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John Hill

Architect / Writer

Feb 10


Houses at Sagaponac

Traditional versus modern architecture; Proponents of traditional architecture cite a preference for historical styles. Modernist proponents, myself included, prefer architecture that responds to its larger contemporary context.

Where do you stand on the traditional versus modern debate, and why? Is there a contemporary compromise?


John Hill

Architect / Writer

Thanks to everybody on both sides for participating in the discussion and for many valuable comments. The topic and questions I proposed could hardly find resolution in this discussion (it’s much too broad and loaded), but it was worth trying. I’m happy to see that many people want to move beyond either/or scenarios when considering the modernist/traditional divide, and that others see stylistic debates as distracting or irrelevant.

While I think the debate will carry on by the vocal minority on both sides, due to the oppositional cores of modernist and traditional/classical principles, it just might be that the majority would rather prioritize other things (scale, quality of construction, sustainability, etc.) over defining something as modernist or traditional. Contemporary compromise involves the acceptance of various positions, whatever one’s leanings. Architectural diversity is a good thing.

Monday, March 11 at 8:00pm

Modern 13 Replies

Traditional 15 Replies


John Hill

Architect / Writer

As a way to get the conversation going, I wanted to describe my reasons for this topic and offer one way the Conversation might move forward. I’ve always been equally fascinated and frustrated with debates between modern and traditional architecture. The vehemence, passion, and stubbornness with which each side argues (especially traditionalists) makes it the architectural equivalent of immigration reform or gun control. This is not just hyperbole, since the debates tend to be like politics, about one side prevailing over the other rather than achieving some sort of compromise.

Whenever opposing styles and voices are reignited by a project or something else in the news, the same arguments are rehashed as if each side is amnesiac. Generally, proponents of traditional architecture cite a broad preference for historical styles, the coldness of modern surfaces relative to historical textures, and even academic elitism against neo-traditional design. Modernist proponents, myself included, counter that neo-traditional architecture is a shallow interpretation of historical styles covering modern systems and interiors, that contemporary surfaces actually have an appealing beauty that runs counter to historical motifs, and that architecture must respond appropriately to its larger contemporary context.

One area where this gulf between the traditional and modern is particularly pronounced is in single-family houses, the bastion of the American suburbs. Neo-traditional styles prevail in the suburban context, to the point where modern houses are shunned as being out of character and even for (potentially) driving down property values. The diverse and interdependent mix of architectural styles at the Philip Johnson Glass House—from the old Calluna Farms building and the high modernism of the glass house to the postmodern library and da Monsta’s deconstructivism—may offer a way forward. Perhaps an embrace of diversity would overcome the stylistic battles of the traditional versus modern debate—but I think it might have a greater impact.

I see that allegiances to neo-traditional styles have more effect than just the form of houses; they impact the form of the suburbs, which are inherently unsustainable but cannot be simply abandoned. I would argue that the flexibility of modern architecture and its embrace of contemporary conditions make it appropriate for making the suburbs more sustainable through infill and the incorporation of different uses within zones of residential monoculture. The suburbs are evolving into highly diverse (ethnically, economically, politically, socially) places. Can modern architecture play a greater role in this evolution? Or is the relationship between architectural style and suburban sustainability irrelevant?

Tuesday, February 12 at 2:12pm


John Massengale

Architect Author Urbanist Educator

My interest here is not about style. I like all sorts of towns, cities and buildings, but what I design are Classical buildings and traditional towns and cities.

“Classical” does not mean “traditional” (or “neo-traditional”), and Classicism is a way of designing rather than a style. I’ve never designed a house in the style of the Sagaponac house pictured, and I’m not familiar with the story of the Sagaponac development. Without researching the situation, what happened seems to be just a matter of market forces. Most of the market doesn’t want ideological purity, and when it does, the bias is likely to be towards traditional.

More to the point, I grew up in the suburbs but I live in Manhattan, and what I’m most interested in is the design of walkable places. To talk about that in the context of this discussion, I think it’s better to talk about an architecture of place versus an architecture of time, rather than about style.

The architecture of time is the architecture of the Zeitgeist, the theory that has sustained Modernism for well over 100 years. Frank Lloyd Wright was born just after the Civil War and designed important houses in the 19th century, and Modernism was the dominant cultural expression in America as soon as World War II ended. I think that time has ended.

The architecture of time has produced many great buildings, but it comes with two large caveats. One, its rate of return is terrible: for every Ronchamps or Bilbao there have been hundreds, if not thousands, of very bad buildings. Great Modern design is hard to teach, and the emphasis on experimentation and “unprecedented reality” produces many experimental failures (“Architecture is invention. All the rest is repetition and of no interest,” Oscar Niemeyer said). Moreover, the architecture of time also includes all the Modernist shopping centers, strip malls, spec office buildings and the like.

