The last morning of Reinvention 2012 began with a panel on “Deconstructing the Mass Appeal and Continued Relevance of Traditional Architecture.” Gary L. Brewer, AIA, a partner at Robert A.M Stern Architects, opened with a presentation of the firm’s residential work, including custom homes, townhouses, and apartment buildings. “Our idea is to carry forward an expression of a place,” he said. He questioned the academic world’s emphasis on modern architecture and its influence (or lack thereof) on the built landscape: “Because of [architects’] complete lack of interest in traditional design, we’re kind of responsible for McMansions.”

Margaret McCurry, FAIA, of Tigerman McCurry Architects, told the audience, “I look to the past and think about what the spirit of that means.” The older buildings she mentioned as influences included Midwestern farm structures, Italian basilicas, and Edward Schroeder Prior’s 1896 The Barn in Devon, England. Each of these contains many layers of meaning, she pointed out—“what I try to search for in all the work that I do.” McCurry alluded to the connection between traditional and Modern architecture, noting that she “trained as a Modernist at SOM” and is working on a Modern house now.

Stuart Cohen, FAIA, and Julie Hacker, FAIA, of Cohen & Hacker Architects, also discussed the relationship between Modern and traditional design. “While we do traditional architecture, we think of ourselves as Modern architects,” Cohen said. Hacker explained that she and Cohen try to unite traditional and Modern ideas about space, and presented several houses that demonstrate this approach. “Our clients want open space and at the same time spaces that are defined,” she said.

Cohen also mentioned trim as another element that relates to both historic and contemporary architecture, citing Frank Lloyd Wright. Ultimately, “we believe the language of traditional architecture always allows for reinvention,” he concluded.

Donald Powers, AIA, LEED AP, CNU, told the audience that he believed many architects thought traditional design was beneath them. “That’s not healthy,” he said. He described his firm as “carpetbaggers” who draw from the best of both Modern and traditional architectural principles. His single-family residential communities typically feature traditional exteriors and more Modern-influenced floor plans. “The compartmentalized plan is no longer relevant to our lives,” he said. “We’re making the point that ideas of complex and dynamic space can be brought to bear in traditional architecture.”

The question-and-answer period at the end of the panel brought up some interesting points, one of which was Margaret McCurry’s response to a question about “transitional” style. “I think [good design] is all about excellence,” she explained. “That’s why I hate the word ‘style.’ Excellence really has to do with scale and proportion and how the spaces relate to each other. For me, that’s the essence of what makes space. That quality of excellence and beauty is what we should be striving for.”

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