Posts Tagged ‘architectural theory’


What’s in a name?

May 18, 2016

Name Dropping – Did you ever notice that real estate people like to insert the names of house styles into their conversations with potential buyers?  “…nice to meet you.  I have a move in ready Center Hall Colonial to show tomorrow.” or “…there is a Mid-Century Modern neighborhood that generates a lot of interest.”  The local historical committee, of course, has raised name dropping to an art form.  Here in Old Town they are the designated authority, champion and voice of all things Georgian and very present at all meetings of the local architectural review board.

Name Listing – There is a list of house styles on Wikipedia with which, truth be told, I have a lot of fun.  I can’t wait to tell some realtor that I would like to see a Dingbat house?  No kidding.  It really exists!  It is also possible to get creative and customize these terms.  I actually thought of this a few years ago when a potential client brought a fist full of photos to a meeting.  She repeatedly told me how much she like Regency style design.  The photos were of mirrored replicas made into furniture and finishes of what appeared to be every decorative cliche ever invented by Thomas Sheraton, all of it originating from some shop like Pier One.  What, I thought, would one call these?  We could say Meta Modern or Pseudo Modern ( I will let you look those up) which seem to be buzz words that include all things previous.  How about Post Modern Revival of Regency Revival?  That ought to cover it.  I think putting things into categories gives us a feeling of control.  Although not much in the way of actual control.

Name Cancelling – Does not even the lowest budget shopper have a vision or image relating to his or her expectations about where they hope to live?   Think cottage and white picket fence a là now deceased American Dream.  What guides this?  I don’t think it has anything to do with style, named or real, unless that style somehow fits into the larger world of the individual’s past residential experience, turned into a dream or not.  Anyone looking to define a future stylistic paradigm might do well to flush out what is common in places we have lived in the recent past.  No easy task in an increasingly small and populated world and further complicated by the manipulations of large scale planners defining a built environment according to their particular terms.

Name Hunting – I have a friend, raised in an urban apartment block, these days sporting a million plus house budget in a quaint suburban neighborhood and hard pressed to find an acceptable house.  She has been conditioned to think of  a house as a commodity, with stylistic taste leaning towards the McMansion, she will consider only new construction and is completely put off by a yard of any size.  Her ideas about security and building in general are still involved with her roots in the apartment block.  As a member of a larger similarly inclined shopping group, she is influencing the look of a neighborhood because developers do very good market research.  They understand and deliver the absolute minimum that must be provided in order to satisfy this customer.  Expanding a customer’s  horizons is only part of the program to the extent necessary to sell a newly built home.  More complex, better assimilated options are never offered and existing housing is mostly ignored.

Name Finding – The word “finding” may be a little misleading (it fit in the text).  It is more as if a new style, rather than directly resulting from the search, just appears, although the looking is still required, and I might add, is considered to be a high intellectual activity in the world of architectural scholars. It is the result of a dialectical process, where the tension between the dominant old style and the emerging newer style become so great that the whole conflict collapses into something else.  It is like the invisible whole, which is greater than the sum of the parts, suddenly becomes visible and Voila, a new style is there.  This line of thinking, of course, comes from the German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, a favorite of mine, distained by many, and begging the question, what is the emerging new style?  Is it already implemented?  Will it be defined by the spatial needs of an expanding population or the desire to be “green?”  Will it return to nature like a Hogan, or the earth like a Sod House.  Maybe it will look like my favorite Parkitecture!  Could we see a Modern Farmhouse, or how about a Star Wars version of the Rumah Gadang?  That might work.  Whatever the new name, I am pretty sure that some combination of its elements will be easy to locate in the afore mentioned list of house styles!

Images are used under Creative Commons from Flickr and Wikipedia or owned by the author.  Please contact us for the links.


De-Shuttering Our World

March 21, 2016
I can't look!

I can’t look!

I really wonder if I missed some important rule of architecture when I was in school, or maybe there is something in the building code, some new requirement, or could it be something in the culture, or maybe technology?  That’s it, they must be functional?  I doubt it though.  Not anymore.

No and no!

No and no!

What does that leave?  Is it honestly possible that consumer preference has demanded that every mediocre house built in the US since 1950 must have at least one set of shutters, functional or mostly not, on a window that is visible from the street?  Sometimes it seems that way.

