Thursday, May 20, 2010

What STYLE is that?

Sigh.  How many times have you heard THIS question?  It’s understandable, that the public, clients, interested parties want to have a “name” to call their home or building and those of us in a position to serve as “experts” are logically expected to be able to give them an answer.  But c’mon, let’s be honest and point out that very very few buildings in the real world (as opposed to those in architectural coffee table books) are really pure examples of any particular style.  This is especially true for buildings, the bulk of buildings, that were designed without the aide of an architect, and even many that were.  And even in cases where a building was once easily associated with a particular style, what do you do with changes made over time, such as a Queen Anne residence with a flaming bungalow-inspired front porch?

Yesterday I gave a noon-time lecture in Medford, on architectural styles.  I’m not sure what the people who come to such a presentation are looking for, but if it was an easy check-off list that will allow them to identify a variety of styles as though it was a birders lifelist or something, I rather expect that they were disappointed.  When I talk about “style” I almost always open up with a slide about the “problem” with style (feel free to cancel me off your speakers list at this point).  Most residential design in Oregon, especially in the smaller towns that I generally work in, is most appropriately categorized in my opinion as “vernacular,” those buildings from the mid-19th to early 20th century that were just built.  There are ells, and tees, and I-houses (and double I-house variants too,  but you get the idea.)  Carpenters put the wooden pieces together to create a functional weather envelope and, given their limited tools (no chop boxes in the 19th century) they used trim not for decoration but for ease of construction and the ability to shed water.
It makes sense, and it even makes a pretty decent house.  But nobody is thrilled learn that they live in a I-House.  Or an ell.  Or a “Vernacular” anything.  That’s the problem with “style.”  Truth hurts.