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« Book Elsewhere | Main | Elsewhere »

June 16, 2004

A New Sarah Susanka Book

Dear Vanessa --

Sarah Susanka, the architect and author who's best-known for "The Not-So-Big House," has just published another lovely and helpful book, Home By Design. Like "The Not-So-Big House," it's a beautifully-produced, practical, and visual guide to how to make a house a home. Susanka's titles refer to the idea that it can worth spending a little extra money and care on somewhat fewer square feet than Americans often do. She's urging us to buy quality, not quantity, in other words, and she's showing us how to do it wisely.

Susanka -- and her designer and photographers, as well as the architects and builders whose work she features -- steers a middle ground that I suspect many homeowners will find helpful. Her books have real substance; they aren't mere lifestyle-and-trimmings extravaganzas. Instead, she discusses such questions as: Why do so many buildings and spaces these days feel barren? Why do so many houses fail to turn into homes? What's the difference between square-footage-surrounded-by-walls and a room you love? Her books are intellectually engaging, yet they're fun and easily-browsable catalogs of ideas too.

These are user's guides, in other words, the contempo equivalent of the "pattern books" used by the local builders in the 19th century who created many of our best-loved houses and neighborhoods. Susanka boils Christopher Alexander's "patterns" down to a manageable number, discusses general principles as well as specifics, and gives lots of (superbly-photographed and laid-out) examples of how to put them to use.

She isn't trying to bury you in theory, or to lock you into some absurd all-or-nothing system; she digs the fact that it's your project, and your life. Interesting, no? Hmmm, so architecture as an art form doesn't have to be about a solo ego showing off; it can instead be about helping people get more of what they want out of their buildings and neighbhorhoods.

Susanka's own designs tend towards a modernism-meets-Arts-and-Crafts thing that isn't much to my taste. But so what. She isn't trying to impose her vision; she's offering general patterns that can be adapted to personal taste. She's here to serve, not to impose. When I talked to her once some years back, I found her modest and enthusiastic, firm in her convictions, and eager to acknowledge Chrisotpher Alexander as a giant.

In fact, people intrigued by the Alexander approach will probably enjoy exploring Susanka's books, as they'd enjoy exploring Jacobson, Silverstein and Winslow's recent Patterns of Home, buyable here. (Two of this book's three authors collaborated with Alexander on "A Pattern Language.") No coincidence, by the way, that all these books are published by the excellent Taunton Press -- I blogged about Taunton here.

Eyeballing books like these, you get some idea of what Alexander's ideas look like when put into practice by talented designers and builders. Although images can never replace on-the-spot, in-person experience, you can also begin to sense what these structures feel like too. Which is really the important thing, because the central goal of this approach isn't to create projects that look good when reproduced on the printed page; it's to generate buildings and neighborhoods that are thoughtful and rewarding to live with. Odd how such an idea -- that the main thing about buildings and urban spaces shouldn't be how they look but what they're like to live in and around -- seems outlandish to the architecture establishment, no?

If anyone wants to get started with Susanka, I'd suggest either this new book (buyable here) or her first, "The Not-So-Big House" (buyable here). She's published four books, and the middle two, while terrific, are really supplements to the first and the fourth.

I find it hard to believe that anyone who's planning or even fantasizing about a renovation or building project wouldn't find these books an immense help. More comfiness, more satisfaction, more beauty, and more delight than your project would deliver otherwise -- guaranteed.

An example: I passed copies of Susanka's first two books along to a friend who was having a house designed and built from scratch. He and his designer-builder gave the books a thorough workout, and were both delighted with the results; my friend now lives in a more cozy, livable, homey, and interesting brand-new house than he otherwise would have wound up with. His new house has a variety of welcoming spaces and humane touches; it's got as much lovable character as the best old houses, without being remotely Disneyish. Isn't that really the kind of thing many people are looking for when they think of turning to an architect for help?

Here's Susanka's website, a generous one where she hands out a lot of tips and advice for free. Here's a short Newsweek article about her.



posted by Michael at June 16, 2004


She also does a monthly column for Fine Homebuilding magazine, published by the Taunton Press, publishers of her first two books and possibly her third book. Fine Homebuilding is where I first ran into her ideas - and is, by the way, an excellent magazine.

Posted by: Courtney on June 18, 2004 7:48 AM

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