Second, the architecture of time is more about making objects than places, and Modernism has produced very few great places, and absolutely none to rival the great places like the Piazza San Marco in Venice or even New York’s Park Avenue or the typical residential street in Park Slope, Brooklyn (built almost entirely without architects or urban designers).

Periodically, publications like Time Out will ask its readers to pick their favorite street, and the winner is always a street like South Portland Avenue in Brooklyn, a street laid out by a surveyor that is straight as an arrow, with simple repetitive row houses built on speculation without the assistance of architects. Enlarge the area of discussion to the creation of towns and cities, and there’s no contest. After more than 100 years of trying, during the wealthiest period in the history of the world, where is the great Modernist city, town or neighborhood?

Modernism also tends to work best in a traditional context. The Seagram Building on Park Avenue was a glass gem in a traditional masonry setting that added variety and interest to Park when it was built. Lever House, almost across the street, was the same. But go there today and walk south to the blocks that where glass boxes have entirely replaced the earlier masonry buildings and the street loses much of its appeal to pedestrians, even though the wide street itself brings variety and sunlight to midtown Manhattan. Richard Florida’s Creative Class, which chooses the character of where it wants to live and work before taking a job, is why Silicon Alley is downtown in neighborhoods where Modernism is still the exception rather than the rule. Like most people, Millennials like both Modernist and traditional architecture, but they clearly prefer traditional urbanism.

The architecture of place is about creating and reinforcing places where people feel good, making a public realm with comfortable outdoor “rooms.” It uses the “timeless principles” described by Christopher Alexander and Jane Jacobs to do that. These principles work across what New Urbanists call “the Transect,” the range of patterns from the densest downtown like New York’s Wall Street to the smallest walkable village or hamlet. In the 21st century, one of the most important uses for those principles is the creation of walkable, comfortable places that entice us to get out of our cars. “You can’t spell ‘carbon’ without ‘car.’” they say. Before the hegemony of the architecture of time, all architects thought their first responsibility in designing a building was reinforcing that public realm.

The object buildings, the expression of technology at the heart of the architecture of time, and the emphasis on the expression of originality usually fight against that. And the so-called “avant grade” side of the profession that dominates the academic and media discussion pursues goals that by definition means their buildings can’t play well with others. “Great buildings contradict everything else,” fashionable architect Gregg Pasquarelli said in a discussion in New York magazine about the best buildings in New York. “Maybe that’s what a city is: confrontation and complication. In New York, the name of the game is to have one’s own envelope,” his former Dean at Columbia replied. The builders and architects who made the New York we love—like the developers of Park Slope and the architects like McKim, Mead & White who built our great monuments like Penn Station—believed exactly the opposite.

I was born in New York and the suburbs I grew up in were less than 10 miles away from the Glass House. After I got my driver’s license, I used to sometimes go peer over the wall at the edge of the property, and once or twice Johnson came out and shook his fist before I drove away. The Glass House is a great work of architecture, and one of my favorite buildings. It is a folly in the woods that draws on lessons of history, but it is also an object building and resolute expression of the zeitgeist of the postwar time when it was built. In closing, I should say that Johnson’s zeitgeist is not mine, and one has to ask if Modernism, an architecture of time, expresses the current zeitgeist, or if it is just a style.

We are the first generations in the history of the world who realize that the way we build will determine the future or our planet, for better or for worse. We need walkable and sustainable cities, towns and neighborhoods, and that is overwhelmingly what the young want. They’re happy with many styles, but they want cities and towns where they can lead their lives without cars. More important than the style of second houses for the rich in the Hamptons is the construction and reconstruction of urbanism where people want to be.

Towards that end, at this point in time Modernism needs to overcome its obsession with the expression of technology and the creation of controversial objects. The fixation on the aesthetic perfection of the energy-wasting glass curtain wall is irresponsible towards future generations, and the idea that the style of a design by Jean Nouvel for obscenely expensive Manhattan pied-a-terres for the super-rich is somehow a progressive action is frankly delusional, anti-social and anti-urban. The discussion of how to make and reinforce places that are environmentally, economically and socially sustainable is much more important than talking about architectural style. But style in the broadest sense, the style and character of buildings that people love and that make good urbanism, can be a big part of that discussion.

Friday, February 15 at 12:41am

Let’s face it, it is about style. It always has been! Otherwise, why do we open our architectural magazines (and websites) and see buildings in Spain look exactly like buildings in Canada or Africa? Remember, it’s calle the International STYLE.
I think it’s bullshit to suggest modern architecture responds to a broader context-and I consider myslef a modern architect.
Some of the most exciting “looking” housing being built in Seattle are clearly modern in style, but after a few years they are wearing poorly because flat roofs and lack of eaves don’t keep the rain out.

Thursday, February 21 at 11:52am


John Massengale

Architect Author Urbanist Educator

Ron, that’s exactly why I don’t read Architectural Record or Architect, even though I get the latter for “free” as part of my AIA membership—they’re like Henry Ford. They will publish any style you want, as long as it’s not traditional.

