Dickinson vs. Dickinson

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House by New Haven architect Duo Dickinson, featured on his website. (www.duodickinson.com)

Duo Dickinson is an architect in New Haven whose work, primarily private houses, is creative yet overwhelmingly traditional in appearance. I like his architecture very much. His firm’s portfolio and productivity are impressive. However, when writing and speaking about architecture he seems to diss his own work by asserting that all design inspired by tradition misappropriates history. His career seems to embody an inexplicable personality split.

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New theater in Doylestown, Pa.. (Ranalli)

He and I have gone back and forth on this in the comments section of my recent blog post, “Eyed by Ranalli’s theater.” He approves of New York architect George Ranalli’s two projects seeking a “third way” between modern and traditional architecture, and so do I, though I think it makes more sense to revive the traditions interrupted in the 20th century. I applaud Ranalli for departing from his modernism, however rarely he has traveled his third way. Dickinson’s belief that he also seeks a third way is mistaken. Why he insists on that I do not know.

In Dickinson’s first comment on my post, he urged me to visit his website. I did, and at its top was a lovely, rambling, asymmetrical traditional house (see above) that he described as “Too Mod for Trad; Too Trad for Mod.” I wrote back saying the house was in fact too trad for mod but not too mod for trad, and indeed not mod at all.

He replied that I was supposed to look at his whole website, not just at that one house. So I did look at his whole website, and with very few exceptions I found that it was all very creative and yet highly traditional, not bending in the least toward modernism, or at all seeming to advocate a third way. Duo urged me and other readers to watch a video he linked to of a recent lecture he gave to the New Haven Preservation Trust entitled “Lost New Haven: Traveling Through Time.”

I watched it last night. It is 45 minutes, and is very engaging, but to me it was confusing. Dickinson’s eloquence enables him to express confusion in terms that seem, in passing, to be logical and straightforward.

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Yale Art & Architecture Building.

I am not going to address his lecture point by point. But he begins by asserting that history is not a style – an assertion nobody has ever made, and whose meaning, now that he has made it, seems obscure. He admires buildings from New Haven’s past, but scorns buildings erected recently that have been inspired by tradition, yet admires modernist buildings that scorn tradition. He describes the Brutalist Yale Art & Architecture building, by Paul Rudolph, as “incredibly beautiful.” Huh? Just look at it.

To me, this is baffling. He opposes the proposal to rebuild Penn Station as it was originally designed by Charles Follen McKim in 1910. He casts aspersions on Yale’s beautiful new Collegiate Gothic residential colleges by Robert A.M. Stern. Again, Dickinson’s work is traditional, but most of his thinking favors modernism, though occasionally he sniggers at it. Go figure.

Dickinson says he does not care about style, but whether he does or does not care, he cannot escape having a style. His style is traditional. The fact that much of it is also very creative does not mean it is any less traditional. Traditional and classical architecture have featured the widest range of creativity for thousands of years. By the same token, modern architecture can be entirely lacking in creativity; anyhow, modernists like to think that rejecting the past is by definition creative. It is not.

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Project proposed by Mies van der Rohe.

Dickinson looks back wistfully at projects in New Haven by modernist founder Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (“Elysian fields of universal buildings in space”) and postmodernist Charles Moore (“intricate and perspectival that actually deals with words from the Renaissance”). Even he admits these were failures. But of the years of thinking and planning that went into them, he gushes: “It was that level of heroism, that level of ‘we can make things better’.” Not likely. The very names of modernist styles – Brutalism, Blobism, Deconstructivism, for example – seem to affirm their disruptive nature.

Dickinson’s lecture was accompanied by slides, and even though I was not there, I can assure readers that a groan rolled through the audience whenever he showed one of New Haven’s lost historical buildings. And a groan laced with laughter rumbled whenever he showed the modernist building that replaced it. You can hear some of it on the video. Over three decades I’ve been to countless slide lectures featuring the old and the new (and even given a few myself). This happens at all of them.

