Monday, September 26, 2011


When it comes to identifying home styles, most people know generic terms such as Victorian, Bungalow, and Spanish.  Really pegging the thing is a little tougher, though.  Although more precise terms like Tudor, Mission, and Craftsman are often casually thrown about--especially by real estate agents, who ought to know better--they’re used wrongly more often than not.  Herewith are some of the most common points of confusion.   

For starters, calling a house “Victorian” is like calling a car “postwar”--it  only describes what era the thing was built in.  Luckily, the four major styles of Victorians are easy to tell apart:  If the house has horizontal siding, false cornerstones, and windows with segmental arches, it’s an Italianate.  If it looks like an Italianate but also has a steep mansard roof, it’s a Mansard.  If it has a square bay window, skinny proportions, and a porch with lots of linear wooden gingerbread, it’s a Stick (also called Eastlake).  If it has windows with colored glass borders, a few curved walls or a turret, and a porch with lots of decorative spindles, you can bet it’s a Queen Anne.  Next category, please.

Bungalow is ageneric term describing any home that’s built close to the ground and has a low-pitched roof.  More precisely, if a bungalow has wood siding or shingle (often with stone or clinker brick trim), it’s a Craftsman Bungalow.   If it has stucco on the outside, it’s a California Bungalow.

The gaggle of labels hung on Spanish-style homes--Mission, Spanish Colonial, Churrigueresque, Moorish, Mediterranean--are another endless source of confusion.  Strictly speaking, Mission refers only to architecture modeled on the West’s Spanish Colonial missions, and would suggest a rather plain house with thick stucco walls, an Alamo-like scrolled gable, and a few decorative barrel tiles, if not a whole roof full of them (for practical purposes, the term Spanish Colonial is essentially synonymous with Mission).  

On the other hand, tile-roofed houses with more ornate features such as spiral columns and elaborate door and window surrounds are called Churriguersque, after the 17th-century Spanish Renaissance architect Jose Churriguera.  Pointed or parabolic arches, ceramic tile accents, and perhaps castle-like crennelation would be clues that you were looking at a Moorish-style home.  Of course, when in doubt, you’re always safe using the term Mediterranean, which has come to include pretty much anything with red tile on the roof.  

The terms Tudor, Elizabethan, or Half-Timbered are often used interchangeably to describe English-inspired homes, but these terms don’t mean the same thing.  A Tudor-style house usually has brickwork combined with restrained half-timbering, steep gables, a massive and prominent chimney, and relatively small windows sometimes topped by a pointed Tudor arch.  By contrast, an Elizabethan-style home would have large areas of leaded windows divided into grids or into the familiar “Olde English” diamond pattern, along with lots of florid half-timbering in repeating motifs. 

While both of the above examples might also be called “Half-Timbered”, that term more properly refers to a building technique and not a style.

If you’re wondering why I haven’t mentioned any postwar home styles, it’s because it takes quite a bit of time for style names to stabilize.  Case in point:  During the Sixties, California Ranchers and split levels were routinely called “Contemporaries”, as if they were going to stay in fashion forever.  Today that term is all but forgotten.  

Likewise, today’s gewgaw-laden tract houses are often referred to as “neo-traditionals”, but that term is so vague that it’s unlikely to survive.  Hence, it’ll be a while before we know what posterity deems to call them. 

Tuesday, September 6, 2011


If architects feel obliged to design timeless buildings, you’d never know it from much of the work being built today.  The current fashion for nonfunctional excrescences and complicated paint schemes bespeaks an increasingly cavalier attitude about the need for buildings to age with grace, and the burdens they create for their owners when they don’t.  

For too many architects, how a building looks in its opening day portrait seems to matter more than how a it will survive the rough road of actual use.  After all, any building is ageless once it’s safely enshrined in the architect’s portfolio. How it fares in real life is often something else again.  

Paint remains the number one vice of shortsighted architects. While five-color paint schemes are a guaranteed grabber on opening day, it’s only a matter of years--and sometimes months--before all that painstaking brushwork chips, fades, and requires recoating.  Renewing such complex designs is an expensive undertaking that, when it’s done at all, seldom approaches the quality of the original job.  

Nor is much thought given to exactly how such painted structures will be maintained.  In a recently-built outdoor shopping plaza, for instance, I came across a hundred-foot-long pergola meant to support climbing vines, which the architect unexplicably chose to build out of painted steel.  Did he or she ever consider how this structure, preordaineded as it was to rust, would be repainted once it was overgrown with creepers?  

Fabric awnings are another common bit of architectural flim-flam.  Among the most short-lived products in architecture, awnings are indispensible for their intended purpose--providing shade and shelter.  Too often, though, they’re used gratuitously, like so much silk ribbon, in the hopes of adding a festive air to an otherwise dull design.  Inevitably, most examples are mildewed, faded, or hanging in very un-festive tatters within a few years.

Many architects who do manage to resist the quick fix of fabric awnings instead fall prey to horizontal glass canopies--another idea that looks lovely in a computer rendering, but simply doesn’t work in practice.  Gravity being what it is, all those crystalline surfaces quickly collect an unsightly layer of dirt, dust, and dead insects--an outcome that even the most rigorous maintenance can’t prevent.  

Then there’s the whole panoply of outriggers, props, sunscreens, and other gratuitous bric-a-brac that nowadays sprout from building facades  For lazy architects, such offhand applique’ is yet another shortcut to visual impact.  After the fad for gewgaws inevitably passes, however, these features serve mainly to ensure an excruciatingly dated look.  

None of these are willfully negligent design choices on the part of architects--just stupid and misguided ones.  We architects think nothing of devoting hours or days to choosing colors and finishes. Yet a glance at much recent work suggests we spend much less time thinking about that most fundamental of architectural qualities: a building’s ability to grow old with grace.

As the reformed Modernist architect Edward Durell Stone put it in 1966: “Architecture is not millinery.  Fashions pass by, buildings remain to become grim reminders of transient enthusiasms.”