We’re all taught in school that it’s all about style, but I hope I made it clear we don’t all agree.

To be fair, survey traditional architects and you can get a lot of opinions about this, just as you could 100 years ago. McKim, Mead & White started out as eclectic architects who worked in many styles, but after the early 1890s they practiced exclusively as Classicists, and purged many of their earlier buildings from their monograph, which of course doubled as the office brochure.

In other words, some traditional architects today are just as ideological as most Modernists. I hope I might it clear that my interests are different.


A Recovering Architect

Friday, February 22 at 12:38am


Maybe it is all about style, but that begs a more important question: Should it be? Maybe that’s the problem. How good are those “exciting ‘looking’” houses if they are are in a state of rapid decay? (That’s not very exciting). How successful is a building’s design if it gets in the magazine but fails to satisfy the client, perform well, and last more than 40 years? Classical is not a style. There are many “styles” from many cultures that have classicism in their DNA, but they are as varied as Modernism (and some might argue much more). Where did classicism come from? Principle. It wasn’t meant to be a style. As John wrote, it was meant to be timeless and long-lasting, and in today’s world with sustainability as a priority, that should be the first point of consideration for the architect.

Friday, February 22 at 9:52am

I feel that traditional architecture creates a contextual fabric
In which emerges an “architectural landscape”.
Modern architecture is a device for appreciating that
Landscape from a comfortable interior environment.
I would easily use the AIA building in Washington DC as
The prime example.
I don’t see this as any debate or argument

Friday, February 22 at 10:13am

Modern or Traditional? There wasn’t a “compromise” choice. If their was, for me it would be:

Contextual Sustainability:

As we know, the True Formula for Judging Good Architecture should be according to Vitruvius’s Ultimate Synthesis. A “recipe” to what defines all good architecture; a perfectly blended combination of Commodity, Firmness, and Delight. It is our job as architects to tweak these ingredients, but at some point the cake simple does not rise, or the structure is NOT architecture.

Upon this age old paradigm I suggest viewing this Ultimate Synthesis in a new updated genesis. An architectural order that relearns and reapplies the historic code of the architectural genome—commodity, firmness, and delight— but then adds to this matrix two more elements: vernacular, both cultural and topographic, and regionalism, in respect to natural resources and labor. It is a new architectural order based on an age-old formula that suggests that local materials, culture, and ideologies form the architectural building blocks to true idiosyncratic regional design.

The debate over traditional and modern is set forth by architects and critics that are territorial to their own style preferences and unable to accept exclusivity. Contextual Sustainability is a style blind code to judge all architecture, traditional or modern…

David Andreozzi
Andreozzi Architects

PS: I am the upcoming chair for AIA/CRAN, the Custom Residential Architects Network. This is our ideology.

Friday, February 22 at 11:03am

A little housekeeping first. Let us agree to use the term Modernist for that type of work. The modern is too often used inappropriately to describe the the type of work which is best described as modernist.

I am an architect and my work is classically or traditionally inspired depending on the context and local craft and building traditions. I would call my work modern in that it is being built today but intended to be timeless in its architectural expression because it attempts to be part of a larger continuum rather than a disruption.

Is it possible to agree to use the terms appropriately?

Friday, February 22 at 12:31pm


John Hill

Architect / Writer

John M – It seems that saying “architecture of time” and “architecture of place” is a different way of describing the same condition; modernist and traditional. But the terms you use are polemical because they ignore the importance of time in neotraditional/classical architecture (looking back, or of a time in the past) and the fact that modernist buildings can certainly aid in creating a strong sense of place as you describe it. The examples you use are pretty extreme (Niemeyer, SHoP, Tschumi?) and indicative of a small strain of modernist/contemporary architecture that garners the most attention. With large modernist plans like Brasilia the sense of place may be lacking (I haven’t been, but it’s hard to ignore the scale and auto centric nature of the plan), but I’d also argue that neotraditional planning is also lacking, as both prioritize control over the natural evolution of cities and the projects of actors within them. I’ll agree with you that “modernism tends to work best in a traditional context” (partly because I like the contrast between old and new and various styles), but doesn’t this point to the scale of projects and to a diversity of styles over just one?

Ron – I’d argue that The International Style is just one strain of Modernism, one that has persisted in people’s minds but not THE defining modernist “style” all these decades later. What about what Colin St. John Wilson called “the other tradition of modern architecture” and architects like Alvar Aalto, Hans Scharoun, Hugo Haring, even Wright? They certainly designed modern buildings, but ones that linked strongly to place and didn’t echo Corbu’s 5 points or whatever Johnson and Hitchcock saw as “modern.”

Craig – Yes, “should it be?” is part of my larger question and reason for launching this debate. Yet is one side of the stylistic divide more suitable to sustainable design than the other? Longevity is only one consideration in this regard and not one that can only be addressed through architecture following Classical principles.

