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Colonial Quandaries

July 31, 2012

Over 80 years ago architect Royal Barry Wills created one of most versatile brands in the history of architecture – “Colonial”. Its kind of like the word “Mammal” – a definition which spans from mouse to whale. So flexible was his “take” on an era’s design that the office still exists in Boston today.

Why is “Colonial” design so adaptable? 2 reasons: Paint and the Rectangle.

Painted siding, painted interiors homogenize everything. The simplest of materials could be used, combined, connected and smoothed over. The Rectangle was applied at every level of Colonial Architecture because assembling a door, a window, a foundation, walls, stairs of straight boards is easier than any alternative geometry.

Imitative design retains the surfaces and shapes, but can lose all relationship with the reasons for its aesthetics. The Prime Directive for all buildings is to provide safe harbor from the outside world. In  “colonial” times that meant time in temporary accommodations was life threatening – anything that made for the least amount of time between exposure and protection was at the heart of all technical decisions, let alone the niceties of design.

In making these early wooden tents, Colonists were the definition of expedient. The spare elegance of direct structural and material expression is at the heart of all good building and transcends “Style”.

When the non-aesthetic design criteria of time, cost and safety are essential the built products have a sense of proportion that is shaped by the size of the bodies accommodated and the tight fit with the uses the building is put to.

When that poignantly stark, ascetically clear reality becomes a wallpaper of skin, the reasons for Paint and Rectangle are irrelevant. When the luxury of “Style” can disregard the uses and size so imperative for first Colonial Designers the tail wags the dog.

The irony of huge “Capes” that sprawl is so absurd it is self-parodying. If Cooper Car Company created a Cooper Mini-van it would have an awkwardness that rivals a military vehicle morphing into a luxury car – an absurdity greeted with extinction in the late, unlamented Hummer.

So the affect and pretense of having elaborated “colonial” McMansions that present huge blank boxes dappled with “Colonial” products produced by huge distant building product manufacturers becomes heinous. Those original survivalist structures had to be localvore, but they could not afford to be artisanal.

Details could be lovingly handcrafted – and the homebuilder was often the boat builder and the cabinetmaker, but the essence of the true Colonial home was not what Royal Barry Wills provided – a soft, loving lightly historic crustless white bread building. But Wills saw the virtue in a building type that is easy to adapt, affordable to build.

Humans that once required physical safety in the 17th century wanted stylistic safety in the 20th. The confusion between what was once required and is now merely desired can make the simple stilted, the plain awkward.

Just like the exquisite hidden complexity of a High Modernist building that puts huge resources into avoiding any relationship to materiality, craft, weather ability and, yes, cost, the mass produced Faux Colonial uses symmetry, the Rectangle and Paint to hide a multitude of unasked questions.

When common denominators become excuses for unthinking design, we create homes that have less value than should have. As the last decade has proven, cost and value are only temporarily separated by hype. When affect and pretense are valued more than use and need, investments never sustain their worth over time – even if the affect and pretense have the cache of historic legitimacy.

Is the design the right size for you? Do the windows capture views? Where is the sun? How does rain water flow off the roof? Does the fireplace heat the home or act like a TV?

Houses are mirrors – and despite all efforts to color and shape the reflection back to a different time of safety and comfort, the truth of real size, a specific site and how a home is actually used cannot be denied for long.

Traditional is not always historic, safe is not always sound, the unasked question still has a correct answer – you just have to be listening…

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6 Comments leave one →
  1. January 16, 2013 8:34 pm

    Exactly where did u actually acquire the recommendations to
    create ““Colonial Quandaries Saved By Design”? Thanks -Blair

    • January 16, 2013 10:10 pm

      Been an architect in Colonialand (New England) for 35 years, done over 100 renovations/additions to what might be called “Colonial” work – some 18th century, some built 10 years ago…it’s very interesting how many folk are interested in this idiom!

  2. January 23, 2013 2:08 am

    “Colonial Quandaries Saved By Design” ended up being a superb blog post
    and thus I ended up being pretty glad to read it. Thanks for your
    time-Louie

  3. Don permalink
    January 25, 2013 9:51 pm

    The box works, it is flexible, versatile, durable and adaptive and efficient. Moving out from the four walls provides for much growth. Not many prototypes are as flexible. I think this is why the box has worked door so well many years. And look at how many outfits can draped over its good bones.

  4. September 17, 2013 2:22 am

    ミネトンカ 格安

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