“What’s that?” asked the woman pointing to the silo.

“Bathrooms,” explained her friend.

If people are talking about bathrooms in silos, you must be at an exhibit of contemporary house designs. This exchange was overheard at the opening of “The Chicago Villa,” a show of recent residential designs by Chicago architects at the Chicago Athenaeum gallery at 333 W. Wacker. The show is a chance to consider the house in several of its forms–town houses on cramped city lots, rambling suburban manses, vacation spots ranging in scale from the hotel to the hideaway. If you have ever wondered how the other 5 percent lives, the Athenaeum is the place to find out.

The term “villa” suggests a country house of some pretension. Not all of the nearly four dozen designs on display are pretentious, and roughly a third of them are smaller city houses and apartments, but the exhibit title is more apt than might appear at first. Even in the city houses the space is arrayed to allow an informality of look and function that suggests the relaxed style once associated with suburban retreats. And these houses boast enough terraces and skylights and rooftop observatories that their owners can revel in nature even in the depths of the city.

There are real villas too, and impressive they are. Schroeder Murchie Laya Associates added 3,000 square feet, including an art gallery and conservatory with pool, to an 1880s Hawthorne Place mansion. Decker and Kemp did a house in Lake Forest set amid 65 acres of orchards, swimming ponds, and stables, next to what the exhibit catalog describes as a “small forest”–a sort of Versailles as imagined by Gomer Pyle. Bauhs and Dring designed an exurban house in Elburn that will eventually feature a paved entry court, solarium, guest house, pool, gazebo with hot tub, tennis court, and three-hole golf course. The house’s 7,000 square feet of interior space is well over twice the area of the average Chicago house lot.

Mere size is not the quality that distinguishes these designs, however. The rich lead very evolved lives that ordinary houses cannot accommodate, no matter how large they are. Paintings must be hung, guests housed, views exploited. Clients obviously have a wide range of needs, and the large number of design “programs” makes it hard to generalize about these houses. In style they run–sometimes at a gallop–from Beaux-Arts to neoclassical to Prairie to International. The vernacular is here too, having elbowed its way into this party in the form of imitation barns and outbuildings done in what might be described as Backwoods Revival.

Nearly a third of the projects chosen are summer or vacation houses. Many of the weekend retreats, like John Vinci’s elegantly efficient Door County dune house, are rustic. Murphy-Jahn’s “cube house,” in the same district, looks as if it were assembled from Legos, although its white, green, and dull oranges, together with the shadows cast by its trellislike superstructure, make it blend with the trees and snow more naturally than many a self-consciously rustic cabin. Tilton & Lewis Associates came up with a stylish shingle-style beach house whose pointed decks at either end and stepped-back roof-line make it look like an excursion ship gone aground, although it sits so comfortably on the dune it’s hard to tell whether it was blown ashore or steamed there on its own, to rest.

The city houses’ variety is more apparent on the inside, since the exteriors are mostly restorations of familiar town-house fronts or respectful new versions of them. These interior spaces are cunningly complex, what with all the cutouts and overhangs and two-story spaces and hidden terraces. Idiosyncratic, too: there’s at least one north-side town house where asking the question “Which way to the pagoda?” will not get you instructions to the Oriental take-out joint down the street.

Cramming so much house into so small a space is a test of ingenuity as well as art. The technical problem solving is of a high order, but here and there an architect ended up with more ideas than space. One city house offers a dining bay atop a low platform, the edge of which lurks barely a foot away from one of the chairs. Dining at this house might involve dangers besides the host’s cooking.

Even the new houses in the show can’t quite be called new designs. There is not a building on display at the Athenaeum that doesn’t recall some other house. (In the case of restorations like the Beaux-Arts mansion on Astor being restored by Marvin Herman & Associates, the house that’s recalled is itself.) We have the “stockbroker’s Tudor,” all the rage in the 1920s, revived for a new generation of stockbrokers. The ghosts of Wright and Le Corbusier are still at large, and there are so many versions of the vernacular of other regions–Swiss chalets, Santa Fe adobes, Arizona stuccos–that you half expect to see scribbled across the photos: “Having a great time. Wish you were here.”