Braulio – If we must, though the meanings of those terms seems pretty clear in the context of the arguments where they’re used. I’d actually say that “contemporary” is more appropriate to describe what is being built today, and “modern” is more stylistically charged.

Friday, February 22 at 3:08pm

You describe yourself as being a “modernist proponent,” so you’re a proponent of modernism. Modernism defines itself as being anti-traditional, therefore you’re against tradition. Are you asking for reasons why you should be for tradition instead? Because ultimately we are traditional architects not because we stand opposed to something, but because we love something, the very something that modernism defines itself as being against.

Saturday, February 23 at 8:36pm


John Massengale

Architect Author Urbanist Educator


You are more knowledgable about the architectural climate than I am. Living in NYC, where the Bloomberg administration aggressively promotes Starchitecture and SHoP, what I said doesn’t seem extreme. And when I did read Architecture and Record, their selection of buildings covered seemed to be right in line with that. The dominant architectural culture today seems ideological and narrow-minded.

I’ve been interested lately to see New York restaurants like Freeman’s, Peel’s, the Breslin and place in Great Barrington where I was yesterday, the Bell & Anchor (by a former partner in Marlow & Sons). My impression is that non-architects under 40 appreciate both Modernism and traditional design and don’t buy into the administration’s assertion that New York will atrophy if we don’t replace midtown with 90-story, mega-floorplate glass towers designed by Jean Nouvel or Frank Gehry (interesting how few of the administration favorites other than SHoP are from New York). We know for sure that the Richard Florida’s Creative Class prefers the lower, older, masonry streetscapes of Silicon Alley, and that Apple and Google’s plans for Silicon Valley are avant garde office park.

When I was in architecture school, this range was part of the discussion. We’re told that young architects like Rem and Zaha were offended, and that they fought for the current exclusionary attitude. Our cities and towns suffer, I think. Talking about an architecture of time and an architecture of place is about trying to take part in a different discussion.


Sunday, February 24 at 10:07am


John Hill

Architect / Writer

Christopher – Am I “asking for reasons why [I] should be for tradition instead?” No, I’m asking if there is another way to tackle the question besides being for the modern or the traditional, hence against one or the other. The argument can be framed as an either/or one, but I don’t believe that gets at all of the issues underlying our preferences, or that it is the best way to deal with ensuing debates that will no doubt arise.

John M. – By extreme, I meant that very few of the architects practicing in a contemporary/modern vein today approach the sort of formal excess of Niemeyer and SHoP (in projects like Barclays more than Pier 15 or the Porter House in the Meatpacking District). The traditional side of the tradition/modern divide may cite starchitecture icons like these, but I believe that’s a narrow view of modern architecture today. Granted, buildings like Barclays may get much more media attention than applaudable modern infill projects (look at Platt Byard Dovell White’s website, for some good examples), but they also get a lot more critique from both sides. And when criticism goes beyond form and style it seems to get at some larger issues that could feed this discussion. Barclays, an extreme example again, gets at issues of scale, gentrification, public/private, and so forth. Does it ultimately matter if the planned 16 towers are modern or traditional? Or would the Classically inspired mind not propose something so gargantuan?

Funny you bring up Breslin, which you probably know is part of the uber-hip Ace Hotel that is a popular spot for “creative types” (as documented by Fast Company). I’ve given a couple architectural walking tours that go by there, and I always take people in to look at the lobby (always packed with people staring at laptops—it’s too dark to read something in print in most of the space, if memory serves me). One of the details I highlight is at the back of the lobby, by the bar. The wood paneling that wraps three sides and extends about halfway up the space is set 1-2 feet in front of the wall behind it, and the armature for propping up the wall is left exposed. The design puts the false nature of the wall (false in that it’s literally a shallow applique) on display. In this sense I think you’re right that people under 40 “appreciate both Modernism and traditional design,” because they see it simply as surface articulation; modern or traditional, it’s the same. Revealing the structure behind the wall ironically reveals the lie, and I think younger people would rather see that then be lied to. It’s no surprise that there is a huge interest in crafts these days, because whatever it looks like it gets at making rather than just variations on articulating surfaces with the same materials.

Lastly, you say that “Richard Florida’s Creative Class prefers the lower, older, masonry streetscapes of Silicon Alley.” But is it as simple as saying “young, creative people like traditional buildings and neighborhoods?” I’ll admit I’ve read very little of Florida (and not his most well known book), though I’m skeptical of lumping too many indicators on his “creative class.” I’d wager that many creative people are drawn to places with a large number of intellectuals, which will always include people fighting to protect areas from being bulldozed and transformed for profit. Would Brooklyn be as popular today without the decades of fighting and gentrification that have led to the protection of its brownstone neighborhoods? It’s not simply a matter of young people thinking “old is better than new.” They’re tapping into a larger intellectual pool that looks to the past and to the future in many different ways; it’s quite diverse.

