Beyond Nostalgia: What Modernists Can Learn from Traditional Architecture

Modern Traditional architecture brings holistic solutions to some of today’s most important design problems.

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Combining traditional massing motifs with contemporary fenestration elements is a hallmark of the Modern Traditional style.

The use of traditional techniques in contemporary architecture has a fraught reputation. Ever since Modernism took hold in the early-twentieth century, architects have split between the avant-garde and those accused of being stuck in the past. To design with traditional methods, they say, is to frivolously embrace historical imitation and to produce an architecture that’s inauthentic.

In some ways this schism has always been disingenuous. Far from turning their backs on the techniques and aesthetics of traditional design, Modernists from Frank Lloyd Wright to A.M. Stern have continued to incorporate architectural precedents into projects for spatial, sustainable, and psychological benefits.

 

 

Today we see this fusion in the resurgence of the Modern Traditional style; otherwise known as Modern Vernacular, Contemporary Traditional or Neo-vernacular. What unites these varying terms is a balanced appreciation of the possibilities afforded by both Modernism and traditional forms of building. This hybrid can take the best of both worlds, from Modernism’s stylish simplicity to the contextual sensitivity of timber construction, a pitched roof, or natural ventilation.

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More than a decorative embellishment to otherwise modern structures, traditional references in residential architecture can provide vital spatial qualities to a project. At the Modern Hill Country Farm House, a project by DTJ Design in Lake Travis Texas, for example, fenestration provides both traditional style and contemporary substance. “The shed dormers and high windows are super authentic to the style,” explains associate architect Lee Payne, “and then you go into the space and you realize they mean something to the space as well. They reinforce the style on the outside and they’re actually meaningful daylight drivers inside the spaces as well.” In the rural setting of Lake Travis, the windows pay homage to local history and firmly position the project in the community where it is built.

 

Buildings that meet the Passive House Institute standard use heat from the sun and strategic shading alongside efficient window glazing to maintain steady internal temperatures without conventional, costly heating systems.

There are also clear environmental advantages to the Modern Traditional style. Natural ventilation, the use of local materials, and appropriate solar orientation are all central features of traditional architecture. These strategies are in keeping with the recommendations of the Passive House Institute, which offers the highest building standard for low-energy construction in the world. Buildings that meet the standard use heat from the sun and strategic shading alongside efficient window glazing to maintain steady internal temperatures without conventional, costly heating systems.

One such project, the Stevenson School faculty housing by Turnbull Griffin Haesloop architects in Pebble Beach, California, demonstrates how the Modern Traditional style is suited to the highest environmental standards. Overhanging eaves and triple-glazed bay windows provide a stylistic nod to the traditional home, as well as energy-saving strategies, alongside more sophisticated systems such as heat recovery ventilation units.

Modern Traditional architecture is also being celebrated for its health benefits. By paying close attention to local context and vernacular methods architects are producing buildings and environments that are neatly entwined with their natural surroundings. As reported by the World Health Organization, the incorporation of natural light and fresh air into buildings has vital health benefits.

 

“We leaned on the idea of farmhouses in the Boulder Country area, as well as lavender that’s been farmed in the area,” says Lee Payne, of DTJ Design. Rendering courtesy of DTJ Design.

Lavender Farms, an assisted living project under-construction by DTJ in Louisville, Colorado, also puts these notions into practice by taking vernacular architecture and local farming as its primary references. “We leaned on the idea of farmhouses in the Boulder Country area, as well as lavender that’s been farmed in the area,” says Payne. “We used the lavender as a landscape concept both for its therapeutic nature and for the beauty of the plant.”

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Beyond academic splits between Modernists and traditionalists, examples such as these demonstrate the benefits and potential of the hybrid style in the twenty-first century.

Not just a site of nostalgia or ornamentation, Modern Traditional architecture brings a variety of holistic solutions to some of today’s most pressing design problems. As Clare Nash, author of Contemporary Vernacular Design, argues, “Contemporary architecture can learn from vernacular principles without resorting to pastiche, creating high-quality buildings that ‘fit’ in the same way that vernacular architecture does but reflecting a very different time.”


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