This old neighborhood

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The Cherrys in front of their half-done “modernist” house in Raleigh.

A modest modernist house a Raleigh, N.C., historic district has all of Christendom up in arms. Paul Goldberger has ridden to the defense of the couple, the Cherrys (he’s an architect), who are building the house, arguing that the city’s historic development commission should  not rescind its prior approval of the building. Here is Goldberger’s critique in Vanity Fair.

He is correct that the board’s action ought to stand. His mistake is to assume that it’s a matter of style and history, that the neighbors deserve his rebuke for trying to freeze-frame the neighborhood in time rather than allowing its stylistic variety to continue to reflect the march of history.

But the neighbors are not striving to halt history. They are not upset because the building flouts the neighborhood’s historic character. That is merely the only language they know how to speak in public on the subject. In fact, they dislike it because it lacks the aesthetic credentials to occupy their historic district, which features a variety of old styles. That is – to put it in language they are not supposed to use – the house is ugly.

Goldberger realizes this, I think, but couches the situation in terms of historical evolution because that is firmer ground for him. The house bends over backward to fit in. It does not shout its modernism from its rooftop. It is “not a Daniel Libeskind-style shard on Euclid Street,” Goldberger says, but “an example of modern architecture trying hard, very hard, to be on its best manners – in essence, to be a good neighbor.”

The problem is that even mannerly modernism cannot really fit in. Modernism refuses on principle to fit in. Its attributes are in natural contradiction to attributes of houses that normally occupy historic districts – and, in my opinion, in natural opposition to houses that most people would consider beautiful. Houses of many different traditional and vernacular styles can fit pleasingly together because they all are descendants of classical architecture – even though they may not literally feature the classical orders.

The neighbors are right to consider the Cherry house too ugly for the neighborhood. What the Cherrys have designed is not a modernist house but a house that has compromised its modernist credentials in order to fit in. The result is not modernist but rather a very poorly done traditional house that does not qualify to be in the neighborhood.

Why did the Cherrys bother? If they wanted to build a modernist house, why not pick a more contemporary neighborhood? To try to suss out their intentions, it seems that they probably wanted to fit in, but with an “edge,” yet could not figure out how to do so without betraying their own aesthetic convictions. Rather than sell their lot and buy one to build in their real taste elsewhere, they decided to brazen it out. That is not good manners and it is no surprise that the neighbors are cranky and see right through them.

But the neighbors are not blameless. Anytime a new house is proposed in a historic district, it is up to the neighbors to make sure that the official bodies charged with maintaining the historical character of the neighborhood do their job. The neighbors rose to the occasion here only after the fact. The board erred in approving the building, but that is probably because it did not realize the neighbors would be so offended by it.

After all, to the members of the board it must have seemed like merely a traditional house of poor design. Why invite the hassle of blocking it? And if they are anything like architectural review board members in Providence, they probably have their own difficulty balancing their personal taste with their civic responsibility. The members of the board in Raleigh probably think more like Goldberger than like the residents of the neighborhood they are charged with protecting.

A pox on all their houses!

 

About David Brussat

For a living, I edit the writing of some of the nation's leading architects, urbanists and design theorists. This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. My freelance writing and editing on that topic and others addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a fellow of the Royal Society of the Arts, and a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to invest your prose with even more style and clarity, please email me at my consultancy, dbrussat@gmail.com, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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6 Responses to This old neighborhood

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  2. Steve Mouzon says:

    Interesting, David… I blogged recently on a different side of the issue, spurred by this post by another blogger:
    http://blog.historian4hire.net/2013/12/23/brown-is-the-new-green/
    He attacks Clay Chapman’s beautiful load-bearing brick house designed to last for centuries because it doesn’t fit in a neighborhood of houses built after the beginning of the Great Decline and therefore unlikely to last even one more century. I had this to say in response, attempting to lay out the principles that should underlie the decision of whether or not to tear down an old house:
    http://originalgreen.org/blog/when-is-a-tear-down-a-more.html
    I’d be delighted to hear your thoughts on this tangle of issues… and how you feel they might or might not relate to the Raleigh house.

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    • Steve, I’d like to see a rendering of the house in question. It looks big but not unduly larger than some other houses in the neighborhood. The video showed a stretch of nice but unremarkable houses, then the Chapman house, then a stretch of architecturally more interesting houses. Both the before and the after stretch had houses heading toward being as large as the Chapman house. Are both stretches on the same street? Without the rendering I’d have to say that the Chapman house bears some of the same stigmata as the house in Raleigh that is not elegant enough to be in that historic district. But, again, while the Raleigh house apparently is as elegant as it is going to get, maybe that’s not so about the Chapman house. I’m sure you agree with me – indeed, you are an “original” instigator of the idea – that for a building to be sustainable it has to be loved. It may be that the Chapman house will, even if (or because!) it is bigger, be the key to taking the district to a new level – especially if the original houses of the neighborhood are on their last legs and will be replaced anyway. But, as I say, I’d need a better idea of the finished product before making any final judgments. (By the way, the Chapman house at the top of the anti-Chapman blog post is excellent, and seeing it makes me hesitate to judge the one at issue yet.)
      David

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      • Steve Mouzon says:

        Thanks, David… great to hear your views on the issue. From what I’ve seen of Clay’s work, I have no doubt about either its lovability or durability. And I share the hope that the house might be key to positive change in the neighborhood. Every neighborhood changes… the only question is whether it will be good change or bad change.

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  3. A neighborhood without a historic district overlay in the city’s zoning – a neighborhood where you can build whatever you want once you own the land. There are many of these, and often a couple with modernist tastes do not want to build there because it lacks the frisson of insulting the neighbors. In my piece I am giving the intentions of the Cherrys a nice interpretation.

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  4. Tim Busse says:

    I can’t think of an example of “a more contemporary neighborhood”…what do you mean?

    Like

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