Thursday, February 28 at 9:02am

Being much more involved with architecture beyond modernism – and certainly light years away from historicism – this question is to me somewhat strange!

However, I would say that the vernacular itself is constantly evolving, so as to allow for ‘compromises’ in which it becomes a potential reference to very contemporary practices.

Friday, March 1 at 6:18pm


John Hill

Architect / Writer

With one week left in this conversation, I thought it would be good to focus on a particular project and invite people to address it in the context of the larger discussion about modern/traditional.

Yesterday Architect’s Newspaper reported on a new plan for the Domino Sugar factory along the East River in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. The design by SHoP Architects with James Corner Field Operations supplants the earlier scheme by Rafael Vinoly Architects. As the Archpaper article describes the plan for Two Trees development, “[it] calls for a series of unusually shaped towers lining a waterfront with active recreation.” These towers range from 400 feet to nearly 600 feet.

Certainly of interest in terms of this discussion about modern/traditional architecture is how the proposal relates to the landmark Domino Sugar building that will be transformed to be part of the development. So what do you think of the proposal (considering or ignoring the fact that the designs will probably change)? Are the “doughnut” buildings (meant to preserve views from the low-scale neighborhood to the east) appropriate for the waterfront location astride the factory and adjacent to the Williamsburg Bridge? Should the scale and modernist design change per these contextual elements? Or is the plan a refreshing jolt for the Brooklyn waterfront?

Tuesday, March 5 at 5:06pm

This debate sorely needs some proponents of this, the left, column.

The debate between traditional and modern is ultimately only waged and of importance when it comes to residential architecture: the “house” (think any show you see on TV) on the one end of the spectrum, “housing” (think HOPE VI) on the other. The debate is rarely waged about office towers, or schools, or museums.

So firmly positioning myself in this left column, I will address only one of the many issues we should be talking about when we talk about “traditional versus modern”: size.

Why, on the one hand, do we keep getting bigger, in the name of comfort? And why, on the other, do we keep getting smaller, in the name of affordability? Or is it all, in the end, about profitability?

In and around bucolic Princeton, where I happen to live, houses seem to keep getting bigger and bigger, but less and less usable.

What is going up around here are bloated two- to three-story boxes awkwardly dropped down in the middle of the plot. Generally, but not always, they come with a set of “traditional” gables and a material palette of layered-on brick/clapboard/trim. These boxes often replace what from today’s perspective seem like small, understated single-family one-level 1950s homes (but probably represented the ultimate middle-class luxury at the time).

Given the larger size, you would think that the house would also do larger things. For instance, enable an easy future subdivision into two or more units. Or enable a truly workable commercial unit. Or shape the surroundings in a way that the residents would actually like to spend time outside.

But no, the new houses are just bloated. In the place of what was formerly a single space for living and dining, there are now four rooms (living, dining, media, family) each the size of that original multi-functional one. Who heats them, who cleans them? Who actually uses them?

Who cares if you can sell by the square feet.

There has recently been talk about America’s binging habits.
In residential construction, despite the catastrophic financial crisis which we know was caused by the culture of binging on a non-bingeable item such as housing, the square-foot-binge continues.

Meanwhile, up in New York City, it’s all about reducing the legal minimum unit size. The goal is to make housing more affordable by making it smaller. Three of these Manhattan units would fit into one of the new Central Jersey living rooms.

In light of the much-discussed growing divide between the rich and the poor, the 1 and the 99 percent, we are thus both binging on and reducing the intake of square feet. We are revisiting the question of the Existenzminimum—the key issue that drove 1920s modern housing design reform efforts in Continental Europe: how can you optimize the dwelling to make it usable, livable, affordable?

We live in a 1930s Tudor-style row house. By today’s New Jersey standards, this is Existenzminimum. This is a quality: every room is dimensioned so that it can actually be furnished, is postioned in a way tha lets you connect and separate from the other rooms, allows for various paths through, articulates views and points of access. It is fantastically functional, flexible, and pleasant.

If it weren’t Tudor (“traditional”) but “modern”, the windows might be larger and on a cloudy day we wouldn’t have to turn on the lights by mid-afternoon. But we have no complaints: the medieval windows keep the house cool in the summer and warm in the winter.

So: let’s talk about size, which John has just begun to do with regards to the Williamsburg proposal. Talking about size or other quantifiable criteria will get at the issues that really matter, and which ultimately the ones that drive and decide design.

(A note for all those considering a third way between city and small-town suburb: Just 10 miles down the road from idyllic Princeton, in down-and-out Trenton, you’ll find many stunning century-old Victorian houses, beautifully and originally detailed. They are mostly vacant and falling apart. But they would seem to satisfy both the need for something that is boh above the minimally sized and yet is affordable. Plus: these houses provide true traditional design, traditionally built (and not just tacked and glued together). But who is crazy enough to risk their dollars and life in Trenton? Engaging in that question would be moving further left than this column would allow.)

