Tuesday, May 7, 2019

New Houses in Historic Neighborhoods

What is it about historic or traditional neighborhoods that makes us want to live in them?  Is it their walk-ability or the scale and look of its buildings?...the materials used or their architectural detail? Is it the way they make us feel when we walk or drive around them, enjoying the way the landscape and the buildings intermingle with each other? Might it be a combination of all these factors?  Walk-ability, scale, durable materials, detail, good proportion, beauty, these are all terms that help to define the character that we want to preserve whenever we declare a neighborhood “historic”. 
traditional house in Bayside
In the USA, the Secretary of the Interior has issued Standards and Guidelines for the Restoration, Rehabilitation and Preservation of Historic Properties. For this blog post we will only look at the Standards for Rehabilitation. Rehabilitation is defined as: "the process of returning a property to a state of utility, through repair or alteration, which makes possible an efficient contemporary use while preserving those portions and features of the property which are significant to its historic, architectural, and cultural values." There are 10 standards for Rehabilitation, standard no. 3 states:  Each property shall be recognized as a physical record of its time, place, and use. Changes that create a false sense of historical development, such as adding conjectural features or architectural elements from other buildings, shall not be undertaken. Standard no. 9 states: New additions, exterior alterations, or related new construction shall not destroy historic materials that characterize the property. The new work shall be differentiated from the old and shall be compatible with the massing, size, scale, and architectural features to protect the historic integrity of the property and its environment. 
traditional house in Bayside
In my own neighborhood of Bayside, New York, we have seen several new houses built that follow those guidelines. Unfortunately their designs have, in fact, changed the character of the neighborhood.

new house in Bayside
new house in Bayside
The issue, as we see it, is that the meaning and nature of a “compatible” design is so wide that, in the hands of less skillful designers, it can lead to chaos and ugliness which in turn, can destroy the character of a beautiful neighborhood. In our contemporary culture, the word “beautiful” has been banned from the academic and professional lexicon for being perceived as a question of personal taste. 
traditional house in Bayside
There was a time, in the not too distant past, when entire neighborhoods were designed with houses coming straight out of architectural pattern books that proposed certain styles such as: Colonial, Federal, Palladian, Victorian, Dutch Colonial, and others.  They all had a number of architectural features that made them visually interesting such as correctly proportioned columns, projecting bays, oriels, deep eaves, brackets, stained glass and Palladian windows. These features were scaled in relation to each other and to the building. They all used a common language of architecture based on classical or traditional architecture and as such established a civic “architectural conversation” among all the buildings in the neighborhood.
traditional house in Bayside
That commonality of architectural intention, of a civic architectural language, is absent today.  Architects instead resort to a narcissistic architectural expression that either panders to their own or their client’s desire for uniqueness over the urbanistic common good or is the result of a lack of architectural design knowledge.  The new designs have a limited palette of architectural features and/or a hodge-podge of un-coordinated or repetitive elements which are not scaled in relation to each other or the building. These designs “look” traditional, but are far removed from a living tradition.
new house in Bayside with repetitive elements 

new house in Bayside with uncoordinated and badly proportioned elements
There are some who will state, as an excuse to continue building these unfortunate designs, that our contemporary needs cannot be accommodated using traditional architecture; that we have to use designs that are “of our time”.  We state that we need to have the humility to imitate the good designs from the past and learn from the ones that we have directly under our nose. We propose the following designs to illustrate this idea. The first one is a hypothetical design for a new house. The second one is a re-design of my house in Bayside.
new house design
new house design first floor
author's house in Bayside

Unless designs for new houses in historic or traditional neighborhoods start fitting into, instead of contrasting with the existing architecture, our neighborhoods will deteriorate and lose their value.


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