Gary L. Brewer, AIA, a partner at New York-based Robert A.M. Stern Architects (RAMSA), focused his September 15 breakout session on the divide between modernist residential architecture designed for "patron" clients and traditional houses designed for the middle market.
Taking an informal poll of the gathered audience of architects, who packed the session room, and citing a late 1980s survey conducted by The New York Times, Brewer established that most architects' preference for the aesthetics of modern design—though in line with the stylistic visions of many high-end "patron" clients—runs counter to the desires of the mass market, who favor traditional design. According to Brewer, by focusing almost exclusively on high-end modern design, architects have not only limited their potential pool of clients, they also have left mid-market house consumers out in the cold.
"Because the profession isn't interested in houses—and if they are interested in houses, they're interested in just modern houses—it has abandoned traditional, middle-class housing," said Brewer, a fellow and board member emeritus of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Classical America (ICA&CA). "When you're in school, you're taught that you should never look at anything that came before or copy anything that came before. But compare that to the practice of law, where you're expected to refer to precedent, or even a tailor, who learns the craft of how to sew a sleeve on a jacket, the structure of a lapel." Architects are the only professionals, he added, who are told not to study the past.
Brewer further argued that it's time to consider returning to the mid-market and serving its needs and preferences, rather than simply those of the small percentage of "patron" clients who commission one-of-a-kind residences. He also said it's important to embrace all sizes and styles of houses, because there's a market for all of them.
Brewer discussed in depth the importance of the pattern book industry, its early beginnings, its rise to popularity in the early 20th century, its sharp decline after World War II, and the continuing efforts of a few architects and companies—among them Southern Living and This Old House magazines—to bring well-designed houses to the mid-market. He also outlined RAMSA's transition from post-modern house design to more traditional residential work.
Closing his presentation, Brewer suggested that architects need to put greater emphasis on more than just patron houses—whether taking modern or traditional paths. But how should the profession go about accomplishing this? Training and education, he advised, will play an important role in cultivating both an appreciation for traditional architecture among future architects and encouraging them to address mid-market house consumers.