August 2006

Authentic period style... What is it? Gothic, Renaissance, Classical, Neo-Classical, Shinglle-style, Arts and Crafts, Tudor, to name a few. It is any architectural production from antiquity that is associated with a historical and cultural period.

Period work is authentic in spirit, style, and detail. Unfortunately, it is costly and time-consuming. On the other hand, the main body of residential work that we see today is anything but original. Bastardized styles of any period work are not lacking and continue to spread in both single-family homes and housing developments across the country. A few architects today designing traditional homes have had training in classical architectural theory while others are sometimes ignorant and complacent and fall victim to the demands of homeowners for oversized 'McMansions' that lack proportion and character. Aesthetics aside, economics have also played a role in providing the masses the opportunity to use inexpensive and efficient building materials which only further downplays the need for authenticity in traditional architecture. False treatment of natural materials is commonplace, such as using styrofoam moulds to resemble cast stone; and choosing aluminum -clad windows over wood windows because of their lower cost and long-lasting durability.  

A brief history on modernism... and post-modernism. The very thought of recreating the past is the antithesis of Modernism's tenet- that all modern architecture be of 'our time' and that the designs utilize the latest industrial materials and construction methodology. As a result, the created spaces and volumes can only be logical and rational forms. The architecture of pure function does not stem from aesthetic principles and compositions of the past.

The Post-Modern movement reacted strongly to the banalities and strong overtones of the Modern movment. The disenfranchised public wanted something more 'playful' and less theoretical, a concoction of both Classical and Modern styles; a bastardization, if you will, of purposely exaggerated out-of-scale architectural elements. The effects of Post-Modernism on residential architecture spawned a prevailing political and social change towards pluraility in personal and artistic expression.

We as a society are coming out of the Post-Modern era and into the green movement, which is another subject in itself. However, what is interesting is that people are still drawn to live in a comfortable and traditional house. And some are still fixated on the idea that bigger is better and therefore are not as concerned about originality and character than about 'over-scaling' and choosing inappropriate architectural elements for their homes. It is unsettling that after many centuries, people continue to modify their homes without much success after the likeness of ancient Greek or Roman temples. These ancient structures were built to traditionally honor their gods. So why is it necessary for us to build 'temples' for ourselves? If it is because we can, then shouldn't we allow such homes to be designed and built with a certain degree of honesty, integrity, and ultimately beauty?

It is, and has always been, the responsibility of the architect to educate the public about what is aesthetically appropriate for the period style that they are after. But the nationally accredited architecture programs in our universities have been teaching students a dry progression on the history of architecture and not emphasizing enough on the importance of the architectural theories. Walter Gropius, the founder of the Bauhaus movement, said that we must start 'from zero', meaning classical thoery, in order to fully understand, appreciate, and differentiate the many paradigms of architectural theory. Intense personal research and study, observation, and steady practice of each period architectural style should be strived for if clients are asking architects to re-create it. The practice of architecture must be genuine, not complacent. A client has to understand that an architect cannot merely change a facade of a building and not see the consequences it will create on the building's floor plan. We cannot simply strip away a building's original exterior and add a few architectural features and call it some 'architectural' style. A building's floor plan(s) and elevations are interdependent. Nothing is inconsequential. It has integrity. Good design is a slow, painstaking process.

Fortunately, there is a growing percentage of architects and designers who are capable of re-educating the public by delivering period work that is authentic in spirit, style, and detail. In order to do so, we must be reminded that architects are in an industry where they serve both the public and private sectors. Architecture is, and has always been, 'service-oriented.' What most people don't understand in this profession is that the architect is not creating a 'product' for his or her clients, but selling them an 'idea'. An idea that is not borrowed without historical precedent and it is unique for that project alone. It is not something you can buy off the shelf from a store. You cannot find appropriate period work in one of those books that offer you a multitude of floor plans and exterior elevations. Provided by the client, the functional requirements and the size of the rooms for a house or an office building are merely givens, but it is the 'original' idea(s) that gives birth to a beautiful and lasting building.