Monday, March 21, 2011


Calvin Coolidge, the thirtieth president of the United States, was a man of few words. His terse responses to the press have become legendary. It’s said that a reporter once breathlessly approached him, calling out:  “Mr. President, I bet my friend here I could get you to say three words.”  

Coolidge’s reply:  “You lose.”

Silent Cal’s presidential record may have been less than stellar, but his aversion to bombast remains a lesson to us all. And while politicians might be the first to learn from Coolidge’s reticence, designers could take a few hints too.  

That’s because architecture is a visual language, and just like a spoken one, it can get cluttered by a lot of extraneous blather. 
It’s no accident that grammatical terms such as idiom, context and articulation also appear in the language of architecture. Moreover, many of the bromides of good communication—be clear, be concise, make your point and get out—apply to design as well.  

As a great believer in both simple writing and simple design, I humbly offer a few guidelines to help slash architectural bombast:  

•  Use a strong central theme rather than a number of weak ones. Just as the title of an essay informs all of the statements to follow, an architectural composition should have a single dominant idea that suffuses the whole. The theme might lie in the way rooms are organized—in a courtyard, perhaps, or in a cluster—or it might have to do with using a favorite combination of materials, or even a certain style of roof. Other elements can support or echo the central theme, but they shouldn’t compete with it, since this only dilutes your overall statement.

•  Remember that, more often than not, simplicity is a virtue. The mind tires when it’s forced to wade through a lot of excess information, whether it’s verbal or visual.  A clear, concise, immediately comprehensible design is far better than a conglomeration of elements drawn from hither and yon.  Leave out anything that doesn’t relate to the “argument”. If you’re feeling tempted to include, say, a whole plethora of moldings in your design, first ask yourself whether they’ll strengthen your statement, or just obfuscate it.

•  Know when to shut up. In 1863, a then-famous orator named Edward Everett gave a florid two-hour dedication speech at a Pennsylvania cemetery. At the same event, the nation’s president spoke for just a few minutes.  Which speech do we remember? Right—the one we call the Gettysburg Address.

And just as a speech loses effectiveness if it goes on and on, a strong design motif can become cloying if it’s endlessly repeated.  If you love round-arched windows, for example, you might use them in one prominent focal area and, if it’s appropriate, repeat them in a few other subsidiary locations--but don’t go wild and make every window in the house round-topped.

•  Finally, don’t forget to include a bit of humor. There’s enough bad news in the world as it is, so both language and architecture can benefit from the occasional spark of wit. Recall that even the most pious of architectural monuments, the Gothic cathedrals, were rampant with highly personalized carvings of gargoyles that no doubt gave their creators a few good laughs, and still do the same for us all these centuries later.  

Monday, March 7, 2011


If I’ve ranted and raved about any architectural subject over the years, it has to be the idea of fashion-driven “modernization”.  With today’s renewed appreciation of historic residential designs such as the California Bungalow, you’d think that designers would finally get the message that every architectural period has its finer points.  We’ve seen the pattern umpteen times:  After five or so decades of neglect and abuse, older styles are suddenly rediscovered and cooed over by designer types, while other, more recent styles are patronizingly judged to be in need of “improvement” by superimposing today’s fashion biases upon them.  I still routinely hear interior designers advising homeowners on “getting an updated look” and “contemporizing”--words that instantly set my teeth on edge.

Architectural styles have always followed a cycle of initial popularity, decline, disgrace, and rediscovery.  Victorian homes, you’ll recall, were held in contempt for the first half of the 20th century, during which time countless examples were either demolished or just as irrevocably destroyed in the process of being “modernized”.  Today one wouldn’t dream of stripping the ornament from a Victorian house and slathering it in stucco, but during the Forties, that’s precisely what many architects and designers urged their clients to do in order to get an “updated look”.  

Sounds ridiculous now, doesn’t it?  Yet apparently, we’ve learned nothing from such mistakes.  Regardless of the quality or thought that went into their design, examples of past styles that are currently out of favor--for instance, the spare and unadorned Modernist homes of the Sixties--are deemed unworthy of the same appreciation we’d give a Craftsmen Bungalow or some other style that’s currently chic.  Design elements that are integral to Modernist architecture--slender window frames; plain, ornament-free walls and ceilings, and flush doors--are blythely replaced because the don’t happen to fit in with the current mania for plasticky, frou-frou-laden design.

A basic truth of aesthetics is that the more fashionable something is now, the more unfashionable it will be later--and not very much later, mind you.  Yet, driven by the relentless juggernaut of advertising and fashion industry hype, both designers and homeowners continue to buy into the bogus idea that a thirty-year-old house needs modernizing, while a sixty-year-old house needs restoring.  

This is an exquisite bit of pretzel logic.  First, we’re encourouraged to remove everything that makes the original house belong to its era; then, a few decades later, we’re supposed to wring our hands in regret and try to put it all back.  Why not cut out the middleman, and simply keep your house in its original style?  

Improving a house by revamping it with momentarily trendy features is the architectural equivalent of dressing Ishi in a three-piece suit.   I could cite any number of vintage homes that have commanded higher sale prices for being in fine original condition, but I challenge any architect, designer, or decorator to cite a single example of a fashion-driven residential makeover done ten or fifteen years ago that can still be considered an improvement in light of changing tastes.  No kidding--I’d really like to hear about it.