Such reactions reflect a ubiquitous sensibility that most of the profession, including Duo Dickinson, refuses to acknowledge: the past was dominated by beautiful architecture, which is being replaced all too swiftly by modern architecture, almost all of it ugly. The replacement of the old by the new is inevitable – “make, kill, make, kill, make, kill,” as Dickinson puts it. But the ugliness he seems so willing to accept (occasionally with some regret) is not inevitable at all. Beauty is not necessarily a thing that has been lost to the past; it seems so only because the ideology of modernism is so well and so widely publicized by know-it-alls like Duo.

There has always existed a broad, intuitive respect for conventional beauty; all people feel it at some level. No amount of fancy rhetoric – and Duo Dickinson can serve up the fanciest – can evade this truth. It is a universal fact of history, however eloquently it is denied. Because indeed history is not a style. It is the story of style. All architects should be listening and learning.

Most, alas, are not. Dickinson listens and learns when he builds but when he speaks, his wisdom goes in one ear and out the other.

Will the real Duo Dickinson please stand up!

About David Brussat

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. History Press asked me to write and in August 2017 published my first book, "Lost Providence." I am now writing my second book. My freelance writing on architecture and other topics addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am 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 employ my writing and editing to improve your work, 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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32 Responses to Dickinson vs. Dickinson

  1. Pingback: Duo vs. the “style wars” | Architecture Here and There

  2. mggrew says:

    Hats off to anyone who “fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture”. To me, this harkens back to Alonso Quixano. I have never understood the point of fighting a style war in architecture. Architecture has always responded to sociology, politics, economics, limitations or improvements in technology, and morals or values of its time. Architects have reflected their time, and in more recent eras, try to get back to those benchmarks of history or rebel against the past.

    Classical/historical/traditional versus modern? Pointless I have seen examples of bad old architecture, horrible modern architecture, and failed attempts to blend both. However, I have also witnessed wonderful expressions of all three. I will never forget sitting before disapproving panelists because I did not share their appreciation of classical ecclesiastical architecture because all it reminds me of are the church’s oppression, the Inquisition, the pillaging of what little resources their parishioners had, and the imposition of the fear of Hell, draped like a wolf in sheep’s clothing with beautiful upward gazing volumes and elements. This only demonstrates that it is important to understand why a particular style of architecture comes of age. Sometimes the appreciation of that architecture is not so much in its “beauty” or aesthetics but what events it is reflecting or responding to. That can also give it either beauty or ugliness.

    When I see Duo Dickinson’s architecture I usually love it. It is clear he has an appreciation for historical or traditional styles, but he also likes playing with them. He takes the rules and then bends, stretches, or upends them while keeping you grounded and comfortable with familiar elements. Could this be called modern? I think so because he is responding to his present client’s program, his present aesthetic sensibility, and is obviously not being constrained to merely mimic the past. Could another call it traditional? Possibly, because of the familiar references to earlier times. I would never call it “overwhelmingly traditional”. Frankly, it is my opinion that Mr. Brussat just doesn’t “get” Duo. We all have “a split personality” if we have an appreciation for what came before us, have hope for the future, and blend those outlooks in the present.


    • Well, Mggrew, you and Duo are free to describe his architecture any way you want, and I am free to criticize your characterizations. That architecture arises from many factors does not add to the conversation. Everything arises from many factors. I argue that modern architecture produces far less beauty, in a manner far less accessible to people, then traditional architecture. You ideas off what beauty is falls short of the rational. Under those terms, you could call anything beautiful.

      You can call Duo’s architecture modern or anything else you want, Mggrew. You listed that he “bends, stretches, or upends [traditional rules] while keeping you grounded and comfortable with familiar elements. Could this be called modern?” No, because he does not break them, at least not according to you. There is a huge difference between the typical traditional and the typical modernist styles, and if you to no recognize this (as you seem not to), then you are misunderstanding architecture. I do misunderstand Duo, not because I misunderstand his architecture, which I correctly perceive as overwhelmingly traditional (with all tradition’s respect for creativity). It is his sympathy with modernism that rejects Duo’s traditional approach that I do not understand. He cannot be as smart as he obviously is and still consider his architecture modernist, or that modern architecture is anything other than an attack on his work and his sensibilities as evidenced by his work. Or it could be, like certain trads here in Providence, that he wants, after making a career of tradition successfully in the face of his profession, to be perceived as a modernist by his colleagues because that’s where the supposed honor is. If so, that is regrettable.