Do you want to know something about shutters, about function, types, sizes, history?  It is stuff I am not going to talk about here because it has already been done, many, many times, so check out the Old House Guy.  Shutters, we are told, are a great way to beautify a home because they provide lots of visual impact for not much cost.  They can also, he continues, very easily ruin (and usually do) its entire appearance, a point with which I wholeheartedly agree.




Not so you say?  Look at this cute little house.  Think how it would look without the bright shutters and notice how nicely they are tied in by the use of equally bright accents at the door.  Bye the way, the variegated roof doesn’t hurt either.

Could be a yes!

This is a yes!


What about this house?  These shutters are adding design to an otherwise very ordinary house.  They set up visual rhythm, add order and interest.  I want to go inside and find all of the windows equally spaced and lined up in the same room.


The problem is that for every thoughtful application of shutters there are 50 that miss, or never attempt to hit, the design mark.  The materials of Mid-American single family housing, stick built in mass after the WW II, and continuing today in miles of new urbanest town houses, have remained the same.  Only the planning has changed.  There is a very unpleasant visual tension between the very old fashioned, historic kit of parts and the contemporary form of the whole.  Nowhere is that tension more evident than in the application of decoration, the most obvious being shutters.  The pervasive wood clapboarding, shingles, brick, pre-manufactured windows, doors, architectural elements and trim used everywhere today might better fit on a wing of Monticello than on a new apartment in a builder development.

This appears of little concern to much of the purchasing public, who are perhaps too uniformed to ask for better.  I would suggest that visually pleasing results may be achieved when the parts support the whole,  when the clapboarding becomes a horizontal element reinforcing the shape of a wide low ranch, when the a decorative element completes one side of a partially open gable, when a change of finish material turns a short window into a vertical element, maybe even when a shutter signals a message.  Here are a few ideas offered as inspiration in my effort to de-shutter our world.


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Architecture: Density by Idea or Ideal

May 28, 2015

Recently the AIA launched a national campaign entitledLook Up.”

Without going deep into the pros and cons of how successful the add is at raising awareness about what architects really do – REAL being the operative word – I would suggest that the ad is most inspiring to those who authored it; the rest of us, not so much.  In the name of fairness, though, I decided to try it, looking up that is.  As it turned out, it was not necessary to look very high.  I found the perfect parti for high density green housing sitting on top of a back yard pole happily posted to flickr.  This mini neighborhood of individuals suggests a happy counterpoint to the uniformity of developer housing.  It makes me want to turn it into an apartment building.

Architecture is kind of an “old man’s” profession, or old woman’s as the case may be.  This is not an accident.  It is a necessity resulting from the years of experience required for a practitioner to develop the skill and knowledge base that enables him or her to actualize a successful project, a fact that is becoming ever more true as the information base steadily increases.  Since, for “old men” looking back is unavoidable, long memories come with the territory and probably influence a design idea.  Younger architects, unencumbered by memories, are more apt to look forward toward some design ideal.  Somehow the advertising executives have pick up on the subtle difference between the idea and the ideal and come down decidedly in favor of the latter.  The bird houses in the photo, on the other hand,  sends us in pursuit of the former.

I wonder if  Villa Savoye, completed by Le Corbusier at the beginning of his career when he was 41, is the result of and idea or an ideal?  Either way, “Towards a New Architecture”  clearly outlines a plan of  action.

a. transcendent entity that is a real pattern of which existing things are imperfect representations: idea
b. a standard of perfection : ideal
c. a plan for action : design

Lesson in Aesthetics

October 5, 2013
Blue House

MLS/Web ID is 3050993

I am neutral on Steve Jobs, mostly because I have never looked very closely at him or his work.  Recently, driven by my need to absorb anything to do with “Pop” culture,  I read something that piqued my interest.  It seems the Steve Jobs thought that aesthetics could be taught, implying that there exists some standard of aesthetic correctness, and almost always culminating in the philosophical dichotomy between the absolute and relative.  Beauty, some say, is subjective and in the “eye of the beholder;” not, others say, universal and defined only by elites.  Perhaps the opposition has become more important than the truth, and judging by the house in the photo;  the truth is, whoever designed this remodel would have been well served by a few of those lessons.

I guess the camp in which I reside is revealed.  Clearly there was a lot of work put into the exterior refinishing of this house, but the designer treated the stone like a set of matching accessories added to some fashion layout in a misguided effort to make a statement.  The result is utterly contrived, removing all hope of visual unity and curb appeal.  Architects, who might have supplied and improvement here, are not so much elites as they are eternal students.