Why Modern? (a tangent)

Architectural history is basically a time line of how building materials and methods have emerged and evolved.  I know.  The subject is a sleeper for most.  But consider that – as each new material and method is refined, a new Style is born.  (Think of the Greek or Roman styles.  They are governed by the physical properties of stone, and honed by a sense of order that follows suit.)

The time line is fairly flat until roughly the last two hundred years and then explodes as the framework  for refinement – industrialism and intellectual movements -diverges.  (See here and here) What this means is that when designing today, there is a vast catalogue of styles to choose from and follow (or diverge further from).


Choosing a style, now more than ever (with synthetic materials), is determined by personal taste.  Personal taste is distinguished by two reactions: I like what I see -or- I don’t like what I see.  This frequently leads to “I want one” (yes, Veruca dear) Or “No way” and sometimes even, “I want something entirely new.”

Here, smack dab in The Middle (Indiana) there’s a high count of conservative attitudes.  That means that there aren’t a lot of early adopters of new things.  It has to be proven before anyone will go near it.  While this gains an amount of reliability, it’s frustrating to watch trends take 10 years to hit the coasts from Europe, and then another 15 years to migrate to Indiana.  Think of music.  I had a high school English teacher that said he lived briefly in London, then moved to New York, and then back home to Indiana, each time coinciding with the emergence of Punk Rock on the local scenes, much to his consternation.

This is also true of architecture (despite the hot bed of Chicago and handful of small pockets of progressivism). Of course, globalized information is changing this, but there’s still an embarrassing lag for good fresh ideas to take hold here – sometimes they’re even inhibited by decrepit zoning or building code, as is the case for greywater reuse.    But we’re talking about style.  While I very much enjoy designing with the Craftsman or English Cottage styles (the prairie style shown here was one of my favorite jobs, the cottage style example also a solid stylistic design), rarely do we get to be on the emerging edge of design.

So there are a lot of exciting things happening in contemporary design that remain just out of reach.  I love contemporary modern architecture, and all too often I hear people condemning the modern style for its cold lifeless minimalism.  In some cases, they’re right.  But they’re unaware that modernism has fragmented into thousands of different directions from its earlier minimalist interpretation.  There are existing modern designs being built (especially in the Pacific Northwest) with deceptively simple looking details, clean lines, bold geometric masses, and a warm palette of materials.  Modern can be warm, inviting, and homey.



The Indiana chapter of the USGBC held an event roughly a year ago in Indy where architects Doug Farr of Chicago and Dan Rockhill  from near Kansas City, KS (with a design-build practice) were squared off during a Q&A.

Farr, with a great track record of historic preservation, argued that the traditional styles emerged for practical reasons (like steep roofs for snow and rain, etc.) and time has refined them to a point of familiarity that they evoke a sense of home or belonging.

Rockhill rebutted with the fact that traditional styles all emerged as a result of the available means at a given time.  Then he pointed out that today we have engineered wood joists, light steel framing, single ply roof membranes, high performance windows and so on, all materials that out-perform their predecessors.  So why, he asked, should he limit his designs to the forms of the past?

So why modern?  In the spirit of exploration, and discovery, why not?


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