More on New Houses

With preservationists I know, myself included, there is often a fair amount of snickering when new buildings and developments are concerned. Either they are insensitive to the surroundings, the massing is completely overstated, it’s one of those new giant McMansion cookie cutter homes, it’s in a poorly chosen location, or it replaced a farm or existing structures. I’ve heard people laugh at new construction that mimics historic architecture. Oh it’s trying too hard or oh, isn’t that cute, it kind of looks like saltbox houses. You get my point. There is always something. So what’s the answer? We can’t stop building. (Remember preservation is NOT anti-development; rather smart, complementary development. Development is not necessarily meant in the structural sense either.) Unfortunately, it is impossible, even with all of the rehabilitation of existing historic structures, to house the ever expanding population. The 21st century population does not fit in the 20th century built environment in terms of numbers. Thus, new construction and development is inevitable.

I bring up these points to address a, perhaps indistinguishable, fine line – the gray area of new construction looking new and original or mimicking historic architecture. Do we as preservationists and architectural historians scoff at new “planned” communities or suburban developments as a knee-jerk reaction because we automatically think that it is unnecessary? Let’s say development is needed: when should it blend into the existing built environment and when should (or can) it be different? Do you see what I mean? I’ve been thinking that new developments are what irk preservationists the most, whether thoughtless, ill planned cookie cutter plats or “thoughtful” new urbanism type developments. What we prefer is clever infill or sympathetic and complementary “additions” to existing towns and cities.  Smart Growth factors come into play here: mixed use, compact design, existing communities. When infill and extensions are concerned, it seems that sympathetic architectural designs fit well. But, when these same “colonial” houses are blown out of proportion and placed on flat, treeless lots is when we snicker.

For me, there is an internal debate of wanting to like the carefully, thoughtfully designed new housing developments because they look like more than boxes vs. despising any kind of giant housing that claims to promote neighborhoods when really it’s just a bunch of housing with some park space. Am I the only one? Come on preservationists, have you seen a development that you almost wanted to like but your preservation ethics prevent you from doing so? I should add the disclaimer that 99% of the time I tend to glare at housing developments stuck in the middle of nowhere – you know, those with names based on the farm they replaced.

Considering design and to prevent snickering, maybe clearly distinguishing the historic from the non historic would be a better idea? Look at the architecture in the mid 20th century. It is a new kind of animal, a step in the opposite direction of Queen Anne, Romanesque, Italianate and similar styles. But then homeowners seemed to switch back to wanting more traditional looking elements in their houses, hence the everlasting “style” of Colonial Revival. (Which, for the record is inaccurate – not every type of house is Colonial Revival!) How do we accurately describe the styles of 21st century buildings? The wonderful book, A Field Guide to American Houses by Virginia and Lee McAlester pays less attention to the architecture styles of the late 20th century. Are we not far enough removed to describe recent structures? Will everything always be traced back to Georgian, Italianate, Greek, Post Colonial, Queen Anne, Spanish Colonial, Prairie, etc.? I am curious to learn about modern (as in the last couple decades) architecture and how it will later mesh will preservationists. Any thoughts?