My first kiss came in sixth grade, my last year of living in the bungalow. Our family only lived there five years, but it feels like so much changed in the era of that single-storey 1950s home, which already seemed out of date, especially its pastel orange exterior, by the time I was watching futuristic music videos that looked set inside an aluminium cheese grater. During our time sheltered by that bungalow the new millennium came. We got our first computer. And I went from peeing my pants at school to swapping saliva at a birthday party, then talking to the boy I’d kissed late at night on the family landline lounging on my sparkly inflatable furniture. By then it was 2001, the same year as Britney Spears’ ‘I’m a Slave 4 U’ and Josie and the Pussycats. Boomers were hysterical that tweens like me were wearing low-rise jeans and frosted lip gloss. MTV’s Cribs was already on its second season.
Scattered throughout our neighbourhood were plenty of pastel mid-century bungalows in the same style as ours, with low-pitched, asphalt-shingle hip roofs and front steps flanked by rod-iron railings. Framed most months by yellow-brown lawns, sometimes ornamented with mounds of pockmarked dirty snow, they were all a little tragic in their sparseness. In retrospect, I can look back and see how a diluted version of Modernism trickled down – or should I say trickled up north – to the Canadian prairies’ post-war building boom. By the time it reached Calgary, nicknamed Cowtown, it didn’t come with elegantly flat roofs in the style of Mies van der Rohe or Paul Rudolph. But there was still a promise of progress and the good life packaged into a consumerist fantasy of convenient plastics and candy-coloured kitsch. The names of the 1956 pastel paint colours from Sherwin-Williams, outside the especially cringe-like colonial green and Aladdin yellow, suggest a cheery optimism: peach blossom, light turquoise, cherry pink and morning glow.
A 1959 Kohler ad illustrates a cornflower blue bathroom sink and tub with the slogan ‘Modern as tomorrow.’
As a child, I found it deeply satisfying when utilitarian objects were made in pretty colours. It made me happy to spot a pink car on a highway or in a parking lot. Still, I felt a mixture of attraction and repulsion at our toilet, sink and bathtub being a pale shade of jade. Maybe it grossed me out more than white or eggshell fixtures simply because a green tub makes the bathwater seem a little swampy. Plus the caulk around the fixtures looked like phlegm. But there was also something more conceptual that made me feel funny. While part of me liked their colourful sense of whimsy, these outmoded bathroom fixtures told a story about design that was sexy when grandmas were sexy. Even as a kid I could read that, and processing the implied obsolescence was unsettling. I was just starting to mould myself into a sex object, preening in a bathroom that couldn’t help but remind me of the cruel cycles of ageing and fashion.
While our house felt retro, and not in a cool way, other bungalows in the neighbourhood had aged more gracefully. I didn’t have the vocabulary for it back then but the homes I envied were built in the Craftsman style. Their low-pitched roofs had visible brackets, rafters, purlins and ridge beams painted in contrasting colours to the bodies of the homes, which frequently mixed wood siding or shingles with stucco, sandstone, brick or river rock. The older examples of this architecture in the area – Tsuut’ina territory which only started seeing many white settlers after the railroad arrived – dated back to the 1910s. Compared with the agedness of mid-century architecture which to my pre-teen tastes seemed bleak, the maturity of these even older homes was rich with charm and character.
Looking through kit home catalogues from the first quarter of the 20th century – the period’s publications peddling mail-order packages of pre-cut materials and homogenised building plans – it’s clear that Craftsman bungalows of this kind were popular all across North America as well as in the UK. In 1910, the Los Angeles-based architect Henry Wilson – who called himself ‘the Bungalow Man’– published The Bungalow Book where he shared his ‘best efforts perfecting this style of building,’ which he claimed, when properly designed, combined ‘grace, beauty, and comfort at a minimum cost,’ achieving an ‘atmosphere of cosy elegance.’ Back then, bungalows were buzzy and full of promise. Neither mansions with stuffy parlours nor tenement apartment buildings crowded with families, these modest-sized, single-storey, stand-alone dwellings, modelled in part after pastoral cottages, made the virtues of home ownership accessible for a rising middle class. More than a floor plan, they were selling a dream.
Aspiration is a hell of a drug. The years my family spent in our peach-coloured bungalow were the time in my life I most deeply felt my parents’ wanting. They lusted after the good life, which they thought would come to them in the form of a German-made sports car or a stainless-steel espresso machine, animal-print designer clothes or a complete kitchen and bathroom reno (i.e. no more green toilet). I imitated them in their longing. Even as a kid you intuitively know the status that accompanies cars, homes and clothes.
But my own objectification was what I lusted for most of all. I wanted to be a bimbo, a Barbie, the nurse on the cover of the Blink 182 CD, or gun-wielding Pamela Anderson on V.I.P. The only colour TV we had lived in the basement rec room, furnished with wall-to-wall teal carpeting, its stiff bristles pressing into me while I lay there mainlining syrupy sweet fantasies, frosted-tipped teeny boppers, fresh-faced Noxzema girls, catsuit-clad curves and dumps-like-a-truck devotionals. At the bathroom mirror in front of the sink – a pale shade of jade – I first plucked my eyebrows, pencil thin like Gwen Stefani, and as a result ended up grounded.
