Copy the past

A house from the Sears & Roebuck catalogue.

A house from the Sears & Roebuck catalogue.

An article shedding light on the idea of copying the past has been published in The Washington Post. “Recognizing a revival in pattern books,” by Kirstin Downey, treats the construction of houses from pattern books with examples of really nice houses designed many years ago as a really good thing.

And it is!

“Copying the past” is modern architecture’s most predictable stock rejoinder to the idea that good houses can be built by using the accumulated intelligence of previous architects and house builders. The alternative is to either guess at what the future will look like and try to copy that, which is what most modernist house designers do. For that reason, there are not very many successful practitioners in that field. Most people do not want to go out on that limb, which could put them in bad odor in their neighborhood. And there is no reason they should.

The Post article describes house developments using pattern books not by Andrew Jackson Downing of a century and a half ago but put together by local architects and municipal planning departments to foster regional aspects of house design that got lost over the past half century of homebuilding. People are seeking to redesign their mid-century houses in more authentic period styles. (There’s a phrase that will cause shuddering spines among the modernist set!) But Downey, the Post writer, also finds the practice flourishing on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, where I used to spend vacations as a kid. She also speaks of building along the Gulf Coast in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

Toward the end of her piece, Downey seems to have felt obliged to quote from an “expert” from the American Institute of Architects, who looked down his nose at a practice that lets average people without the funds to hire an architect have nice houses. His response is predictable. He even pulls out the old “Disneyfication” chestnut. Talk about copying the past!


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,, 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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