Americans have never been shy about borrowing from other traditions. Stuart Cohen, asked to do a home that would sit between a Tudor and a French country-style house on a suburban street, borrowed adroitly from both. Such contextualism is condemned as too “polite,” however, by more advanced architectural thinkers, who may be the only people who believe that buildings–especially houses–shouldn’t fit into their environments.

We have all faced similar dilemmas; many people first confront the problem of personal contextualism in high school. Like people, houses can blend in or stick out like sore thumbs, and those that fail to manage the choice can end up schizoid. A client of Tilton & Lewis wanted to build a Prairie style house, but the lot the client liked had a Colonial house standing on it that he couldn’t afford to tear down. (No more sniggering, please, about the rich not having problems.) So the architect obliged with a house that’s Colonial on the outside and Prairie on the inside.

House styles originate as solutions to local problems of climate and function. Transplant those styles to other climates, or put them to different uses, and they become incoherent. Philip Langdon, Atlantic Monthly contributor and author of the 1987 American Houses, has nothing but praise for the first-floor bathtubs looking out upon private gardens in so many newer Florida houses. But, an incredulous Langdon reports, “You can go into two-story suburbs outside Chicago and find the same tub in the same position, now in a second-floor location next to a cold window that delivers a mediocre view and can be seen by neighbors.”

In The Natural House, Frank Lloyd Wright complained about people who mistook idiosyncrasy for taste. They built houses he derided as “stupid makeshifts” that were without integrity. Wright was perfectly correct–to this day American houses neither look nor function very coherently–but his complaint is largely irrelevant. Conformity and comfort are the standards by which most Americans judge a house.

“Style is important,” Wright wrote. “A style is not.” True style is unfortunately beyond the skill of most architects, not to mention the patience of their clients. In the first third of this century, for example, the so-called period house was in vogue. New suburban houses aped styles from other eras and other continents–Gothic, Spanish Colonial, Egyptian. Especially popular (as they are today) were styles based on rural models, like the English cottage and the New England farmhouse; the experience of real work was already remote enough from the middle class for the association to be romantic. Such houses were old-world on the outside but thoroughly modern on the inside; Americans’ taste for archaism has never extended to plumbing.

Today, “period” has been largely replaced by pastiche. Stroll down a street in a Chicago suburb developed in the 20s, and you can see houses of a half-dozen different styles; walk down a street developed in 1990, and you can see as many styles on a single house.

Historical mimicry in house design has stirred this generation of architects to complaint. One of the most vocal is Stanley Tigerman, director of the architecture program at the University of Illinois’ Chicago campus. The suburbs, he said, are littered with “houses that are mimetically inclined to prior styles.” In an interview last year in Chicago magazine, Tigerman sneered at this style–which he called the “looking-backward-to-reobtain-an-original-innocence bullshit”–because it “implies a disillusionment with the present.”

Tigerman McCurry has a house design for a site in Fox Lake on display at the Athenaeum that’s an elegant version of a 19th-century farmhouse–presumably it’s the work of Margaret McCurry, Tigerman’s partner. A photo spread of a handsome vacation house she designed for Michael Glass appeared, coincidentally, in the same issue of Chicago in which Tigerman was opining; and this house, with its Michigan dormers and southern-style porch, is so mimetically inclined it practically gets down on its knee to do Jolson.

Tigerman has designed his share of suburban villas, and while some are unmistakably–and unlivably–Tigerman, others are not. A house in Hawthorne Woods shown at the Art Institute last winter was inspired by what the exhibit catalog called “rural farm structures,” while a lakeside house in the same exhibit recalled Florentine churches.

Good-looking buildings stand somewhere between imitation and caricature of traditional styles. An example is the revival–one of those styles with columns–by Booth Hansen’s John Tittmann that appeared recently in Architectural Digest. It combines pilasters, windowed friezes, and a Palladian floor plan in a house in Massachusetts that Tittmann calls an essay on classical forms. It is respectful of its antecedents without being intimidated by them; the result is invigorating.

