what are the rules?

Classical_orders_from_the_EncyclopedieDisclaimer: Architectural Historians beware, I make sweeping generalizations and reference a limited portion of world architecture here to make a larger point.

For centuries, if not millennia, architects, master builders, kings and rulers have created large public works and other works of architecture that we would categorize under a particular style. Even houses fell under these styles. This continued throughout most of human existence. To me the style-train wrecked some time after WWII.

The word ‘classical’ (loosely defined) covers thousands of years of the history of architecture. Within those years we subdivide with terms such as Greek, Gothic, Romanesque, and so forth. Even on opposite sides of the world, we can see evidence of a formal set of guidelines in most structures. Yet most people would consider historic architecture, up until recent centuries, as falling within these styles or expressions of architecture.  A true historian would likely be more finicky about it, and rightfully so. Nevertheless, each had some system of rules that governed how the building was arranged and how the building looked.

Much of what the public sees today as “historic” architecture, which they deem as good, falls under some classical style. This is often referred to as the non-specific term ‘traditional’. Classical architecture is governed by a strict set of mathematical formulas ratios and proportions which may be intuitive or anthropomorphic in their original development but became formulaic in their determination.


Some of my frustrations with styles is the desire on the part of many who seek to see styles recreated (or mutated) by faking the look without obeying the rules. Hence the train wreck.

I am not a historian or an expert on classical architecture (let alone from any of the ancient cultures from around the world), but I know enough to say that one cannot arrive at their results without following the same rules that those designers had. I suspect they went through training to understand the rules and the reasons for those rules. Historic (and ancient) buildings look proper and are appealing to our eyes because the rules were followed.


Another frustration lies in the nostalgic recreation of past expressions now that technology has allowed us to surpass the limitations of our ancestors. I believe expressions of our current time and culture should be reflected in our architecture rather than strictly recreating a prior time – especially in a clumsy manner. To be honest, it’s disrespectful.

The modern era came about during the late 1800s just prior to the turn of the century. Due to several technological breakthroughs, philosophical shifts and political events, architecture was forever changed. Those changes carried forward to even our ‘modern’ time. If we use the term modern as a style (i.e. Philip Johnson), which some would wish to be pedantic about, then most of us are not doing modern architecture authentically either. Even this style had rules (see Corbu’s 5 rules). Perhaps the recreation of this style should also be avoided. Ouch.


The term contemporary has been misconstrued as a style and some would place it in a time during the last several decades. If that is true, then it may not even include buildings that have been built in the last 10 or 20 years. See, even this term can be used erroneously.

I become frustrated when someone asks “what style is that” as if every building needs to be classified with a style in order to know how to talk about it. We seem to prefer labels; I personally hate them. If we lay innocent intentions aside, this still asks the larger question – what are the rules that our current architecture follows or should follow?

what style is it

Besides personal preferences for the expressions or gestures of my work, one of the things I enjoy is not being confined to the strict rules that our ancestors followed in the classical tradition. I don’t check column diameters or the corresponding algebraic formulas when I develop architectural components. There may be compositional references (intentional or unintentional) to that tradition, however to go back and check every dimension as a ratio to the column diameters or some other key component is, dare I say, never done (unless you’re a classicist).

There’s a freedom in our expression today that it is providing tremendous opportunities for architecture. Certainly composition is critical but economics play a larger role in more of our architecture today than it appears to have played in the role of past (public) structures from centuries ago. This is also a reason we have littered our landscapes with a litany of less than lovely edifices smeared with EIFS and vinyl siding.

At least in America, the government isn’t building majestic structures like the monarchies of the past (Louis XIV). We leave that to the billionaires and corporate giants. We may complain or even protest the decisions of our government with respect to architecture, but those who build stadiums for professional sports teams make the most gratuitous, indulgent gestures on our landscape today by using tax payer monies. They are the new kings and popes.

As we discuss architecture today and style enters the conversation, ask people what should architecture look like today. Better yet, ask why should architecture look like anything from the past. Where do we draw the line between learning from and respecting our past and making our own mark in our time? Don’t say Postmodern.

The Bullitt Center – Photo Credit: Nic Lehoux

What are the rules we follow today? What should buildings look like today? Are our expressions now obligated to be influenced, if not governed by larger ideals such as energy use, climatic responses, material innovation, digital technologies? Didn’t the ancients do that?

Think about it. We as architects bemoan our waning role in the A/E/C industry, yet over the course of human history, when have more people had a voice in the built environment and have chosen to engage assistance from design professionals? Do you think anyone in the 1700’s besides the king, hired an architect?