Thursday, March 7 at 12:31pm

I have been more interested in modern (lately especially), I am pretty sure that it is a result of exposure-and even more so where I am -there really isn’t ‘traditional’ architecture in the Western sense. Why are we limiting ourselves? Surely any structure, if well-designed, can incorporate all aspects we find desirable as far a function and technologies–in which case it simply becomes a matter of aesthetic preference.

Friday, March 8 at 12:33pm

Massengale rightly points to certain building frauds in practice if not philosophy of certain contemporary starchitecture: reasonable. Yet, he supports traditionalist wallpaper which, in the face of more efficient means, condones the use of unnecessary and cost/energy consumptive elements and strategies: unreasonable. Simply stated, Traditionalist response is inadequate to deal with a culture that is increasingly technology based, while Modernist ideas often seem to ignore invaluable lessons of a rich architectural past, and both seem satisfied to ignore contemporary realities for their own agendas.

Monday, March 11 at 12:58am


John Massengale

Architect Author Urbanist Educator

I’ve been away for a week. I see that there are about 10 hours left in this discussion. I will try to say more before the deadline arrives, but it is my first day in the office in a week.

D. Chase Martin, I don’t know what “traditionalist wallpaper” means, or what you mean when you say “Traditionalist response is inadequate to deal with a culture that is increasingly technology based, while Modernist ideas often seem to ignore invaluable lessons of a rich architectural past, and both seem satisfied to ignore contemporary realities for their own agendas.” I’m not sure what that means.

Placemaking is about people. A place is only a place when there are people in it. The principles of placemaking are timeless. We can do various things to the buildings surrounding the place, as SHoP has, but experiments like City Hall Plaza in Boston have proven to be failures, and we have greatly weakened the public realm by catering too much to the free flow of motor vehicles.

Traditional buildings were naturally green in many ways, from the use of renewable materials to a need to deal with hot, cold and light without electricity for air conditioning, heat, artificial ventilation and artificial light. A recent New York City study confirmed what was already clear but frequently denied, that all glass-curtain wall towers in the city are inferior to masonry curtain walls when it comes to energy use. That includes LEED Platinum glass towers, and doesn’t even factor in the high embedded energy costs of manufacturing state of the art glass for dealing with temperature and solar, or the fact that these high-tech walls rely on high-tech layers that will wear out in 15-25 years, requiring the wasteful replacement of the glass.

Suzanne Schindler, I don’t know why you say we are only talking about single family houses. Take a look at the websites of Allan Greenberg, Robert Stern, Demetri Porphyrios, David Schwartz, Quinlan Terry et al and along with houses for the super-rich (which Zaha, Gehry and company also do) you will find many other building types, including office buildings, apartment houses, civic buildings, sports arenas, concert halls, libraries and educational buildings. Vanity Fair called one of them, an apartment building by Stern, “the most financially successful building in the history of New York.”

Monday, March 11 at 10:27am

Here’s a general comment: I don’t think this conversation should involve blaming the other side for the lowest common denominator of what could be associated with their position (in which case traditionalists would blame modernists for wasteful sprawling suburban office parks full of non-descript curtain wall buildings, and modernists would blame traditionalists for wasteful sprawling suburban cul-de-sacs full of non-descript mcmansions). I agree with John that we should come together around sustainable urbanism, focusing on ways that we can strengthen existing cities and create enduring and walkable places. Here are a few more specific comments: Susanne, I think you would find that most of us in the right column agree with you concerning bloated suburban housing. I believe most of us are as vehemently opposed to such development as anyone with a more “modern” taste for design.
D. Martin, I think the danger of tying architectural design too closely to technological design is that technology changes so rapidly and an investment in a building is so much more substantial than an investment in, say, a smart phone. The more closely tied a building is to the cutting edge of technology, the faster it becomes technologically obsolete. This is not to say that technology should not be used in buildings, by all means it should, but it should not be the driving aesthetic force behind the design. As for traditional design as “wallpaper”: if your only approach to tradition is to use it as a copy and paste procedure, sticking details to a facade, you’re approaching tradition the wrong way. The best designs (both modern and traditional) incorporate details that have dual purposes, both aesthetic and practical (form and function). The pitched roof, for instance, is remarkably practical. It sheds water, is easy to construct, and limits building width, ensuring that rooms are narrow enough to be naturally lit. The cornice, paired with a pitched roof, is a practical solution to keeping water away from exterior walls and out of the building. Mouldings around openings protect walls from scratches. Generally, when I’m designing, I try not to add gratuitous details that don’t serve a function. Such details should primarily be practical, but can also serve to give a building a more human scale, so that the design is as delightful to the hand as it is to the eye from a distance.