It was one of the conceits of the modernists that the world needs new kinds of houses, when all it really needs is better ones. Part of the problem is not that architects or their clients are disillusioned with the present, as Tigerman suggested. Rather, they are disillusioned with the future, at least as it has been described to them by architects since the 1930s. Mies van der Rohe was famously impatient with people’s domestic needs, and to preserve the sanctity of his idea banished servants and children and other inconveniences into separate wings or even onto the roof. (Mies chose never to live in any of his own buildings; he may have been a genius but he was no fool.) Tigerman has spoken of the need for architects to disintegrate forms, urging that “classically serene” buildings be abandoned in favor of forms that have been “energized” by being broken up. The result is an architect’s house; but people who live in houses rather than design them still prefer integration and serenity.

People do look for more in a house than the accommodation of their physical needs, of course. In an era marked by disconnection and displacement, people look to their homes for a sense of rootedness. A half-dozen houses in the Athenaeum show borrow from farm motifs. Novelty is a factor in their appeal–farm is cute–but so is the farmstead’s stature as an icon of all that is stable and good about America.

The reduction of farming to a style is the surest evidence yet of its demise as a way of life. Yet the fad for the faux farm is not exactly nostalgic. It seems safe to assume that the closest thing to a farm most of these happy home owners have seen up close is the back nine at the country club. So this isn’t their own past, but a past they’ve invented for themselves, and they’ve built a house to store it in. A brand-new rambling house in Lake Forest has been given a prefab past: it’s designed to look as if it had evolved over generations, from farmhouse to manor house by the conversion of outbuildings to residential use. A vacation house in Wisconsin takes the form of a miniature farmstead, with living room and kitchen in the “main house,” the bedrooms in the barn, and the bathrooms in the aforementioned silo. The catalog describes it as a “reassuring community of buildings.”

This is not a back-to-the-land movement, mind. These are toy farms; and playfulness abounds in all these designs. In one city house, a three-story brick tower culminates in a cupola and widow’s walk shaped like the wheelhouse of a river steamboat. There are so many lookouts and gazebos and bridges and catwalks and spiral staircases that some buildings look like catalog ads for the next generation of playgrounds. (The illusion is strengthened by the fact that many of the vacation houses stand in what amounts to sandboxes beside the lake.) One of the clients of Pappageorge Haymes asked for a vacation cottage that looked like a modernist tree house for grown-ups, and got it. Of course Le Corbusier’s famous Villa Savoye looks like the superstructure of an ocean liner, and Safdie’s Habitat in Montreal looks like a pile of children’s building blocks, so only the ungenerous would begrudge lesser architects a chance to build a house that looks like a Rubik’s cube.

It is natural to speculate about the people who commission such houses, speculations that eventually bring you face-to-face with architecture’s suburban-princess problem. For all of the work such projects provide, one-of-a-kind houses carry a certain opprobrium in the profession. Writing in the Tribune in June, Tigerman castigated those of his colleagues who ignore the needs of the old and the poor to design “another villa for some princess in the burbs.”

The slur is intriguing. It is not clear that all or even most houses are commissioned by or for the wives, daughters, or widows of successful men. Honore Palmer may have presided over her extraordinary Gilded Age pile once it was built, but it was Potter Palmer who chose the architect. Scholars insist that most of Frank Lloyd Wright’s early Chicago houses were pet projects of husbands, not wives.

At the same time, many a house has been commissioned to give bored women something to do, weekend and vacation houses in particular. (The frivolous remains the realm of the wife in many an upscale marriage.) Supervising such projects is often the only creative outlet for the sometimes considerable creative energies of women reared for uselessness.

Such clients can be trying collaborators, if we may judge from those present at the exhibition’s opening night. They were hard to miss–overdressed, with 45-year-old faces and 65-year-old hands, quick with comments that were no less definite for being mostly irrelevant. “I’ve been to Bridgman,” said one dismissively to her friend as they glanced at sketches for a house in that Michigan town. “I think there’s a power plant there.”