I think too much and I can’t accept a casual use of words. Perhaps this begins to address my issues with the notion of style. However, I am quite curious to know what are the rules, if any exist.

Feel free to share what you think.

photo 1 credit “Classical orders from the Encyclopedie” by Converted to PNG and optimised by w:User:stw. – http://artfl.uchicago.edu/images/encyclopedie/V18/plate_18_6_7.jpeg. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons.

photo 2 credit “Table of architecture, Cyclopaedia, 1728, volume 1” by James and John Knapton, et al. Chambers, Ephraim, ed. – Cyclopædia, or an Universal Dictionary of Arts and Sciences. James and John Knapton, et al. , volume 1.. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons.

photo 3 credit: Juniper Hill Bed & Breakfast ~ Trumansburg, NY via photopin (license)

photo 4 credit: lyon april 2013 245 via photopin (license)

what are the rules?

10 thoughts on “what are the rules?

  1. A few thoughts….

    I think one must ask WHY people yearn for the nostalgic with regard to home design? (Perhaps someone has written more in-depth on this topic?) As a graduate student, I dug deep into the architecture of Le Corbusier. A house is a machine for living in… Right? And as a Chicagoan, I had a deep seated appreciation for the elegant simplicity, clarity, and spatial constructs (both in buildings and cities) of Mies van der Rohe. I remember a fellow student introducing me to a study of Le Corb’s worker’s housing community at Pessac, where the residents painted the exteriors of the units to their own individual preferences, and added traditional elements such as shutters and gables. I was horrified! How could these people (who lived there) not appreciate Corbu’s (austere, uniform) vision!?! I also was intrigued with the Post WWII California Case Study Houses and efforts like Eichler. Clean, simple, free from historic precedent. This was the “incorporate” language for houses, (wasn’t it?) These movements should have influenced suburban development in the Midwest and East Coast. Well, they did! (…sorta.) It seems as if housing developments in the Midwest used ranch house proportions (i.e. low-sloped roofs) yet, had superficial stylistic elements applied to them – tudor ranch (or split level, two story) colonial ranch, cape ranch. What went wrong??? And, now this has morphed into the realtor driven trend of building a sh!tbox with curb appeal, then having different rooms be designed by Houzz – with no relationship whatsoever to each other, or to the house as a whole!

    Perhaps we architects just need to accept the notion that the vast majority of people are going to yearn for houses that look like…um…..”houses”!

    Which brings me to my next thought…. When we ask….”What should buildings look like today?” Simply put, I think we are asking the wrong question. Because, when we do, we are taking the conversation right back to one of “style”. And, given that modernism has been around a good 100 years, it is but another style.

    In the last twenty years, I have swayed to admiring some of the architects who have asked a different set of questions – Christopher Alexander, Charles Moore, Sarah Susanka, Michael Pyatok, Stephen Mouzon to name a few. They are delving into what makes a house a place. What makes a neighborhood a place? Of course, I think many “modern” designers are yearning for place too. It’s just that some of them have put stylistic expression over place. And the media and academy have turned it into a moral imperative. It’s something I once believed in too, but “I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now!”

    1. Great thoughts Edward. I am always concerned about asking the right questions and you’ve done exactly that. I broke my own rule by asking the wrong question. Perhaps my question had a bit too much sarcasm behind it. To be honest, I’ve been steering conversation away from that lately in asking “how does it work”. Most people won’t be able to discern between how it functions and how it works. That’s the fun conversation to have when that happens. Lastly, I wouldn’t want a neighborhood full of houses by Mies, Corbu or even any of today’s talented architects. Variety makes neighborhoods.

      1. Don’t be too hard on yourself, Lee! I, too share your frustration(s). I feel the quality of the built environment could be vastly improved if architects were given more artistic license. But, I do think we – the architecture profession – needs to come to terms with the reality that most people yearn from familiar looking architecture. We need to work within THAT reality! And, as I have opined in other forums, when the public can begin to appreciate that value in architect SERVICES, I think architects will be seen as a valuable asset! When this happens, perhaps we will see a slow rising in tide in regard to quality of the built environment.

  2. Another thought…. After reading an article on a 3-d printed house today, it only seems practical that advanced methods of fabrication would become the norm in the housing industry. Yet various methods of prefabrication/ advanced technologies have been available since the 1930’s! Still people yearn for nostalgia, which then drives the marketplace, and hence the predominant construction technology remains “Sticks and Bricks”!

