Thursday, March 18, 2010

Style... a word tossed around with little understanding of the definition of various styles and little agreement on the meaning of style itself. One person may describe a building as traditional. Another person will look at the same building and describe it as Tudor. A third may call it French country. What is going on here? Are we not seeing the same thing when we look at an object?

Style is a fluid concept. A thing (a house, a mass- produced product, or any object of design) may be created in the manner of a particular epoch or person. We, as a civilization, have decided to label these various styles as Tudor, French-country, modern, craftsman, classical, Wrightian, etc. The problem is that the icons of these styles and the materials, shapes, and details used in these styles overlap.  Does a dormer belong to the Tudor style? Or to French-country? Obviously, it belongs to either or neither. A dormer is just an element of structure.
How a dormer is treated may push it into one style or another, but it belongs essentially to no style. Is stucco indigenous to any particular style? Of course not; it is a material that can be used in almost any vernacular. Nevertheless, in our minds we tend to link materials and elements of structure with the style to which we think it most belongs. Decorative elements often derive from a specific style but end up applied to other, quite different, styles. Many styles also enjoy revivals and revisionist interpretations. They are reinvented in novel form and given — sometimes — new names. Who can make sense of all this? If we have not been educated in the nuances of historical styles, it is hit or miss on getting it right. Even the experts disagree on taxonomy. Among architects who deal with the concept of style every day, there is confusion, disagreement, and misunderstandings about particular categories of style. What, exactly, does a given style mean in your mind?
We also use the word style itself with different meanings. We may talk about particular styles, as above, but we also use the word in the sense of a person or thing possessing style: as being “in style” or “stylish”.  Perhaps, in architectural design, it is time to stop worrying about what historical theme a building might possess, and start being concerned that it simply has good basic design qualities. That it has style.

But architecture is not like fashion design, where styles go in and out with the seasons. Works of architecture — from the homes in which we live to the buildings in which we work to the monuments that represent our society — have a less frivolous purpose and more enduring message. Perhaps it is more important that a house (or any building) have architecture that is internally consistent, that flows, that hangs together as a work of art. Let’s call this a non-denominational approach to design. What kind of crazy concept is this? Buildings without a style? Yes: buildings without a style that still possess style.
It would mean that issues like human scale, comfort, proportion, and balance are paramount, rather than how many or what kind of dormers or turrets or gables or Doric columns a building may have. It would mean that we consider, instead, concepts in architecture like rhythm, texture, volume, and emotional resonance. It would mean that distinctions like “traditional” and “contemporary” are largely irrelevant.
In the world of architecture, we seem to have lost our way. We have capitulated to a mind-set that looks at architecture as a recipe book of various styles. Style has shriveled to superficial treatments that, in the end, have no style at all. Like beauty in humans, architectural style ought to be seen as more than skin deep. Perhaps architects should introduce deeper values to the built environment, giving us neighborhoods and cities where architecture is a delight for the senses and a joy to inhabit. That would be great style.

Dormers: Friderick Koch, Pearson Scott Foresman, Pearson Scott Foresman
Style Examples: Rama, Waugsberg, Didier B.
Exteriors: Architecture by Knorr, photo R. Munger
Interiors: Architecture by Knorr, photo R. Munger

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