A house commission is tempting fruit, a way to get noticed as well as a way to get paid. But most architects–and the profession remains overwhelmingly male–believe that their real work lies in the city, and particularly in the city’s business world, understood since the last century to be the province of the male, whose archetypal building is the mine-is-bigger-than-yours skyscraper. The suburbs remain the refuge of the female, a place set aside for family and nature and all that is nice. Designing houses for the suburbs must seem to the butch architect a bit like staying home to watch the kids. In such cases his self-contempt would attach inevitably to the client who caused him to stray.

Architects can be only as great as their clients allow them to be. If Frank Lloyd Wright blazed a trail with his turn-of-the-century work in what came to be known as the Prairie style, it was because he had clients who wanted to go in new directions. In The Natural House, Wright recalls that his first client, William H. Winslow, of River Forest, was “something of an artist himself” who was as sick as Wright was of the hypocrisy of house design at the time. Nonconformists paid a price in places like Oak Park and River Forest nearly a century ago; not a few of Wright’s early clients were laughed at, literally, by what the architect called “middle-of-the-road egotists.”

An adventuresome spirit seems to have more to do with self-assurance than money. Wright’s clients were not flamboyant personalities, by and large, nor were they especially rich. Most of them, especially at first, were self-made men who built businesses that exploited new technologies, men in other words who were not afraid of the new but who also embraced it only to the extent it was useful.

Today, of course, you have to be rich to enjoy even a badly designed house. Poor families routinely pay up to 70 percent of their income for rent, and even couples who are making it financially often can’t afford to buy. High housing costs are only partly a problem of design; the cost of money, a speculative land market, and unions that mandate antiquated work rules and materials are more significant factors. Even so, housing is one social debate in which architects ought to have something to say, and it would be interesting to see some of their ideas for moderate-cost houses.

Of course a show of villa projects could not be expected to offer solutions to the “small house problem,” Wright’s phrase for the poor design of inexpensive middle-class homes. And expensive houses are about the only kind of houses being designed by architects at the moment. Basic housing offers few financial, aesthetic, or professional rewards for architects. According to architect and writer Witold Rybczynski, the plain old average-guy house is not even offered as a design problem in today’s architecture schools; only the rich or the government ever asks architects to build housing, and of those clients only the rich still have money. True to their trade-school origins, architecture colleges teach only what their students will be able to sell. (An exception is the shelter design program offered in various forms since 1949 at the Illinois Institute of Technology.)

Large buildings make reputations. The young architect does houses for the same reason that the apprentice chef spends two years making desserts before the master chef trusts him with an entree. Architects who have attracted notice with housing projects (Bertrand Goldberg comes to mind) have done so with large multiunit buildings, not single- family detached houses.

The great modern architects have all done houses, of course, but their innovations have been more popular with the people who build and sell housing than with the people who live in it. (When the average person thinks “house,” he thinks “shelter,” and when he thinks “shelter,” he thinks “roof”; to this person, the flat-roofed houses of Le Corbusier and Gropius look unfinished.) Mies’s colleagues and admirers call such projects as his Farnsworth house in Plano, Illinois, many things–a vitreous prism, a shrine, a temple, inhabitable sculpture, a metaphor for a house. But they concede that it is not a house. “It really is an icon of our age,” said James Ingo Freed, architect and former dean of IIT’s architecture school, in a 1986 interview. “But it hardly works well for people who look to architects to give form to their environment.”

Frank Lloyd Wright was an exception to this rule, as he was to so many of architecture’s dicta. The private house was perhaps his first love as a designer. He did what is probably the most famous house of the modern era–Fallingwater–and founded two schools of house design: the Prairie style and the later Usonian houses. The Usonian houses were his solution to the small-house problem. He did not start work on them until the 1930s, long after he’d left Chicago; but several were built nearby in Rockford and towns in Wisconsin, Minnesota, Michigan, and Iowa.

