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Can Architecture be both Modern and Traditional at the Same Time?


Can Architecture be both Modern and Traditional at the Same Time? An Architect Suggests What to Look for.


Architects are always challenged to design homes that are classic but modern. The holy grail of architecture is to be timeless but still edgy. Most homeowners gravitate to traditional designs because it looks familiar and rooted in history. Too often Architects attempts at modern designs turn out to be a punctuation of an era. I can drive around and look at contemporary and traditional homes and pretty well pinpoint when they were conceived according to their window styles, trim, and often roof pitches. Generally, a modern design is minimalist and simple without a lot of embellishment.


Historically, modern clean design was envisioned as a way to provide inexpensive mass housing and cheap consumer goods. The post WWII era produced millions of compact homes with little character but were affordable and easy to hide with proper landscape. As Frank Lloyd Wright said, “A doctor can bury his mistakes, and architect can only advise his clients to plant ivy”.


Today, if you want a contemporary designed home, you have to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to get that special look. That’s not the way it should be.

One of the most revealing characteristics of a home is the roof pitch. A gabled roof connects with history while it still can have a modern image. Architects love to harken back to early American images of barns, colonial saltbox homes, and mountain cabins. But there’s more to that design character than steep roof pitches.


What makes a contemporary design?

To be contemporary, look for simple clean shapes and surfaces. Generally, there will be little enhancement or fussy detail. Look for minimal or no overhangs, low ornamentation and simplistic trim. The materials should showcase the structure while feeling comfortable. While there should be the most common type of building materials such as brick, wood, or stucco, it should be clean and “simple”.


What makes a traditional design? Generally traditional designs reflect a specific architectural style such as Spanish Colonial, Victorian or Southern Plantation. The design would allow the details to speak for the era, and the shapes of the roof and structure should showcase a historical period that the architect is trying to emulate. That’s a fancy way to say the details should only enhance, not hinder the design.


Can a traditional home articulate contemporary design?

One way to easily create a sense of contemporary in a traditional design is with the roof materials and the windows. A home design attempting to be a traditional interpretation of, say Spanish colonial could still have a standing seam metal roof, thin dark frame double glazed windows and simple trim details that still convey the image without being overtly Spanish colonial. A classic architectural statement is “less is more” meaning clean & simple is often better, “more is less” means extravagance can be over the top.


Capturing both traditional and classic design elements with contemporary passion, is always the challenge for architects. Being timeless is the tough part.

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