Building buildings we love

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By Garret Eakin


An article recently published in Traditional Building is challenging and worthy of consideration. Author Alvin Holm argues, "The reason we see so little ornament in buildings of our modern culture is that we do not love them." 

Now that may sound like a blanket statement — but there is some truth in it. Modern architecture has never been completely embraced by the public. Of course, residential architecture is probably the bellwether that confirms the popularity of traditional styles. I would speculate that we have 90% traditional versus 10% modern. Long-established conventional homes win hands down. Why is this? Could it be, as Holm reasons, that decoration adds meaning and comfort, elevating the structure to a more humanistic quality?

Ludwig Mies van der Rohe's Farnsworth House (1951) is the extreme minimalist structure boiled down to its most essential parts — a house void of ornament. The structure is composed of steel and glass with stone floors. The edifice has a flat roof and is considered a building that could be located anywhere. It is universal. Is this an abnormality? It is possibly the most elegant residence of the modern era. 

Wright's Heurtley House (1902) celebrates the craft of architecture full of ornamental detail. The stunning composition is organic, designed to relate directly to the context. The low hip roof with deep overhangs is supported by Roman brick with a rhythmic corbel pattern. Its character is created by the way its design exploits the ever-changing rotation of the sun. The structure is a celebration of decorative details, i.e. stained glass patterns, ceiling decorations, fabric portieres, classical urns and custom art-glass light fixtures. 

Both homes are loved — Mies without adornment and Wright with a riot of ornament. What they have in common is respect for both the sites and the neighbors. Farnsworth House contrasts the riverside site by elevating the skeletal frame on pylons and painting it white as though it had just landed and remains in hovering mode. Stunning, refined and elegant without extras, the idea was to express "dwelling" in its simplest essence. This daring home challenges the need for privacy by employing clear glass as the enclosing skin. 

On the other hand, Wright deftly handles privacy by hiding the Heurtley House entrance, raising the living areas to the second floor and employing densely patterned art glass windows to deflect prying eyes. The variegated brickwork supported by a concrete water table dramatizes the long low structure and is contrasted by bands of art-glass window, protected by deep, overhanging hip roof. 

A powerful tapered brick arch marks the entrance, which becomes the counterpoint to the orthogonal elevation. 

Wright shows his hand thought the details by celebrating the skill of the builders and craftsmen. 

The master architect is delighted to embellish the dwelling and its contents. 

Soon we will have some choices to consider in a major new residential project in Oak Park at Harlem Avenue and South Boulevard. This is a rare opportunity to see a new building that could become architecture on this prime site, paralleling the Green Line. It appears that there are four teams with two camps of developers teamed with architects that are stylistically at odds. One developer, Urban R2, is working with Helmut Jahn. Trained by Mies, Jahn is proposing a very figurative composition built of steel and glass. The chiseled, pure form contains a striking diagonal pattern of inset balconies. The minimalist form has no reference to human scale, Wright's work or any contextual interests. This is no-nonsense geometric order. Jahn has completed two similar-scale housing projects in the city: student housing for the campus at IIT and the low-income housing on an old Cabrini Green site at North & Clyburn. 

On the other side of the fence, we have Morningside Development with HMK Architects and Planners proposing a traditional Tudor brick-and-stone complex, complete with half-timbers and gable roofs. It is designed to look as if it has been in place for 100 years. The proposal is dripping with traditional details: brick and stone, iron rails, gable roofs, flower pots, towers, punched windows, etc. — all the elements of which Oak Park is composed. 

So it fits well into the context and respects the texture of the village. Yet it projects a false sense of history. What would the masters think about these proposals? What we do know is humility is rare in our profession. 

Is there a chance that one of these designs could be loved? Maybe a little decoration is not such a bad idea. Stay tuned. 

Garret Eakin is a practicing architect, a Historic Preservation commissioner and an adjunct professor at the School of the Art Institute. 

Reader Comments

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Susan Chamberland from New Haven  

Posted: May 20th, 2014 2:54 PM

Can you say value engineering? I believe we have buildings with little ornamentation not because we don't like them but because we can't afford them. A plain black box is not as elegant as a simple black dress.

Uncommon Sense  

Posted: April 11th, 2014 4:14 PM

I love well done modern architecture, but the problem with most of it is that it generally does not age well. Traditional architecture seems to get better with time whereas architects often use "modern" as a euphemism to cover for cheaply constructed buildings. Nothing is worse than to see a street with grand older building marred by the ubiquitous Chicago 4 plus 1.

jim from South Oak Park  

Posted: April 11th, 2014 3:59 PM

Good discussion. Wright said form and function are synonymous. So what is this development's function? One is that it sell to buyers. Why do people buy in OP? Realtors are experts, but from a South OP perspective, I see "comfort" architecture (akin to "comfort" food) as one attraction. A house and neighborhood that feel stable, familiar and comfortable. That character, I think, defines OP and makes it popular for young families. In that scenario, traditional is the only way to go.

Rob Breymaier from Oak Park, Illinois  

Posted: April 11th, 2014 1:36 PM

Good article. My only request would be for more of it. I enjoy traditional, modern, and postmodern architecture. But, in the case of South and Harlem, my personal preference would be for traditional. Retail needs to feel quaint and inviting, not cold and efficient.

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