traditional architecture

I actually like traditional architecture (**gasping sarcastically**). It’s true. Even more so I am an avid preservationist. Nevertheless, I am a modernist at heart. Sorry, but I prefer clean lines and an uncluttered appearance.

Recently a potential client mentioned to me, after reviewing my website, “…but, your work is very modern.” The context was exploring my interest in designing a new house in a traditional style, more specifically a farm-house (I did recently design a modern farmhouse). So I think it’s time to clear the air and clarify some assumptions or positions about architects whose work appears to be mostly “modern” (whatever that means…wrote about that earlier). Are we willing to do work for people who desire something more “traditional?” This question has come up far too often in my past eight years of being in business to avoid it any longer.

I make no apologies that I am not a fan of post World War II traditional residential architecture, especially the typical mass-produced “builder house” or plan-book houses in stereotypical suburban developments. Ok, I hate them, but let me explain. Traditional architecture is not about putting “make-up” on a box as I see in many suburban developments. That’s merely decorating and not architecture. Architects approach design the same way regardless of your point of view or stylistic proclivities. Traditional or let’s even include classical architecture is about proportion, scale, and a response to the site and program similar to modern architecture. However instead of plastering a badly proportioned box with ten gables on the front, smash on a three-car garage and glue on some shutters, today’s classicists know their history and they can create well proportioned form and space to achieve real beauty.

Then the details, well, they may be often ornamental, but the good ones are an extension of the function they intended to serve. For instance shutters were not glued on but they hinged so they could be closed to protect the windows from storms (and they were proportioned to be one half the window size). Window muntins were included because glass could not be formed into large sections, so they were joined together with small wood pieces into the overall frame. I am sure people years ago would have loved large uninterrupted windows in their houses rather than a small window with a bunch of sticks in the way of the view. Scrolled brackets were intended to show off the new scroll sawing technology as well as support the roof overhang or built-in gutter. Even gutters were celebrated rather than tacking on a length of thin aluminum. Gargoyles on gothic cathedrals served as carriers of rainwater and columns were decorated because we no longer needed walls to support the floors and roofs. The details generally had a function; they were developed carefully and were stylistically consistent. In other words, you won’t find asymmetry on a true Georgian house and you won’t find broken pediment door surrounds on a Victorian townhouse. Historians, correct me if I am wrong.

To me, traditional architecture looks back at our past, perhaps with nostalgia and the recollection of good memories and history. Modern architecture looks forward asking what architecture could or should be. I believe many architects prefer or enjoy modern architecture because we have a progressive spirit and want to be inventive, innovative and look forward. We do not wish to recreate something that has already been done, especially disingenuously. However, it seems most people (at least in my region) prefer traditional architecture probably because of history and nod to the past. They wish to remember with nostalgia and a sense of comfort, security and familiarity. Who can object to that? However, there is a difference between knowing architectural history and making incorrect references to it.

If I choose to take on a project that is “traditional” and the client prefers that I do not perform my modernist  mannerism on it, I will look back to architects like Palladio, Richardson, Charles Voysey or Furness. I would also look at architects that are still alive and practicing. I appreciate the work of Jeremiah Eck, Estes-Twombly, Dennis Wedlick or the unique traditional style of Merrill, Pastor & Colgan Architects. Maybe some of you do not find these architects to be truly traditional.

Boston Architects: Eck | MacNeely Architects inc. traditional exterior

So again, I prefer modern architecture. My desire is to create memorable spaces and engaging forms that cannot rely on ornament for beauty, but look to proportion, materiality and light to achieve architecture of clarity and thoughtfulness. I also admit, I do not have the rich classical training that some architects today have that can pull off a great traditional or classical project. More importantly, please don’t ask me to replicate the mutant remaking of multiple styles found in every plan book or online home plan site. That is where we draw the line.

Now that modern architecture has been around for almost a century and a half, it can now be considered historical. It is a part of our past. Can we finally look back at it with nostalgia and familiarity? Maybe it’s the new traditional.

What do you think?

photo of Villa Rotunda is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic license of Wikipedia.

photo of Allegheny County Courthouse is by G. E. Kidder Smith/Corbis, courtesy of the blog.

traditional architecture

6 thoughts on “traditional architecture

  1. I think it hysterical that people are glamorizing the ubiquitous ranch with the term “mid-century modern”.

    I also like traditional, but prefer to think of it in terms of the vernacular. It is very appropriate to honor the vernacular of a region by interpreting it for a contemporary context. I would definitely add Robert Stern to your list.

    1. I also like the terms vernacular and regional. I’d hate to think that architecture could be anonymous in terms of its location. I had Robert Stern on the list, but bumped him for lesser known firms.

  2. Great post – I fall into the same school of thought. I have a deep appreciation for (historically correct) traditional design, but I prefer modern. I really learned the value of traditional architecture after working at Curtis & Windham Architects in Houston – there is a reason behind every traditional design that can really inform and inspire ‘modern’ or contemporary designs. Its when design is not informed by anything and is not inspired by its surroundings that it gets mashed up into something distasteful.

  3. Thanks Brinn. I thought maybe I was a bit too abrasive with my opinions. I edited the post and toned down a sentence or two, but I really have a hard time with most builder houses. I took the discussion to LinkedIn, but I’ve just been sparring with one other person. I wanted to have a more meaningful conversation with a broader audience.

  4. Great post ! Thanks for bringing up the issue – a modernist myself, I cannot figure out how to tell people why buildings need to be read in context before they can be judged.
    I think modern architecture is often misunderstood. I was recently in the company of a lot of people who claimed to be lovers of the beauty of traditional architecture and haters of the problems modernist (esp brutalist) buildings brought. I believe that there is a time and place for everything, anything that is read out of context will be a problem.
    Traditional architecture (Victorian, Georgian etc) is beautiful no doubt, but when taken in its context. meaningless ornamentation on contemporary (by which I mean buildings built today) is not only unnecessary and impractical but vulgar and disrespectful to the original purpose that it was meant for.

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