Monday, March 11 at 12:24pm

The fervor in this debate reminds me of the debate between Rock and Disco in the late 70s/early 80s- Irrational. To me, it is less about modern versus traditional but about good design, detailing and construction that enhances life versus bad design and poor construction that satisfies the designer’s ego but not the client’s needs and satisfaction. When folks say they don’t like modernism, the modernists don’t look beyond the words to think about why people prefer the traditional. It may be because they like Palladio or it may be because they are responding to the large, cold, hard cavernous spaces of modernism and prefer the more intimate personal spaces in traditional design. Or because they don’t want to live in the “spaceship” in the neighborhood that ignores context and scale, even views. I know modernism does not have to be this, but that is what a lot of bad modern architects design today, spaces based on 3D images and views with little relationship to the land, to human needs and feelings or the context and neighborhood. I love good modernism and I love good traditional design.

Monday, March 11 at 1:41pm


John Massengale

Architect Author Urbanist Educator

What’s interested me most in this discussion is one of the things that John H said early in the discussion: “The examples you use are pretty extreme (Niemeyer, SHoP, Tschumi?) and indicative of a small strain of modernist/contemporary architecture.”

I’ve already touched on this, but it’s worth saying more because I think it’s a good direction for the future.

You wouldn’t know from attending New York architecture events or reading the architecture press that the average architect would consider SHoP or Niemeyer extreme. Or from looking at what Bloomberg’s commissioners and deputy mayors promote at the expense of other visions.

The discussion here caused me to pick up the last two issues of Architect and read them on the plane flying to a Notre Dame undergraduate thesis jury (for those who don’t know, Notre Dame’s School of Architecture teaches Classical architecture and traditional urbanism and hosts annual prizes for Classical architecture). Architect had a story on young architects and architecture students that gives the impression that they’re all budding Zahas and Rems, while all the Notre Dame theses were Classical or traditional (and none of them was a house). It reinforced for me that architecture schools should have less indoctrination in their teaching, and that the architecture world should have more discussion and debate.

I don’t mean that Notre Dame shouldn’t have a Classical school. Not only because they are the only one (thereby providing a choice), but because Notre Dame is not an anti-Modern school (of course a few faculty members are—as opposed to virtually every professor at every Ivy League school being ideologically opposed to traditional design). The problem in my mind, is not when a school has a particular, acknowledged approach, but when a school like the Columbia GSAPP or the Harvard GSD teaches “The Way” and ridicules other approaches.

I’m with Duke Ellington, who said, “There are two types of music, good music and the other kind.” There is good architecture and bad architecture. For me urbanism is part of the basis for judging architecture, but there is also good urbanism and bad urbanism, and there’s always the exception that proves the rule, as well. I might put SHoP’s Domino scheme in that category.

Imagine if a music critic said “Philip Glass is great but Yo-Yo Ma lives in the past,” or “James Taylor plays nostalgic kitsch.” This type of ideological purity is out of place in academia and should be out of place in architecture.

Monday, March 11 at 1:59pm


John Massengale

Architect Author Urbanist Educator

By the way, even in today’s economy, every graduate of Notre Dame gets multiple job offers. As far as I know, no other architecture school today can say that. My explanation for why the other schools can’t say that is that they are turning out such a narrow range of “product.”

Monday, March 11 at 2:03pm


John Hill

Architect / Writer

One of the recurring critiques of magazines like Architect and Architectural Record is that they focus too much on the likes of Hadid, OMA, and other celebrity architects creating icons, at the expense of the great number of buildings (modern, traditional, and everything in between) that are well-designed, well-made, and are sensitive to the context into which they are inserted. Aware of the fact most good architecture is not acknowledged properly, I’d say 75% of my Guide to Contemporary New York City Architecture are the latter—infill, as-of-right buildings that don’t scream for attention, but also don’t try to follow traditional styles or, to use a term John M. has mentioned a few times, principles. But are buildings along these lines problematic for proponents of traditional architecture (Platt Byard Dovell White’s LearningSpring School is an example from an architect I mentioned previously, as is SHoP’s earlier M127 near Madison Park)? Or is the argument only found in larger projects and masterplans, in which case we’re back in the realm of SHoP, OMA, and others able to pull of such projects today.

I’m reminded of Steven Semes’s book The Future of the Past, in which he argues that new buildings in historical districts should not depart stylistically from the existing fabric. What I don’t like about his argument is the absoluteness of it. Yes, the renovation of Soldier Field is extreme, as is Hearst Tower, so I’d hardly champion those as ways of inserting modern buildings into old neighborhoods. Yet I don’t think that “No Modern Buildings” or some such stance should result from those questionable designs. Just as I don’t think the failure of Boston City Hall means that modern buildings cannot make places or respond sensitively to context.

