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Americans Like Traditional But Architects Don't

The virtues of the New Old House

Two different news stories crossed my desk this week and collided.

The first was from the WALL STREET JOURNAL which, in a cover story for the "Off Duty" section extolled the virtues of the "New Old House." This caught my eye since we publish a magazine of the same name. The WSJ exclaimed, "Americans fed up with over-sized, over-designed McMansions are finding saner shelter in dwellings inspired by historic models on the outside – but full of walk-in closets and modern kitchens within."

The second story was from CNN which publicized this year's winners of the AIA Honor Awards in a video titled "The 11 Coolest Buildings in N. America" Here is where the contradiction slapped me upside the head: all 11 buildings were Modernist.

Centerbrook Architects install a window in Kroon Hall

Centerbrook Architects install a window in Kroon Hall

I try not to take sides in the Modernist vs. Classical debate. I like good architecture. And even though we publish magazines called NEW OLD HOUSE, PERIOD HOMES, OLD HOUSE JOURNAL and TRADITIONAL BUILDING, I thought several of the AIA Honor Award winners were very handsome buildings.

But how come "Americans love new old houses" and architects love modern buildings? Is it any wonder clients complain that architects "don't listen to what THEY want?" How come our NEW OLD HOUSE magazine is a top-seller on newsstands but only a niche of architects submit their work for publication in it? (happily, our famed NOH columnist Russell Versaci was quoted in the WSJ article and Gil Schafer, whose work we publish often, was also sourced).

This contradiction could discourage us. Instead, it should motivate us to present our Classical work with a new sense of conviction, especially as the housing market emerges feeling different from before.

The best part of the WSJ article was where it illustrated a McMansion under the heading "What's wrong with this Picture." It diagrams all the stupid details, materials and proportions of the "go-for-broke pastiche" so many new houses use. It sells old house scale and proportion by articulating the "don't dos" of McMansion design. The article also mentions a great exhibition at the Grolier Library called "Selling the Dwelling: The Books that Built America's Houses, 1775-2000" – which I happened to visit with my colleagues from the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, the day the WSJ story broke.

"Discerning homeowners are demanding builders bone up: mixing a Palladian window with a Craftsman column is not going to cut it" says Amy Albert of CUSTOM HOME. The WSJ goes on to declare that "(consumers) are hankering for authentic traditional residential designs…this is one of 2014's big trends."

I would argue that the consumers' love of, and preference for traditional design, is not a trend at all. It is a given, so much so, it is over looked by "what's-hot designers" and the "what's next" mainstream architectural press.

In any event, contradictions make for good controversy, which makes for good reading. If you haven't already, check out these stories.

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