      • It may be difficult to understand because you care so much, but one last time: I serve my clients by serving what insights that God has given me, I care what they think. I like it when people like what I do, but I do not do it for those who are not my clients.

        You have two, and only two, ways to think about your legacy in architecture (and it can be episodic, per project) You either design for your clients, or you design for other architects. I have never (ever) designed anything for what any other architect (nor magazine, or dean, or critic) might think of it: So, literally I do not care how anyone categorizes me – I just know that you do not know that literally hundreds of others, in competitions, on editorial boards, professors considering me for their lecture series/reviews/teaching, and any number of potential clients have thoughtfully, carefully and decisively REJECTED my work for one simple reality, expressed in two usually complimentary, reciprocal verdicts: I have been fully rejected by many as “Too Traditional” AND by others as “Too Modern” – meaning these distinctions are rationalizations, not imperial facts, no matter how much you wish those labels have meaning beyond your own personal, valid, perceptions:

        If this week has given you any window to a far more human reality of creating things based on the designer’s humanity, not labels, then some good has come of it, if not, then that is too bad.


        • That all makes plenty of sense, Duo, but it does not contradict my need to call you out on your thoughtful sympathy with modernism, or state how I think it contradicts your built work, or that I think that your built work is primarily traditional and not modernist at all except maybe for a couple of exceptions I’ve seen, and even there it is arguable. Your perception of reality is not mine, but your rejection of categorization goes against millennia of received truth. Maybe that received truth is wrong, and you may certainly embrace a rejection of it in the case of architecture. This is how discourse travels, and I like to think you enjoy it as much as I do. So although I think you should do a 180 in your lecture and writing on modernism, I don’t expect that, and nor should you expect me to stop calling you out on it. I only call you out because of my high respect for your work and your intellect – much as I disagree with the ideas expressed in the latter.


  3. A client sent this to me, after 15 years of working together, and reading this blog: “I recall asking you, when I first met you, whether your work was in the Michael Graves category, to which you immediately rejected any and all categories! I quickly learned the perils of categorization! I meant, by my my question, that your work strikes me as very modern, but within classical traditions and client friendly concerns for practicality. Maybe a different way to make the same point is that your work is entirely original, creative, quirky and fun, but beautiful and practical at the same time. Living in our home is a constant source of pleasure! “


    • Thank you for sending your client’s note, Duo. He writes that his home is “entirely original, creative, quirky and fun, but beautiful and practical at the same time,” which is in sync with traditional work, which can be all of that and more. Very little of your work even hints at the modern, which is why I like it so much. I would find it hard to categorize under any less broad a term than traditional, but it certainly is not modernist. “Very modern but within the classical tradition” is entirely contradictory and makes no sense. Some very rare modernism bends toward traditional but then almost becomes traditional. There can be no style that is very modern but almost traditional, let alone classical. Anyone who looks as your portfolio will immediately classify (or characterize it, if you prefer) it as traditional, with an edge (or however you want to characterize its creativity). It cannot be “very modern” and anything like traditional, let alone classical. Please look up my post praising David Andreozzi’s wildly creative traditional house.


      I hope you will send along the critical comment from your friend on Twitter, which he has not tried to send me, though I think he may have thought he did. Please send it.


      • John the First says:

        David, for a moment I thought you meant that the traditionalist marketing style is forced to be in sync with the marketing slogans of modernism..