During those years, our quaint home felt like a physical embodiment of my parents’ aspirations while simultaneously providing a private arena for the battles that bubbled up when my own striving spurred strife. It could be a stifling place, but it was also a space for dreaming and play, tranquillity and care. I’d look for faces in the stucco- patterned ceiling in the living room. I’d bathe in the sun that poured in through the back windows, shining onto the dining room’s yellow walls and caramel-lacquered hardwood floors, everything magic and golden. There’s a picture of me in that lemon-coloured room holding my little brother when he was still an infant, red-faced and not yet able to hold up his head, my arm cradling it. I remember him a couple of years later grabbing fistfuls of our dog’s blonde fur, chasing after and trying to ride her.
No one was building new bungalows then, only knocking them down. The form was a relic of yesterday’s wanting, a future that had come and gone already. Calgary where my family had moved in the mid-1990s was a boomtown, its intermittent brash energy buoyed by the soaring price of oil. Spikes had come before in 1947 and 1973. With every bust, construction stalls, and with every boom, building permits were approved in droves. Now in the mid-1990s the city’s fortunes were rising once again, its nouveau riche mentality generating a new vision of the good life in the form of the McMansion. These garish atrocities were sometimes neo-Craftsman style, with too many gables and not enough charm, other times a bastardised version of Modernism, all boxy and soulless, or even an entirely bonkers vernacular hodge-podge where ski lodge meets Bond lair complete with stacked-shale accents and jutting geometrical roofs, forever looking a little unreal like a Sims build. The mantra was bigger is better – these monstrosities always a minimum of two storeys and creeping ever closer to front sidewalks and neighbouring properties. No matter how good my life was in our bungalow, it didn’t compare to the gaudy ideal that was all around me being sold.
To be clear, bungalows aren’t always modest. The most broad definition is simply a one-storey house – though sometimes it’s specified as small and other times it’s described as possibly having a partial second storey built into a sloping roof. The hacienda-style house Marilyn Monroe spent her final days in is by no means tiny, four bedrooms and three bathrooms on a half acre of property, but frequently is referred to as a bungalow. However, the term never finds its way linked to Kendall Jenner’s relatively similar single-storey ‘Spanish-y, farmhouse-y’ home – perhaps proof of its stigma. There are many low-to-the-ground icons of International style, for instance Philip Johnson’s famous Glass House (1949), or Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House (1951), likewise a minimalist glass box, though Edie Farnsworth for whom it was built was so dissatisfied with the bare bones approach she declared the home ‘unliveable’ and tried not to pay the architect’s bill. Several years later, Eero Saarinen completed the Miller House (1957), which better translated the period’s infatuation with a lack of ornamentation into a comfortable family space, its plush sunken living room flush with vibrantly coloured cushions. Though these Modernist residences are all single storey, they are rarely if ever described as bungalows, a label that is more regularly reserved for Craftsman-style creations, the most sprawling of which, designed by a cohort of early 20th-century Californian architects, inspired the term ‘ultimate bungalow.’ These are mansions, often two or three storeys, featuring custom furniture and tropical woods, Craftsman style taken to its most luxurious expression, and proof that the term ‘bungalow’ sometimes has more to do with aesthetics than typology.
There’s an element of social reform to the broader Arts and Crafts movement, which first emerged in mid-19th-century Britain and which Craftsman bungalows belonged to.
A reaction to the mechanisation of the Industrial Revolution, inspired by the writings of figures like John Ruskin and William Morris, the idea was to restore man’s unity in his own life as a craftsman. Their thinking was that performing labour that demands expression and care is a less alienating experience than operating the mechanised tasks of mass production. Decorative arts with embellishments that echoed natural patterns like flowers were seen as beneficial for both the spiritual health of the artisan who designed them and for the enjoyer who would then live with this beauty in their home. The movement centred a holistic approach, connecting form with function as well as thinking with working.
Modernism, which emerged in the early decades of the 20th century, similarly wasn’t exclusively about aesthetics but had its own ideology of social betterment, but its view on ornamentation couldn’t have been more polar opposite. Inspired by a 1908 lecture and essay by Austrian architect Adolf Loos titled ‘Ornament and Crime,’ which outlines how minimalism is an expression of humanity’s progress while ornament reflects degeneracy, the eugenics-adjacent philosophy inspired figures like Le Corbusier’s promotion of austere minimalism. There was a hope that Modernist architecture could solve social ills like poverty, but the housing projects designed in the spirit of delivering the ornament-free good life to the masses were mostly proven to be abysmal failures, many of them torn down by the 1970s. In a way, both the Arts and Crafts and Modernist movements failed to achieve their utopian ambitions, instead their works of design becoming luxury commodities not accessible to most.
Y2K design had its own ideas of democratising luxury, with Target’s first high-low collaboration, a capsule collection by Isaac Mizrahi launching in 2003. By that point my family had moved out of our bungalow and into a one-and-a-half-storey home about ten blocks away with sparkling porcelain-white toilets and a stainless-steel Sub-Zero refrigerator. We got everything we’d wanted, but of course we weren’t satisfied. With my parents distracted by their dissolving marriage, I had greater independence than ever. We always want more.
A few years ago, American artist Doug Aitken dreamt up a series of site-specific installations, called Mirage, covering in mirrors what he called a ranch-style house – it looks to me like a bungalow. He took advantage of how we’re so accustomed to this generic suburban typology that it hardly inspires any critical reflection, and then installed his glossy, gleaming installation in places where it was unexpected – inside a century-old bank building in Detroit, for example, or surrounded by nature, a California desert and later the Swiss alps. The house became a cipher. Aitkens wanted the viewer to see themself in the work. As a tween and teen, painting myself in metallic shimmery eyeshadow, overwhelmed by the hunger of my own desires, this is the kind of object I aspired to be: all reflective surfaces, any interiority entirely impenetrable.