The quotation that greets visitors to House & Home, a new exhibition at Washington’s National Building Museum, comes from Ralph Waldo Emerson: “A man builds a fine house; and now he has a master, and a task for life; he is to furnish, watch, show it, and keep it in repair, the rest of his days.”
The quotation is apt, because House & Home ends up being mastered by its own conceptual overreach. The whole history of the American house—architectural, technological, social—is simply too much to fit into five rooms.
The first gallery has murals of photographs of American housing through the centuries, from bungalows and soldiers’ barracks to Hearst Castle and Marina City. Two dollhouses on display suggest the gap between the physical structures we inhabit and the ideals bound up in the notion of “home.”
The next room features a row of six full-scale, tactile house sections that use characteristic materials and technologies from different periods of American history, beginning with adobe and ending with structural insulated panels. Interactive but not dumbed down, the sections embody the evolution of American building techniques.
Down the middle of the same room runs a line of 14 highly detailed models, all at 1:96 scale— Monticello, the Gamble House, Vizcaya, a Sea Ranch house, and looming over the rest, the Hancock Tower. There is some overlap with the wall sections, but as with much of the show, the takeaway is unclear. Are we meant to situate these iconic structures within the context of building history? If so, it’s illuminating to learn that Fallingwater inspired the trend for sliding glass patio doors, less so to be told that McKim, Mead & White influenced Robert Stern.
The gap between mainstream housing and capital-a Architecture, between social history and design history, is never quite acknowledged. One gallery shows a bewildering array of nearly 200, mostly common household objects: Atari game console, plunge bath, Barcalounger, butter churn, lawn sprinkler, and so on. Visitors will enjoy pointing out familiar objects, but then what? This reviewer’s associative powers are not strong enough to form a meaningful connection between a Crock Pot and the Glass House, a model airplane and Mount Vernon.
House & Home includes three groups of well-made films shot by different filmmakers, and these too betray the show’s unsure identity. The beautiful “Welcome Home” films portray daily life within singular examples of contemporary architecture: Michael Maltzan’s Carver Apartments for formerly homeless adults, a desert home by Rick Joy, a Lazor Office’s prefab Flatpak House among them. It’s nice to see high design humanized, but the tacit argument—here is America at home—doesn’t ring true, given that only a tiny sliver of the population lives in architect-designed homes. In the “Community” gallery, the style shifts to urban documentary, with short films that explore specific neighborhoods.
The best films may be those in the object gallery, which use clever, lovely animations of archival photographs to illustrate homemaking through the centuries. A lot of care went into the details of House & Home, which makes its conceptual shagginess more disappointing. The National Building Museum has produced some excellent shows in recent years, including Unbuilt Washington (now on view) and 2009’s House of Cars. A narrower focus, as in those exhibitions, would have helped this one.