        “entirely original, creative, quirky and fun, but beautiful and practical at the same time,”

        Who would not like to have such a woman.. I am imagining long, deliciously lush red hair too.
        But, is it me, or are these just too many trendy words on a row, of which I would dare to doubt that they spontaneously arise from ones pen.. so, a professional ‘client’ perhaps? or perhaps enthusiasm elevated him or her to the level of a poet, spontaneously copying some lines which he read somewhere, in some combination?

        Of course there is nothing wrong with art the of marketing poetry, it makes life more beautiful in words. It seems to even to lead to a poetry contest, lifting the art to ever higher realms of imagination, and there we have ‘wildly creative’, instead of just creative. Still having the woman with the red hair just mentioned mentioned in mind, adding wildly creative, I am somewhere between enchanted and about to faint from excitement of so much anticipation of the desirable.

        To have some fun, here are some synomyms for quirky: bizarre, weird, kinky, freaky, freakish?

        A tip (for both, and the client):
        Did you know that Lord Byron (or was it Shelley or some other poet) used to read dictionaries often, in order to learn more words. Bring on the largest thesaurus and dictionaries possible.


        • I think it’s clear that the words used by Duo’s client allow him to remain within tradition. I think words such as bizarre, weird, kinky, freaky and freakish may take one into the realm of modernism. It’s a shady line, hard to pin down. But I think it’s one of those “I’ll know it when I see it” kinds of things. And exaggeration is appropriate as well, but again, it cannot go too far and remain traditional.


      • John the First says:

        And yes, exaggeration is key to good art. And copying is a tribute to the master.


  4. LazyReader says:

    THE critique of the modernists is defiance of conventional norms.
    Art Deco is classical now, but a century ago, was the New modern at the time, more outlandish than the classical. Took design cues from China, Japan, Persia, Wright, etc.
    And made use of materials that did not exist just a few years prior..
    – Stainless steel
    – Nickel/chrome plating, Nirosta
    – Shagreen
    – Plastics
    – Aluminum
    Begs the question “What could classical architects today do with contemporary materials”
    Titanium, composites, carbon fiber.
    Classical or not there’s an entire Host of new building materials out there that’ll revolutionize construction.
    – Self Healing concrete: Produces calcite when it forms a crack to repair the damage
    – Graphene: carbon atoms arranged in hexagonal sheets, only 5% of steels density it’s 200 times it’s tensile strength. Bridge cables that don’t rust.
    – Laminated timber: renewable building material made by mixing epoxies with gluing wood for MUCH stronger columns, houses with Category 5 hurricane resistance. Much higher water/fire resistance than normal wood
    – Transparent aluminum: Once only in star trek, now reality. Aluminum oxynitride is merely Al2O3 mixed with nitrogen in it’s bonds to produce a ceramic that can be polished transparent. Windows with bullet proof rating.
    – Metal foam: metals that have been aerated with bubbles to the texture of a sponge and compacted and hardened. Weigh half that of metal panels of the same thickness. Revolutionize the cladding industry. Titanium foam, water/rust resistant roof panels.


  5. Donatello Raphael Leonardo Bonaparte says:

    What is more interesting? A self absorbed Architectural sycophant who seeks the unconditional love from anonymous readers that he never received as a child …. arguing with an overachieving, over educated, over weight, thesaurus thirtsy hack writer who has no readership?

    I think I’m going to kick back., spark a blunt and watch bum fights on YouTube instead


    • Ha! Blunt up, Donny! Which of us is which!?


      • Duo says:

        Not sure either is me as I do not own a thesaurus, have employed about 5 people for about 36 years, never laying anyone off, never missing a payroll, while helping to build over 2oo things on a pro bono basis for those who could not hire an architect but need it most, and has sold books to over 200,000 readers and writes for Hearst publications which is read by 100,000’s people 2 or 3 times a month. As you can see if I was writing or designing for love that did not happen. I may be fat, but I have never smoked a thing of any sort in my 64 years. Hate is not a virtue either, whether you are considered a “bum” or morally superior.


    • John The First says:

      My, this made me realize that I also need an impressive name.