    I do not think it is a matter of stylistic preference as much as an intuitive comfort level with homes rooted in the land (foundations/basements), made of bricks and mortar.

    So, the question becomes, Does the architecture profession ignore this yearning? Keep pressing (banging our heads against the wall) on, hoping for a breakthrough? Why didn’t Bucky fuller’s Dymaxian house catch on? Or, do we simply embrace this, realizing change will not happen as quickly as technologies advance. Indeed, in housing it has proven to be extremely slow.

    Perhaps someone has written more eloquently on this topic?

    1. Ed, the thoughts that drove this post were not a disappointment that my clients don’t want Mies type houses. Nor was it driven by clients who want houses with peaked roofs. I started turning away projects that don’t interest me, so that’s not a problem right now.

      This conversation extends past residential architecture too. One question is why do people feel the need to place each building in an ice cube tray of style? To me “styles” ended, or at least the ones that are most often referred to by real estate agents. It’s a bit like music. There was a time when people wrote Baroque music. It had rules, musicians perhaps created mannered versions of it and it changed. However, I doubt anyone today writes Baroque music – or at least accepts that tag. Other rules still pertain to music or it becomes dissonant or unpleasant.

      I believe today’s rules are not based on the rules of classical architecture. They’re less visual or even mathematical. However, IF one wants something nostalgic or similar to a certain era, then to me, the rules must be obeyed. I hate obeying rules, therefore, I hate styles.

  3. Too much to discuss here, Lee. I agree, if one is going to reference a traditional style, or language, then one should familiarize themselves with “the rules” of that style. Here, where I reside, there is a Traditional Neighborhood Development, where the developer went to great pains – through an East Coast firm, Urban Design Associates – to develop a pattern book for builders to follow. There is also an ARB (Architectural Review board) that must approve all plans. The pattern book goes into great detail regarding appropriate use of styles and motifs. Still, the builders insist on using “pork chop” eaves and are getting away with it, regardless of the eaves shown in the pattern book. This is even ignored when architects plans show raked eaves! Just can’t teach these old dogs new tricks!

    Are the homes being built better than the average builder home. I would say it is marginal. Yet, without the pattern book, no rules would be followed. And, since residential design is not regulated here….enough said! So, yeah, I’ll take it. Meaning, I think having some rules are better than having no rules.

    Getting back to why people want rules or styles? I’m going to suggest that very few architects , even the strictest of classicists don’t completely follow the rules as 21st Century house planning necessitates large, open plans with functioning kitchens, baths, family rooms, etc, So, in essence nobody is adept at completely following the rules. Yet, I appreciate a well detailed, beautifully proportioned home or commercial building that takes great pains to adhere to a traditional style.

    I’ll maintain that the “Neo-Modern” aesthetic you and your clients prefer, is little more than a stylistic preference. Sadly, (as you have written about previously) many people do not appreciate a well detailed and proportioned “neo-modern” house a commercial building? Why? perhaps for the same reasons people do not appreciate classical music and poetry.

  4. dwmarc2014 says:

    Lee, you make the typical faculty error. Architecture is both/and, not either/or. When I was a student, a prof could not reconcile the idea that people work in modern offices, then go home to a more traditional single family house. But I see nothing wrong with this-one is male, the other more female. This all or nothing approach to teaching has divorced architects from the body of America- that simple. Nor does one have to follow the rules. John Soane’s Academy Lectures were the most exacting ever about correct classicism, yet he invented his own style that broke most of the rules. There is also the matter of Regionalism, the “gently modern” school I happen to belong to. In summary: F____ the flat roof. Yet now woman architects are often more purist than men!

    1. Again, I’m not criticizing people who prefer this over that. Moreover, one typically has no control over the architecture outside of their home. I didn’t even overtly state my own preferences, even though they’re obvious to those who know me. I’m exploring the questions of why people don’t find it disingenuous not to follow the rules of styles they prefer. More important than that, I’m acknowledging that now we’re beyond the largely visual styles of the past. Today’s style is or ought to be governed by principles or ‘rules’ outside of visual constructs alone. Regionalism ought to be considered more as it responds to the specifics of the region whether visual or climatic. However, our world of technology tells us instantly that we can be anywhere, we can see everywhere and anywhere can be everywhere. As I travel, I’m always disappointed when not in a “city” because I find that anywhere happens to be everywhere which is nowhere. There’s no point in traveling if there’s nothing new to see or understand.

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