It must be said that Wright did not begin to design these houses for the common people until the Depression, when uncommon people ceased to offer him commissions. Nevertheless, his commitment to house design for average folk was real, and his achievement substantial. His Usonian houses introduced a number of innovations that are still considered newfangled, such as in-floor heating, open floor plans, and energy-saving bermed exterior walls. Relatively cheap to build, Usonian houses were also cheap to run; their sizable thermal masses, wide eaves, and cross-ventilating openings made them prototypical passive solar houses.

Alas, sensible and efficient houses do not attract Americans of any class. Americans look for status as much as shelter when they buy a house. Wright complained that the small house on a side street might have charm if it didn’t try so hard to ape the big house on the avenue; he might have added that the big house on the avenue is itself usually an imitation of a bigger house on a remote estate. If you want to change the way the average American houses himself, in short, you have to first change the way the rich house themselves.

It is not only the amateur sociologist who will find pleasure in “The Chicago Villa.” (The show runs through October 12, by the way, and is open Monday through Friday, 11 to 6; admission is free.) In addition to floor plans and cross sections, the displays include scale models and presentation drawings and sketches in various media. These are sales tools, but in the hands of competent people they often turn into pleasing artworks in their own right.

Models, for instance, are the only real building that many architects do. Rybczynski has observed that visitors to a design studio are universally fascinated by the models, perhaps because they remind people of the dollhouses and toy soldiers they played with as kids. (“We have all been little architects,” he notes in The Most Beautiful House in the World.) Nearly a dozen models are on display at the Athenaeum. Most are of cardboard, although there are also models in Styrofoam and even what looks like roofing shingles. A meticulous rendition in wood by Jack Stoneberg of Schroeder Murchie Laya is described by one of the partners as a labor of love–a reminder that such paraphernalia often lives independently of the house it was meant to flatter.

Mainly, architects draw, and some do it quite well. Stuart Cohen’s bold pen-and-ink perspectives of the interior of his Glencoe house are worth a look, as is the delicate tracery with which Rudolph & Associates embellished its drawings of its Haus Omaha. Watercolor is used to handsome effect by such firms as Tigerman McCurry and Frederick Phillips & Associates, among others. HSP/Ltd. Seglin Associates get whimsical; their elevation drawing of a contemporary Victorian in Lincoln Park includes two epauletted soldiers on prancing steeds. (There goes the neighborhood.) Some of the more elaborate drawings were done up especially for this show. Ken Schroeder redid one of his house sketches using French oil pastel crayons; he labeled it, with a wink, “Van Gogh’s view.”

Unfortunately, you can’t judge a house design from pictures on a wall, no matter how cleverly they’ve been done. Rybczynski notes that our modern habit of looking at houses in magazines has conditioned us to think of them as isolated objects. A photographer or model maker may choose to ignore the fact, but any building stands in a context comprised of other buildings (in the case of a city or suburban house) or terrain and vegetation (in the case of a rural site). An architect’s representations can provide either a view impossible to enjoy in real life (look at HSP/Ltd. Seglin Associate’s fly-on-the-ceiling view of an upstairs hallway) or one that is so incomplete as to be misleading.

The most eccentric perspective on these designs, however, is provided by the exhibit catalog: the July-August edition of Metropolitan Review magazine has been devoted to the show, and is on sale at the exhibit for six dollars. It shows every sign of having been rushed into print to meet the September 5 opening. Typos abound (Decker and Kemp’s Lake Forest project is described as a “framing estate”), subtitles are misplaced, text is mismatched with its accompanying photos and drawings. Worse, nearly a dozen of the designs on display are not described in the magazine.

Ah, but the prose is worth every penny–a lyrical hokum that is one part jargon and three parts hustle. Where else but in architecture reviews do houses overlook a “vernacular countryside”? Or exploit “spatial adjacencies”? Or create “a layered paradise”? If words were bricks, we’d all live in villas.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Marco Lorenzetti, Hedrich-Blessing.