The seemingly humble bungalow is a design icon of remarkable versatility, argues Jay Merrick
The three syllables don’t immediately stimulate the pulse, or suggest iconic status: bung-a-low. The Oxford English Dictionary tells us the word originates from the ‘bungales or hovells’ constructed to provide basic wooden shelters for the sailors of the East India Company in the late 17th century. The word bangala means ‘house’ in Hindi and Urdu.
These early buildings, in the Bangla Ghar rural style, developed defining characteristics: single storey, shallow-pitch roofs, eaves overhanging wide verandas, large windows. But during the 19th and early 20th centuries, very grand bungalows – some designed by architects as eminent as Sir Edwin Lutyens – housed the administrators and memsahibs of the Raj.
There was a knock-on effect. In 1869, a posh bungalow estate took shape at Birchington-on-Sea, Kent, designed by the arts and craft architect John Seddon. They were equipped with cellars and servants’ quarters and one of them was good enough for the Pre-Raphaelite painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti to rent, and die in.
In Britain, bungalows became popular with the old-style middle class, at least until their increasing association with suburbia, orderly clumps of hydrangeas, and tragicomic variants of the house name Dun Roamin. The poet John Betjeman loathed characterless towns – he invited bombs to fall on Slough in an infamous 1937 poem – and deplored the ‘bungaloid manner’ spreading through the Home Counties.
Nevertheless, the bungalow is certainly a design icon of remarkable endurance, and social and architectural versatility. The Brits may have appropriated the bungalow style and given it an initial cachet, but this building type spread worldwide and, perhaps especially in America, revealed its wider potentials.
Here, bungalows were never bungaloid, and they have ranged from relatively expensive craft objects to much simpler and cheaper forms that expressed ideals not so very different to post-Bauhaus modernist thinking. As the early 20th century American editor and bungalow messiah, Gustav Stickley, put it, the bungalow is ‘a house reduced to its simplest form where life can be carried on with the greatest amount of freedom’.
The first recorded American mention of ‘bungalow’ occurred in 1879, concerning a structure at Cape Cod designed by the Boston architect William Gibbons Preston. As bungalow building spread, so did their styles, from ornate chalets to brick-built Midwestern variants such as the Akin House in Michigan, designed by Tallmadge & Watson. America’s bungalows broke with the single-storey or chalet-style characteristics that defined the British bungalow, but retained the generic name for two- or even three-storey structures.
In due course, there were pockets of simple wooden structures descended from the so-called Bungalow Heavens and Bungalow Camps that began to spring up in the late 19th century. By the early 1900s, prefab bungalows were readily available across America and you could, for example, buy a six-room HonorBilt Bandon model, ‘Already Cut And Fitted’, for $3,176. The bungalow form was even encountered in architectural masterpieces such as the Gamble House (1909) in Pasadena, designed by Greene and Greene.
By the mid-20th century, the California Bungalow had become an established term, and so-called ‘minimal traditional structures’ were typified in designs such as the Model 22-B bungalow, built by the hundred in Lakewood, a Los Angeles suburb known in the early 1950s as The Future City as New as Tomorrow.
In Britain, bungalows – despite innovative exceptions such as the sleek modernist prefabs once supplied by Boulton & Paul – have remained a somewhat déclassé phenomenon. Consider the apparently endless line of bungalows along The Parade at Dungeness, facing the English Channel like a post-imperial barrier against Johnny Foreigner; or at St Osyth and Jaywick in Essex, the Bel Air chalet estate and the rows of minuscule neo-bungales hunkered behind Adrian’s Wall, named after the contractor who built the concrete sea barrier.
Can bungalows become newly iconic in Britain? They certainly can if they’re designed by talented architects; and perhaps Guy Greenfield, shortlisted for the Stirling Prize in 2001, will prove to be the designer who completely changes the way they’re perceived. Exhibit A: his recently completed Sun Houses bungalow scheme in Devon – super-crisp geometry and detailing, low energy use, maximum natural light and air, and innovative use of materials, such as roof tiles made of recycled plastic.