Architecture: Elegance and Allusion

(first posted on Escape from Averageness® in June, 2012, reposted in April, 2014)

After I was a commercial banker – and before I was a management consultant – I was a homebuilder.  There was a stint with Arthur Rutenberg Corporation, but the majority of my time in homebuilding coincided with my role as an in-fill residential developer.  The driving force – the focus of my energy and interest – was always residential architecture;  residential architecture, broadly and generally, but, particularly and specifically, the residential architecture of my native state of Florida and of the South.

An energy and interest in architecture is not enough to be a homebuilder or run a homebuilding company;  it is necessary (at least, desirable), but it is not sufficient.  I realize that, and I am fine with it;  my avocation does not need to be my vocation.

I like the consulting work that I do, I like that my clients are largely homebuilding companies, and – after all – I can build my own house anytime that I need to satisfy the tangible expression of my creative drive (everyone warned my wife, when we were married thirty-five years ago, that I would sell every home we ever had out from underneath her).

One of the qualities, or attributes, that I sought in the homes that my companies offered were designs that were hallmarks of elegance:  design and finish that was refined, dignified, tasteful;  more to the point, design and finish that was simple, suitable to its purpose, easily-built, enduring, appropriate;  plans that recalled the accuracy and practicality of master builders;  plans where fenestration, for example, made sense – worked – from a design standpoint.

The other attribute I sought was allusion:  an indirect reference and meaningful interpretation of historical design;  plans and materials that were native, indigenous, particular, familiar, informal, plainly simple;  designs that were re-collective, what is termed vernacular.

Ron Haase (Prof. Emer., University of Florida School of Architecture), on the matter of allusion, in his book Classic Cracker: Florida’s Wood-Frame Vernacular Architecture:

“ . . . architecture requires that we understand the potential in historic allusion, and how this idea differs significantly from that of historic illusion.  Illusion, after all, is mere copy, often shallow and only skin deep.  As such, it presents itself at a mockery of its historic precedent.  Historic allusion, on the other hand, digs deeper into the essential meaning of the precedent.  It is more critical in its response and more open-ended in its interpretation.  It takes the form of a metaphor heightening our awareness of its relationship to the original.  By doing so, we link history to the present and build a bridge of community across time.”

Elegance and Allusion:  two complementary design terms that are largely absent from the description and reality of the plan portfolios of most homebuilding companies.

Excuse from this discussion, homes built for individuals who can afford to build anything they want;  they have the right to do that, even if those custom, one-off designs are little more than indulgent expressions of personal net worth and affluence, and statements of their own perceived significance.

Excuse from this discussion, also, builders – like Art Rutenberg – who singlehandedly defined their own style of architecture (even if that style has now edged into luxury and illusion).

Instead, focus on what remains, on what is the vast production-to-semi-custom span of the builder spectrum.

In that group, I see little of the design thinking that I have described.  Instead, I see complicated designs with impractical layouts and difficult dimensions.  I see plans with purposeless space, both size and volume.  I see plans with design elements that make no sense.  I see plans with no coherent scale.  I see fenestration without a working purpose.  I see a thoughtless confusion of style, with no connection to geography or history.  I see plans that offer a shallow illusion of architectural style, not a meaningful, interpretive allusion.

The point is not a strict typological adherence.  The point is that there is benefit in preserving the logic and order of the design elements found in various styles, be it formal (Georgian, Federal, Greek Revival) or vernacular (dogtrot, shotgun, i-house) or regional (saltbox, single house).  The point is that there is benefit in reflecting the indigenous materials of a region.  There was, after all, practical reasons homes were built in this manner;  today, Lean design shares the same practical interests, in simplified roof designs, common dimensions, single plate heights, multiple floors sharing smaller footprints and roof areas.

There is no distinctiveness in shallow illusion.  Rather, allusion helps, particularly if it promotes regional distinctness.  And – distinctiveness resonates;  therefore, it sells.

Finally, there is a difference between inspiration and old-fashioned;  plans need to live for today, but harken to the past.

That elegance and allusion is still there, if we take the time to look for it;  it is still there, if we make the effort to create it.

 

Architectural Treasures of Early America Series is a ten-volume series (The National Historical Society, 1987) from material originally published in 1930 as The White Pine Series of Architectural Monographs.

American Vernacular (J. Kemp, Viking Penguin, 1987)

A Field Guide to American Architecture (C. Rifkind, Bonanza, 1980)

The Houses of St. Augustine (D. Nolan, Pineapple Press, 1995)

The American Builders Companion (A. Benjamin, Dover, 1827 orig., 1969)

Legacy from the Past (Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, 1971)

Charleston: Homes and Gardens (E. Davis, J. Iseley, Legacy, PSOC, 1975)

Historic Savannah (M. Bell, J. Iseley, Historic Savannah Foundation, 1982)

Plantations of the Low Country (Wm. Baldwin, A. Baldwin, J. Iseley, Legacy, 1985)

Caribbean Style (S. Slesin, S. Cliff, et al, Clarkson Potter, 1985)

Classic Cracker: Florida’s Wood-Frame Vernacular Architecture (R. Haase, Pineapple Press, 1992)