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.
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.