Not for lovers of architecture though.
The suburbs that surround the capital city contain some of the most uninspired housing ever to have dribbled from an architect’s mechanical pencil. Mile after mile of undifferentiated Colonial Revival houses stand parallel to the street, their yard dimensions unchanging, their buzz-cut front lawns giving off a disturbing nitrogen glow. Why is the affectionate state’s housing so impotent, so sterile?
Well, not all of it is. Just as you’ve abandoned all hope and are desperately trying to negotiate an escape, a dramatic shift takes place. Turn off a main road just north of George Washington’s old home at Mount Vernon and it feels as if an enchantment has fallen on the area. The land becomes heavily wooded and hilly. The road breaks free from the gridiron pattern and starts to meander along the land’s contours. Something glints in the sunshine, a glass house, and then another. Rectangular modernist houses, built low to the ground, reveal themselves hiding amongst the blossoms. This is the community of Hollin Hills—a mid-century modern utopia, a jewel box amidst lunch pails and, at one time, a terrifying threat to the American way of life.
The year these houses were built, 1949, was a banner one for Modernist architecture in America. While Europe had largely accepted the new style, the United States had yet to “embrace the box.” But then Philip Johnson’s Glass House was unveiled in New Canaan, Connecticut—its walls made only of sheet glass—and modernist architecture was thrust into the public consciousness. At exactly the same time in Hollin Hills the public was being thrust into modernist architecture.
Through the 1960s, some 450 ultra-modern houses were built across 300 acres of craggy Virginia land. These houses were not quite as extreme as Johnson’s but they carried with them many of the same Modernist precepts: flat or low-pitched roofs, open floor plans with movable interior partitions, and of course floor to ceiling windows. (You can see for yourself if you’re in the area for the 2016 Hollin Hills House & Garden Tour on Saturday, April 30th.) Glass was the essential quality of these buildings, and the minimal amounts of structural framing allowed it to be everywhere: you didn’t look at a Hollin Hills house, you looked through it. What’s more this was affordable housing, the brick salvaged from urban renewal projects, the wood trusses prefabricated. Modernism had finally come to the masses.