      Taste this:

      John Alexander Galileo-Newton The First

      Doesn’t it roll as smoothly?
      It doesn’t have the Italian musicality in it, I admit, but rather a German solidness. I’d be a great pope, a great conqueror, and great scientists al at once. I’d prefer it to an Italian one, as such eloquent Italian names are -curiously contrasting – often seen to be worn either by venerable men, and otherwise, by what creeps low to the ground.


  6. berner architect says:

    YIKES USES GUYS ARE unqualified to criteek the words tradition/modern/style
    the challenge is enjoying art not reassembly the entire dictionary because u can


  7. Duo, No need to be defensive. I think David is correct, your work is good. Part of what makes it good is that it doesn’t subscribe to a rigid canon. It’s idiosyncratic. That’s good. Part of the traditional architect’s dilemma is that architects who practice in a vernacular or traditional vein are considered a lesser form by academics and the self-anointed elite. After all, it is said, anyone can do traditional work. A quick look around the neighborhood proves the lie in that statement.


    • Thank you, Philip. This is perfect.


    • John the First says:

      The idiosyncratic, the place where it is least good, is in art, and the form of art where it is most bad, is the area of architecture. Because architecture is a form of art which is the least individualistic of all arts.
      The function of architecture makes the art the least idealistic and the least free, it is the most subject to practical considerations. It is the most solid of arts, its target is deliverance of reliable and enduring products for psychological and physical sheltering and gathering (you don’t want to live and gather in another ones idiosyncrasies, or, ‘subjective peculiarities’).
      And last but not least, it is the most public and collective of all arts.


    • John the First says:

      “After all, it is said, anyone can do traditional work.”

      Anyone who has the skill and expertise that is. ‘Anyone’ in that respect can also be ‘creative’, which usually does not amount to much of any worth. Nay, to be creative often seems to require even no skill and expertise, it being dependent on mere trickery. Few can synthesize the old and the creative new in such a skilful manner that the whole thing is incorporated into the canon, and build upon.


    • Duo says:

      If you think responding is defensive, then this is a pretty defensive page: I justify and defend nothing: I have just built and published and people react. Reactions, thank God, are different. Diversity of thought is not an indictment of one side or the otherthe diversity is a virtue


  8. John the First says:

    “Dickinson says he does not care about style, but whether he does or does not care, he cannot escape having a style.”

    Indeed, anyone who does not think about style, merely uses the style of another, or worse, a hodgepodge of styles, ‘hodgepodge style’. People who say such things lack a philosophical foundation, philosophical skills. The curious thing is that, whether it is architecture or modern art in general, there is on the one hand this hyper-reflexive intellectualism, but on the other hand they are lacking in philosophical depth (and basic common sense), perhaps the former seeks to obfuscate the reality of the latter.
    A human who does not have a certain self-shaped style is merely an animal with reason, subject to whatever impulses and habits. In the area of architecture, such a thing is per definition impossible though because the laws of general and objective material reality and the unavoidable practical considerations in various ways will force upon constructed material things some kind of recognizable style.


    • John the First says:

      On the other hand though, if contemporary architectural cliques should engage in more sophisticated reflections on style, this could have a disastrous effect. Considering that architecture is a sphere of art which allows for the least of shaping of individual style, due to it being a public and collective art, it being limited to material reality of the most solid type, it being limited to practical considerations (one has to live and work in it), etc. If pretentious hyper-reflexivity, which is so typical of this sphere would get its hand on a sophisticated philosophy of style, it would lead to even more undesired eccentricities as attempts to put an individual stamp on its products..
      At least subconscious copying of style prevents a wild growth of such impractical eccentricities, of which there are already enough deplorable examples.


    • I appreciate, John, your teazing out the thought on claiming not to have a style. Every artist has a style, unique or otherwise, and every person has a style – call it his or her personality, his or her presentation of self. A style works well or maybe not so much. I enjoyed the style of this comment of yours. … Likewise your second comment further developing your first.


