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The Contemporary

November 1, 2010

The “Modernist” house – no window grilles, often flat roofed, linear, sculpted, abstracted, and distilled by an architect.  The popularized mass produced versions attempt hipness but are dumbed down to the level of its realtor name: “Contemporary”.  Wherever there is snow the vast majority of homeowners prefer a “traditional” house.  A classic renovation is the tear-down or complete reconstructive surgery on a “Contemporary” house whose aesthetics depressed its value. 

Just as religious fundamentalism declares salvation for the simplistically passionate, Modernism (new or otherwise) promotes a rulebook that is written by the players –the designers.. Much of what is being lauded as the future of architecture promotes occupied sculpture that is often budgetarily impossible, aesthetically self serving and openly contemptuous of the values of the contemporary culture.

In the first half of the last century, Modernism did prove that the emperor had no clothes.  It showed the absurd lengths to which historic conventions ham strung buildings into silly preconceived notions.  As with labor unions at that time Modernism addressed undeniable problems with clearly evident truths.  Just as unions have lost their moral outrage, Modernism is now just another surface detailing technique—devoid of its moral underpinnings.

What “Contemporaries” have inherited from that old time Modernism is fashion designer esthetics of two-dimensional meaning. Modernism has been relegated to a “means to an end”.  An “open plan”, huge glass expanses, flat or no trim, blank canvas walls punctuated by some potent materials are elements now found in almost any “style” house.  In this way Modernism has won -it liberated all architecture from historic pretense. 

However, where “Contemporaries” are a positive sales generating “style”, developers used the stark aesthetics as a means to use cheap products, strip mall detailing, crude construction techniques that have more “style” than durability. 

“Contemporaries” built more than 30 years ago were perhaps the least efficient, highest maintenance, and most apt to leak housing type in history and usually need fuller renovation than traditional homes of a similar age because the often eaveless, trimless, stuccoed, or blank sided boxes don’t shed water very well and large single pane plate glass and unvented flat roofs with R6 insulation are now understood to be idiotic.  Experimentation has its downsides – and the need to extensively renovate older “Contemporary” homes proves that.

15 Comments leave one →
  1. Alexandra permalink
    November 1, 2010 12:37 pm

    Hear, hear! I hope the fundies don’t try to take away your diploma!

  2. November 1, 2010 4:48 pm

    I agree with all you say, Duo.
    But isn’t there a word you can come up with for the kind of house that eschews the elements of modernism as you describe it, yet preserves the appeal of a sheltering pitched roof in locales where it rains and snows, yet clean-looking without oversize colonial columns and nonfunctional cornices. The appeal of a thick heat absorbing wall in the dry belt, yet avoiding kitschy adobe style
    Maybe there’s a word we can borrow from the political class. Independent?

    • November 2, 2010 6:46 am


      I will steal that-

      (with attribution, I hope!)

    • Paul Kiler permalink
      November 2, 2010 1:48 pm

      And I disagree that an adobe style is kitschy, it is after a vernacular style of important regional architecture, and am important design vocabulary to draw upon when working in the American Southwest.

  3. November 2, 2010 12:49 pm

    Yes,Duo. But Architecture profs all over America still love cubism and floating/bending planes, brainwashing our youth thus. And 95% of builders do not appreciate (or even comprehend) minimalist detailing. Most always it is the vernacular vs. the “advanced” (which by now is really a bit stale), with not much in the center that our media deems worthy of publishing- the notable exception being Taunton Press. Thank goodness some are willing to keep our better regional traditions alive.

  4. November 2, 2010 12:59 pm

    Well said!

    I have been seeking this path as well, for most of my career. (Working for Alfredo De Vido in 1980 was a great start!) We’re working toward a Pacific Northwest vernacular–an approach that starts with Passivhaus energy efficiency and the smart building science of Joe Lstiburek (which finely tunes the house to site and climate), and adds the warmth and generosity of Craftsman with the freedom and inventiveness with form, detailing and materials of Modernism. I’m calling it Northwest Romantic Modernism. A bit unwieldy as a phrase, but it’ll do.

    I’ve enjoyed your books by the way–nice to find this blog!

  5. wally permalink
    November 2, 2010 1:20 pm

    Absolutely true!
    And as Perry points out, above, the guys who pushed that stuff ran the schools. (Now the ‘Green’ religion is the vogue).
    Architecture seems to be torn between the crusaders and those who think function comes first. That’s how it was, internally, at the last office where I worked. I remember trying to make the point once that a material that was not durable was worthless even though it was manufactured within 500 miles… and getting only hostile stares in response.

  6. Steve Rocco, Architect, Haddam, CT permalink
    November 2, 2010 1:23 pm

    Duo- Add my voice to those who wonder how and why did the profession get so off-track. Bilbao was fantastic, the first time. The preponderence of free-standing, chest-beating “design statements” mistifies me. I thought we moved on from “object” buildings after the 60s. “The Architecture of the Absurd” from 2007 was the first plea for sanity I had seen. Hopefully the pendulum will swing again.

  7. Paul Kiler permalink
    November 2, 2010 1:44 pm

    I’m sorry that you misunderstand fundamentalism in the context of religion, specifically Christianty, for it is not simple minds that always espouse such ideolgy, but just may be enlightened past common abilities to perceive.

    And it is just possible that Now, Unions in America *ARE* a moral outrage, and are an unsustainable model that continuously encourages offshore jobsourcing.

    And I hope that you are not “Independant.”, since that is not a word… And it would mean you were nonexistant… (sic)

    But then, ON WITH Architecture that isn’t a stupid stucco box tract house, but actually engages the imagination and visual vocabulary with aplomb!

    • wally permalink
      November 2, 2010 3:19 pm

      “But then, ON WITH Architecture that isn’t a stupid stucco box tract house, but actually engages the imagination and visual vocabulary with aplomb!”

      Even if it is crap that falls apart?

      • Paul Kiler permalink
        November 2, 2010 4:54 pm

        Aah, but nowhere did I stipulate that imagination and longevity combined with craftsmanship were mutually exclusive, did I?

  8. RP Mocarsky permalink
    November 2, 2010 5:08 pm

    Basically agree, once somthing new is done once we “hop on board” and overdo it. However, we do need to “experiment” but lets see how it lives before going crazy. We are very impatient.

  9. November 2, 2010 9:51 pm

    I’m in full agreement with your words on the state of contemporary architecture as “inhabited sculpture” and how this fad has sidetracked our profession bigtime. And yes, we’ll probably have to endure a long period of copycat nonsense before the ulimate return to rationality, driven by the sure to be high rate of failures (weather intrusions, etc.).
    And what about the larcenous (never mind inappropriate) use of the esteemed term “ARCHITECT” that has now appeared on BK advertisements, let alone the entire high-tech
    industry! The return to sanity seems farther out of reach…

    • duo permalink
      December 3, 2010 12:08 pm

      I do love this multilogue!

      (may not be a word, but it captures the flavor for me)


  1. Connecticut Architect Karin Patriquin - Commercial Architecture & Residential Architecture, New Haven CT, Guilford CT, Madison CT, New Haven County, Connecticut » ARTICLES OF THE WEEK – NOVEMBER 3, 2010

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