Traditional or modernist?

Addition to a cottage in Brittany, France. (NeM Architectes, Paris)

Addition to a cottage in Brittany, France, rear view. (Photo: NeM Architectes, Paris)

A reader has sent me an article called “Before and After: A Charred Wood Cottage on a $45k budget,” by Michelle Slatalla, from Issue 42 of the online journal Dark Shadows. My correspondent, who enjoys claiming that my usual modernist targets are not examples of modern architecture, assures me that the featured architecture is “real traditional work.”

The gabled guest house of blackened wood added to a small white cottage in Brittany seems instead to partake of a contemporary sensibility, given the clearly intended contrast. While a gable certainly counts as a typically traditional element, the stark white interior fits awkwardly inside the charred black exterior, which itself sits awkwardly next to the stark white house. They do not contrast, really; they clash. This is in no sense “bad trad,” or “lean” classicism or even “heterodoxia,” as some might suggest. It is modern architecture. The giveaways to the intention of the architects, NeM Architectes, of Paris, are the floor-to-ceiling sliding glass doors off the bedroom, the vertical slit window cut into a single board of the blackened siding, the platform “roof” of the entry to the connecting passageway, and the white pebbles of the cottage’s garden

Aside from the gable, the supposedly “traditional” element is the exterior wood, which uses an old Japanese wood-burning technique to achieve its darkness – dear to the theme of Dark Shadows. But since a Japanese technique is not widely associated with coastal France, the regionalism presumably implicit in “real traditional work” is lacking.

The line near the beginning of the piece, that the architects wanted to “add a bedroom without sacrificing any of the quaint atmosphere,” is sufficiently contrary to the obvious intention as to be hilarious. Maybe the architects, their client and the writer of the article are so marinaded in Gehry swirly whirly or Zaha zig-zag that something as modest as this little structure, which is not entirely despicable, actually seems traditional to them.

I imagine that my correspondent intended to shock me with his predictable absurdist definition of the word traditional, so conventional in the modernist lingo. He continues to imagine that I will find his missives of this sort startling, but I am hard to shock in that way. I’ve seen it all. Still, it is very entertaining.

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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One Response to Traditional or modernist?

  1. This wooden shed is not traditional, because it violates all the latent connections. Only someone who buys into the violence of modernism would fail to notice this most obvious quality of the design. Readers are urged to apply Christopher Alexander’s “15 Fundamental Properties” to judge for themselves — the shed fails all of them.

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