Tuesday, May 30, 2017

BAD TRAD: Designing With Traditional Details

Traditional, or a grab-bag of cliches?
Ironically, one of the downfalls of modern architecture was its very simplicity.  The designs of brilliant architects such as Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Walter Gropius were rational, austere, and carefully calculated down to the last detail. These deceptively simple works made it seem as if anyone could design a Modernist building.

As a result, just about every bozo tried. A lot of architects, contractors, and homeowners copied the superficial elements of Modernism—stark white walls,  flat roofs, and acres of glass—but flunked out on the rest.  The resulting phalanx of “Modern” designs, some merely mediocre and some exquisitely horrible, was largely to blame for Modernism’s decline during the 1970s.

No classical column in history was ever
piled up in this manner—
Unfortunately, much of today’s co-called “traditional architecture” is going the same route. People are propping some Roman columns here and there, tossing in a couple of arched windows, and calling the result “traditional”. But like good Modernism, authentic traditionalism can’t be randomly culled from a grab-bag of cliches. All the columns, arches and urns in Tuscany won’t ensure a successful design unless they’re arranged in a meaningful way.

And this, alas, demands a little homework. If you don’t want to hire an architect to sort out the fine points for you, try the next best thing: before you undertake your project, comb the internet, or even—gasp—look in a book, to find as many authentic examples of your favorite style as you can (by "authentic" I mean actual historic examples, not some real estate promoter's wet dream). Make a note of your special favorites.

—or proportioned like this.
Now comes the homework part. Rather than simply admiring the examples, be more analytical. Ask yourself exactly what you like about the style. Is it the building’s lightness or its mass?  Its width or its height?  The shape of the roof, or perhaps the breadth of its overhang?  

Look a bit closer yet.  Do the walls of your favorite examples look thick or thin? Are the windows deep-set, or flush with the surface of the wall? Are the railings open or solid? Is the chimney tapered or straight? Are the stucco corners sharp or softly rounded?  Is the color uniform or mottled?  Such characteristics are can be crucial to recreating an authentic traditional design. If it’s authenticity you’re after, these little details are the key to recreating an authentic traditional design.

This is what happens to "traditional" design
when you skimp on the details.
Pay special attention to design features such as columns, brackets, quoins and the like—they’re notorious boobytraps for casual designers. Note where they’re used and, just as importantly, where they aren’t. Note the spacing and relative proportion of such elements too—if you cut corners on these elements, your design may look "watered down".

Isn’t this just copycat architecture?  In a word, yes. And there are legions of architects out there anxious to provide more innovative design solutions. But if hiring an architect or other design professional is out of the question, there’s nothing wrong with being inspired by authentic examples of traditional architecture.  Being guided by the past is, after all, what tradition is all about.

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