modernism vs. traditionalism

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At residential architect's Reinvention conference in New Orleans last week, I sat in on the annual meeting of the Congress of Residential Architecture. Up for discussion, among many other topics of interest to residential architects, was what one CORA member termed the "Style Wars." In particular, some present at the meeting protested the dominance they believe modernism exerts in architecture education and the media.

As a representative of one of those institutions, I have given the matter a great deal of thought over the years. Before I became a writer, my work as a designer and builder was firmly in the traditional realm. As a journalist, though, I strive for openness to all schools of thought. When I'm scouting projects to write about and photographers ask me what style I'm looking for, I say that I'm not interested in a style; I'm interested in quality of design. Still, I often find it harder to locate traditional projects that I view as worthy of publication. Does that reflect a change in my taste? An evolution in technology and architectural practice? A structural bias in the media toward the new? A scarcity of quality work on the traditional side? An educational establishment that devalues the classical tradition and funnels the best young architects toward modernism? The answer may be all of the above, plus other reasons I haven't thought of.

Let me quickly add that I am quite satisfied with the balance of coverage we provide in residential architect and Custom Home, and that in the shelter press in general. And traditional architecture is still alive and healthy. I recently had the pleasure of interviewing Robert A.M. Stern, one the profession's most prominent practitioners, educators, and authors, and winner of this year's Richard H. Driehaus Prize for Classical Architecture from the University of Notre Dame School of Architecture. Students at the Yale School of Architecture, where he has been dean since 1998, may not produce traditional work, but I don't believe they will turn their nose up at it either. And most of them, upon graduation, will encounter a clientele that strongly prefers traditionalism to modernism.

So, do we have a problem here at all? Whether we do or not, I find the Style Wars fascinating, and a spur to healthy discussion in the professions concerned. Traditionalists should be called on to defend their work's continuing relevance, just as modernists should be challenged to provide a clear rationale for what they do. And those of us who cover the field in the media should always be ready to defend our choices in coverage. If you have thoughts on the subject, I would love to hear them.

Happy Holidays. --B.D.S.



Comments (1 Total)

  • Posted by: dmarcht | Time: 12:04 PM Tuesday, December 21, 2010

    I work in the southeast, where traditionalism is strongly preferred. I try to avoid the traditional/modern question by doing more hybrid designs that incorporate more modern open plans with traditional trappings and end up with a style of my own. That said, I relish the opportunity to do strictly modern design. Most new clients I have need that level of comfort where they want to tell you what style they want. Until they see something different that appeals to them, they are going to have the style hangup. I try to get them to focus on function and feel rather than style. It's always a struggle, but maybe that's a good thing.

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