Is Your Perfect House Modernist or Traditional?

In the world of residential architecture, there has been a long-running debate about architectural style. Is it incorrect for architects to be designing traditional houses even though the majority of the public wants them? Should new houses be modern and unadorned with decoration or else be deemed inferior and not good architecture? As you might guess, there are strong opinions on both sides of this issue. Devoted modernists even tend to blame the public for not knowing enough about architectural design to appreciate their creations. But in my opinion, it is the obligation of the architect to understand the client, not the other way around.

In a recent blog post by Clem Labine, publisher of Traditional Building magazine and Period Homes magazine, takes on the topic. Here’s a little of what he had to say in his post entitled Hard-Edged Houses for Those Who Love Machines:

Modernist architects once again are trying to sell hard-edged houses to the American public. A new home plan service called Hometta has been set up to offer “modern homes for the masses.” Hometta is a collaboration of several architectural studios whose goal is to provide “small, sleek, sustainable, affordable house plans for middle-class buyers.” Few would quibble with the goals of “small” or “affordable” or “sustainable.” Whether the market will applaud their version of “sleek” and “modern” remains to be seen.

His suspicion of how the public will receive the modernist offerings is shared by me. If you were to poll the public you would find a strong majority favoring houses that match their image of “home.” By that I mean a house with a pitched roof, windows of a human scale, comfortable places for comfy furniture, and not a house that looks like a museum for modern art.

I like to believe that a home-like house can be created in a modern or contemporary style. But nearly every modern house I’ve seen recently is not homey and would not even qualify as good modern design. Last year I was attending an architectural conference in Charleston and we took a tour of “significant houses” in the area. Much to my disappointment we did not visit any houses that were traditional. One after another they were severe, unfriendly and hard-edged. Clem Labine would have hated them. In my book, Designing Your Perfect House, I discuss how to “people” spaces. What I mean by peopling is making the spaces feel right for people to occupy and feel like you would expect people to be there now or soon. This has everything to do with providing the proper scale, materials that are indicative of requiring the human touch, and places where people fit properly.

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Modernist house in the Charleston area. This is actually the front side that greets the owners and visitors when they arrive. Not only is the scale, use of materials, and form unappealing to human beings, there is no sense of arrival and the front door is totally invisible. The purplish material is oxidizing copper.

Later in his article, Clem Labine compares the Katrina Cottages by Steve Mouzon to the modernist houses and claims they are meeting the sustainability, cost, and size goals the modernist houses strive for, yet the Katrina Cottages also meet the goal of feeling like “house” and “home” to everyday people (like me). He says:

Ironically, the Katrina Cottages designed by Steve Mouzon offers the emotional reassurance of traditional architecture – but is actually the product of technology and the machine. The cottage is a low-cost modular house designed to be “small, affordable and sustainable.” But rather than an in-your-face declaration of machine-love like the Binary House, the Katrina Cottage offers the softer outlines of traditional architecture and conveys the aura of hand-built houses.

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KATRINA COTTAGE VIII by Steve Mouzon/Housing International, Miami Beach, FL

I posted a comment of my own:

Clem – You’re right on the mark. I was trained in a Modernist philosophy, like most architects these days. We get heavily indoctrinated in the mantra that anything traditional must be rejected and modern is the only proper architectural language. I agree with Bob’s comment (author of an earlier comment than mine) that this kind of thinking ignores the lessons learned over the years about how to deal with rain, sun, wind, etc. But more importantly, strict modernism ignores the psychological lessons that are a part of our culture and grown within the human experience. It is pure vanity on the part of architects to say that all that has come before was wrong and only we, the modern architects, can create the forms that properly respond to mankind.

I think that this kind of attitude hinders our profession and is a disservice to the public. I wrote my book, Designing Your Perfect House precisely to empower homeowners and clients to help them understand why they feel the way they do about their houses and help them understand that they can ask for more than what’s on the architect’s menu. The solution to the blight in house design is not simply convincing the architects to do better, but to help the public feel more confident to demand better.

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If you would like to read more articles about house and home design, please visit my other website, www.about-home-design.com.

Bill Hirsch

Bill Hirsch

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