be too radical for the local authorities, who were unsure that these spaces could be maintained. As a result, the project was denied planning approval.

Design efforts such as the Chatsworth project demonstrated how far Eichler was willing to go to develop new solutions for single-family housing. Eichler encouraged his architects to put their individual talents and skills to work, and together they challenged each other to continually improve upon their designs. Eichler recognized, before many other developers did, that architects could offer creative and useful solutions to the difficult issues surrounding merchant building.

When asked about his particular choices of architects, Eichler was deceptively modest. In an article in the December 1950 Architectural Forum, he was quoted as saying, "If I were in the dress business, I'd hire the best designers to create dresses for sale. I think the same reasoning applies to home building."

However, Eichler chose his architects with a keen eye. And those with whom he collaborated were especially adept at imbuing his standardized homes with a surprising degree of commodity, which made the experience of living in them personally satisfying on both a practical and a spiritual level.