Site and theme

The Inland Empire is the indeterminate territory that ripples eastward of Los Angeles—encompassing parts of Riverside, San Bernardino and Ontario counties and home to 4 of the region’s 18 million residents. Once Los Angeles’s agricultural hinterland, the area is now its most notorious instance of suburban sprawl—a world of highway interchanges, distribution centers, dormitory towns, water and air pollution, fragmented government and weak public services, where the dream of single-family home ownership collides with the pathologies of unplanned car-dependent settlement. And yet, these circumstances are overlaid across some the most beautiful and varied natural landscapes of California, making an array of contradictory pairings—water and wildfire, smog and blossom, surf and sierra. A demographically and socioeconomically diverse population completes the unlikely collage.

Despite these differing elements, the built landscape of the Inland Empire still conforms to the popular (if debatable) notion that anything inward of the coastal United States is a drab stretch of suburbia. Therein lies another instance of paradox—a diverse population living in an unvaried, standardized housing churned out by the volume builders that dominate the United States housing market. If it stands that only two percent of houses built in the United States each year are directly designed by architects, what influence can architecture claim on the Inland Empire as a normative condition of the built world? Or is the work of architects relegated to a cyclical, trickle-down theory of culture—in which haute couture and high ideals are pirated by indiscriminate mass builders?

Thus, the studio’s goal is to contribute to the ongoing reinvention of house-making in the murky territory between the bespoke and the generic. We will do so through a close examination of the elementary particle of the house and its lot. Our ambition will be to critically and productively address the most ubiquitous yet contentious of architectural typologies—the single-family house. We will be decisively practical and design a highly detailed house that is specific to the given site, yet can serve as a model—of process, or form—for wider architectural practice. Through this concentrated focus, we will examine domestic tendencies and cultural pathologies, formal standards and daring gestures, all of which manifest in very real, tangible, and physical ways on the deceptively simple site of the house.

History and controversies

The house is at once an elementary problem of established expectations and a contested site of change and controversy. Often, prevailing patterns turn out to be no more than forcefully stated ideals, and the house no more than a proxy for claims regarding the life of home or family. But with the lucrative business that is house production, the vernacular of forms has been largely redefined by volume house builders, and the formerly localized culture of building replaced by catalogs of limited choice. While mass production is certainly not without its critics, the reality still stands—providing housing in large quantities continues to be a necessity. The question that persists—is it possible to supply livable homes to a large, diverse population without resorting to sweeping broad strokes and reductive uniformity? What happens when we rethink the standard items normally taken for granted, like the size of the bedroom or the distance from the living room to the kitchen, or the number of occupants per single house, even when designing in the replicable, one-size-fits-all vein? How far can we push the notion of what constitutes a house, so long as we can vouch for the soundness of its construction?

In 1945 in Los Angeles, the editors of the Arts and Architecture magazine and instigators of the Case Study House program endeavored to design houses that could be constructed easily and cheaply and satisfy the high demand for housing in the post-war building boom. Their restrained, if cautious, announcement read:

“…Agreeing that the whole matter is surrounded by conditions over which few of us have any control, certainly we can develop a point of view and do some organized thinking which might come to a practical end. It is with that in mind that we now announce the project we have called the “Case Study” House Program.”

Though perhaps ultimately falling short of the initial goal to create prototype homes, the commissioned architects dotted Los Angeles with relatively affordable, yet formally unique, idiosyncratic houses specific to the sites and climates of Southern California. Using similar, practically-oriented methods and developing a point of view through such organized thinking, we will explore, once again—and certainly not for the last time—the problem of the house. The site and context will be suburban, replete with precedents—though perhaps not ones to eagerly emulate—whose proximity we will heed through the design process. The natural forces on the site, the topography and the unique landscape of Southern California will play just as important and generative role.


During the studio travel week, we will visit a wide range of notable house precedents along the West Coast and throughout the Inland Empire, as well as examples in Dallas and Fort Worth. Additional weekend excursions to precedents on Long Island and along the Hudson Valley will also be scheduled.

We will spend a great deal of the semester practicing the skill of making substantial formal arguments, and will strive to avoid merely illustrating rhetorical ones with form. We will study how tectonics are shaped by the landscape, and how interiors, in turn, are influenced by tectonics. Each joint, window-frame, and set of stairs will be a part of an argument. We will aim to individually produce designs that embody, in their detail and relations, an inquisitive adventure that refreshes the reality and spirit of the house. Selected readings and presentations will support the studio research.

All Semesters

Spring 2020
Advanced Design Studio: Ladeira da Misericórdia
Norma Barbacci, Sunil Bald