I guess this points to scale as a defining factor of my argument, and in this regard I appreciate Susanne Schindler’s comment. It seems to be outside of the scope of the discussion here (especially with 5 hours left), but I think the suburban canvas is an important one that needs to be dealt with seriously. I appreciate the efforts of Ellen Dunham-Jones, June Williamson, and others tackling the suburbs, but for the most part I feel like architects and urbanists are content focusing on cities (Hudson Yards, Williamsburg, etc.) and new towns (CNU) at the expense of the ‘burbs. My initial comment asked if modern architecture could play a greater role in this evolution of the suburbs—I’d like to think it can by diversifying them and helping to creates places within them, but there are so many other issues at play (transportation, ideology, economics) that notions of architectural design and style take a back seat.

Monday, March 11 at 2:57pm

To make the argument that modernism is a style is to have missed its basic tenets, which were derived in large part as the expression of the human need to evolve, no less so than in the Renaissance. To dismiss those principles by failing to engage, understand, and integrate them into the larger body of architectural history is to also deny modernism’s lessons. In my mind such active denial of so important a period in our architectural heritage is to invalidate one’s argument…not unlike tainted fruit of the poisoned tree.
Might we consider architecture as organic in nature, guided only by well established principles of architecture rather than elements of style, within which no assumptions predate the assignment of the commission. Might the debate be about those principles?
By the way, I urge everyone to read Bob Stern’s Dean’s Statement on the 2011-2012 issue of Retrospecta.

Monday, March 11 at 3:05pm


John Massengale

Architect Author Urbanist Educator

Thanks John. I think you know I’m both a founding member of the CNU and Board member, well aware of what’s going on in New Urbanism. New greenfield towns are dead as a dodo. Work today focuses on infill and retrofit.

Andrés Duany says about New Urbanism that it focuses on what works and what doesn’t, including anything that works. Relevant to this discussion, that includes Modernism: he and Lizz were founding partners of Arquitectonica, of course; he’s always been interested in projects like Aqua; and Seaside includes early buildings by Steven Holl, Machado & Silvetti, Walter Chatham and Alex Gorlin. The biggest (not the only) reason why most DPZ projects are traditional is that they are market-driven. The average developer will turn around and walk away if you tell him his project must be Modernist.

The early days of New Urbanism were pretty naive. The architects involved had little training in urban design or traditional design, and the developers were trying to raise the quality of what was available at the same time they were trying to succeed in the market. Then there were the engineers, planners, bankers, landscape architects and architects telling them they were doing the wrong thing, all for different reasons. For the architects and landscape architects, the issue was usually style. New Urbanists had a lot of things to learn, and a lot of it was interesting. Here’s one example.

FYI & FWIW, Duany is spending a lot of time these days attacking Classical and traditional architects, saying that their interests are too narrow and that they have themselves to blame for not being more successful in the market.

Monday, March 11 at 3:13pm


John Massengale

Architect Author Urbanist Educator

dchasemartin: If you go back to my first post, you will see a suggestion of what I believe—Modernism was inevitable and did indeed express the zeitgeist. But we are now in the 21st century, and Modernism was not the end of history. History is moving on, and reconnecting to timeless principles is part of the process. Very few other than architects and architecture students have an ideological attachment to Modernism and technology. Technology is both a great tool and a great burden, and it no longer has the poetry that it had for Le Corbusier and the architect of the GREAT Maison de Verre. Nor does Modernism have the great social reform aspect that once drove it: today it frequently has more to do with Global Capitalism and the 1% than anything else. Here in Manhattan, that is very clear.

I’ve said that placemaking is about people rather than technology. Adjusting to climate change and peak oil will also involve low-tech and no-tech solutions. Luckily that fits well with the many related movements going on in the world today, like Slow Food, locavorism, CittaSlow, New Urbanism, New Economy, Small Is Beautiful, traditional design, craftsmanship and Occupy Wall Street.

Monday, March 11 at 3:25pm

Traditional architecture is a language with many dialects. It was developed over a 3,000-year history, and it is familiar and readily intelligible throughout the world. Old cities in every country have buildings of many styles, from many eras, all related harmoniously. Twentieth Century Modernism has introduced discord and confusion into the built environment and relationships have been destroyed through time and space. Now the language is confounded; no wonder there is so much misunderstanding.

Monday, March 11 at 4:34pm


John Hill

Architect / Writer

John gave the Final Word

Thanks to everybody on both sides for participating in the discussion and for many valuable comments. The topic and questions I proposed could hardly find resolution in this discussion (it’s much too broad and loaded), but it was worth trying. I’m happy to see that many people want to move beyond either/or scenarios when considering the modernist/traditional divide, and that others see stylistic debates as distracting or irrelevant.

While I think the debate will carry on by the vocal minority on both sides, due to the oppositional cores of modernist and traditional/classical principles, it just might be that the majority would rather prioritize other things (scale, quality of construction, sustainability, etc.) over defining something as modernist or traditional. Contemporary compromise involves the acceptance of various positions, whatever one’s leanings. Architectural diversity is a good thing.

Monday, March 11 at 8:00pm


Selected list of words appearing in this and other conversations.