I admit I provoked our cover guy, Scott Merrill (“Eye of the Storm”), to talk about the divide between modern and traditional architects. At this point in his career, he really couldn't care less about the anachronistic debate that still consumes others in the profession. He's much more interested in doing the best work he can, without reductive labels. And that's what this issue of ra is about, architects who feel free to draw from the whole continuum of inspiration to make warm and inviting houses.
I think the divide may be narrowing a bit these days. Merrill has a monograph coming out shortly on his firm's work. Vincent Scully, one of his teachers at Yale's School of Architecture, wrote the foreword. Scully sees Merrill, who is 49, as one of a new breed of architects not mired in the schism of the last millennium. These architects are unapologetic for loving architecture of the past and for incorporating its grace notes in their work.
We editors notice architects working on both sides of the rift, inching their way toward a more centrist stance. There are practitioners whose work is largely modern in expression taking on the slippery slopes of pitched roofs. And there are card-carrying classicists like Merrill, paring down familiar vocabularies to essential elements. Merrill describes this paring of flourish as “astringent.” The word is apt and instructive. It describes in part why Merrill's work seems, for lack of an unburdened term, modern. He adds some cool to the warmth of those familiar forms and materials.
And on the other side, architects edging toward the middle from a modern starting point inject warmth into their work by using materials and geometry linked to our shared heritage. They're even inventing terms for their architecture that sound simultaneously fresh and familiar: “New Regionalism” or “Vernacular Regionalism.” They admit to quoting loosely from the past, but drawing mostly from agricultural buildings and other forms less tainted by bad knock-offs than house design.
For his part, Merrill wishes the “cult of singularity” would vanish from the profession of architecture. He already designs as if it had, freely drawing from any antecedent that is useful and beautiful. “If you think about it as music or food, it defuses the ideology,” he says. “In the '70s, we thought it was our rightful inheritance to make use of all these different influences. It's the opposite of modern to freeze yourself into firm positions. Choosing teams and keeping them is not modern.”
Scully believes the rift between modern and traditional architects originated with abstract expressionist painting, and Merrill's work is where traditional architecture might have gone had the movement in art never occurred. Modern architects, he writes in his foreword, envied the freedom of those artists.
We can all enjoy abstract art, even if just for the unexamined experience of its forms and colors. We don't have to find ourselves in the work to appreciate it. Our houses are another matter. We require something of our collective humanity in our dwellings, some morsel of familiarity and comfort. That's why a new, more fluid modernism, grounded in our shared human experience, holds so much promise. In it we find the man in the machine for living.
Comments? Write: S. Claire Conroy, residential architect, One Thomas Circle, N.W., Suite 600, Washington, D.C. 20005; or e-mail: email@example.com.