  9. Mark Alan Hewitt says:

    David: I fully agree with your assessment. Though I have never met Duo we have corresponded, cordially, over email. We both write often for Common Edge (though he writes too much and too often). Martin Pederson is fully invested in publishing his work. I am not sure where Duo’s two-sided position comes from, but it is fairly common among architects of his generation. –MAH


    • I’ll try to have Martin cut back on his requests to have me write, and those who read it to just control themselves.Oh, and the books…to late, they have sold. And I thought it was our generation? Your work is great: thanks for writing. Gentleman: Please: I have one side: a 43 year career: its all here http://www.duodickinson.com – if you see “two sides”, bipolar idiocy, even hypocrisy, then you have fallen victim to your own creation of the kind of Canon and dogma so loathed by you and me in the currant Architecture Canon: Humans Are Different, Diversity Is Good, Humor Is Essential, Life Is Short: we must all strive to get over ourselves: The Problem Is Not In The Stars, It Is In We Ourselves. “Boom!” indeed, Michael.


    • Thank you, Mark. And I would add that while it is certainly true that an expressed respect for historical architecture, a refusal to respect new work inspired by the past, and a respect for modernist work that by definition disrespects the past is very common among modern architects, few of them have a portfolio so well stuffed with fine traditional work. This is Duo’s particular Duo-ism! (Sorry!)

      Duo, thank you very much for taking my critique with such grace. I realize that I could be wrong in my respect for tradition and my disrespect for modern architecture, and I admit I do not eagerly await a rational rebuttal of my views, but I hope if it ever comes I will accept it as a serious challenge in the continuing dialogue with as much grace and good humor as you have.


      • I think you do space on one, critical, central reality: I have been thoroughly dissed by so many, for so long, from radically different perspectives, that the truth is I know that I am just like Popeye: “I y’am wut I y’am.” The categories created by others are theirs, not mine and should not be anyone else’s, if they have the desire to think, feel and reason. we all find join some things: it is just sad that what gives you joy is deemed the joy others ought to have: that is silly: I hate cooked fish, while its others’ favorite food.


        • That you am what you am, Duo, does not mean you don’t also have a style. You do, and it is traditional, not modernist. Yes, it is creative and asymmetrical, and that may incline you to think that your work breaks from tradition. But traditional work has a long history of creativity and asymmetry. I love your work but dislike your words, which seem to reject the traditonalism of your work, and thus the good work of all architects today who are inspired by a tradition that is radically more beautiful than today’s modernism.

          I would love to have you send me examples of your work (not your words) being criticized from radically different perspectives. I am eager to see that. It may be that you are criticized from both sides. Traditionalists probably see you as straying too far from the canon, which they may have more respect for than is required. Modernists obviously see your work as idiotic and not of our time. They are the idiots. But don’t be too proud of being criticized from both sides. One of those sides is so warped that they cannot see straight, or criticize with logic.


  10. John the First says:

    For the readers who are philosophically inclined, concerning the function of beauty, I recommend the sophisticated foundational (Platonic) philosophy of the German poet and philosopher Friedrich Schiller, at my website:


    Oscar Wilde also dedicated all his works to art and beauty (and the function of imagination):

    To start:

    Oscar Wilde being one of the last geniuses of the twentieth century (actually the nineteenth century), the twentieth century being the period of brutalism in all spheres, not just that of architecture.

    Of Dickinson, who seems to be merely another totally uninteresting product of the times, I quote:

    “But alas! the rising tide of democracy, which spreads everywhere and reduces everything to the same level, is daily carrying away these last champions of human pride, and submerging, in the waters of oblivion, the last traces of these remarkable myrmidons.” Baudelaire

    Considering that an architect in search for beauty is not inspired by the works of modernists, to say the least.., one also needs philosophical inspiration, different from the disenchanting views of Dickandsons.
    There is plenty of intelligent and sophisticated historical material to digest though, writings on taste, style and beauty (in general).
    Some shorter essays related to style, taste and beauty:










  11. michael tyrrell says:



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