Entitling Historical Concepts

Eric Piasecki’s photograph on the front cover of “Visions of Home.” (Historical Concepts)

Most architectural firms have names listing one or more partners, McKim Mead & White being a chief example familiar to classicists. In recent times some firms have chosen names seemingly designed to impress you with their creativity, such as SHoP Architects, headquartered in the Woolworth Building, of all places, or S/L/A/M (now SLAM) Collaborative, headquartered in Connecticut.

And then there is Historical Concepts, an unusual name even for a traditionally oriented Atlanta-based firm that mainly designs homes for the wealthy – often the only commissions that can be had by classical and traditional architects, because modernist architects have rigged the commission system for decades.

The other day, a book arrived whose arrival was the result of a comedy of errors entangling architect David Andreozzi (of Andreozzi Architecture, naturally) in Barrington, Rhode Island. The book’s author, Andrew Cogar, had sent it by accident to me. Since the enclosed note thanked me for something I had not done that involved the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, whose New England chapter is led by David Andreozzi, I figured the book must have been intended for that David, not this one. So I arranged to transfer it to him over pizza at his son’s new pizzeria in Providence. Apparently, David A. mentioned this to Andrew Cogar, whose graciousness resulted in the arrival of a second copy of the book, Visions of Home, at my address.

By the way, Cogar gave me a tour of Atlanta when I was there long ago as a juror for the ICAA Southeast chapter’s annual Shutze Awards, the equivalent of our chapter’s Bulfinch Awards. Maybe this ancient event triggered the delightful comedy of errors.

Since the wrapping of the first copy was too complex and ornate for me to open after I discovered the book was not meant for me, I am grateful to have received a copy of my own, which I have read with great pleasure.

I will not review the houses on display in the book, except to say they are all very lovely. Rather, I want to remark upon the title of the firm, Historical Concepts. Andrew Cogar is now head of the firm, but the book’s introduction was written by the firm’s founder, James L. Strickland, and here’s how he explained the rationale for the firm’s unusual name:

Why Historical Concepts instead of, for example, James L. Strickland Architects? Fair enough. I chose our name for two reasons. The first was that our animating idea was the creation of contemporary homes rooted in the timeless values of history, and I wanted potential clients to understand this the moment they heard our name. The second, more important reason had to do with my longstanding interest in the people with whom I work. I always believed that I was designing not just houses but a philosophy of practice … .

That says it all, because the concepts that are involved in building beauty along traditional lines require both the talent and the patience to look backward as well as forward. A firm named Historical Concepts will not be capable of functioning along those lines if its workers belong in a firm called, say, Pickup Schticks. Two years ago I wrote a post, “Romance and the style wars,” about the movie The Diary of Anne Frank, in which her romance with Peter Van Daan builds with such subtlety that it is not revealed until a gentle kiss near the film’s conclusion:

That is the traditional progression into love. It can be speeded up or even slowed down further to reflect the personalities and circumstances involved. The more or less subtle steps along the way might perhaps be compared with the succession of classical moldings that mark the transformation of a wall into a ceiling …, or, on the exterior of the house, by the diverse levels of ornament – such as (in rising order) the astragal, cymba reversa, dentils, ovolo, modillions, fascia and cyma recta – that make up the entablature of an ornate classical roof cornice.

Thus: the beauty of nature’s creativity versus the wham-bam-thank-you-ma’m of hyper-innovation that drives today’s dominant architectural concept. I am just as sure that every worker at Historical Concepts understands the difference as I am sure that it flies over that head of every egotist at Pickup Schticks.

Love and rape are not the only pair that might reflect truth: Freedom and slavery serve equally well, with Beijing’s CCTV tower, by Rem Koolhaas, leading the way, stomping on the people as cogs in a mighty machine that may be heading our way. But hey! Let’s conclude with the concept of tradition as the architecture of love and, as depicted with such beauty in Andrew Cogar’s fine book, home.

(The book was written by Andrew Cogar with Mark Krystal and Cogar’s partners at Historical Concepts. The photographs are by Eric Piasecki.)

CCTV, home of CCP propaganda in Beijing, designed by Rem Koolhaas. (NYT)

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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10 Responses to Entitling Historical Concepts

  1. Anonymous says:

    Architecture should be relevant, of its time and place and for the folks it serves… so it is hard to proceed with the idea that tradition is the architecture of love, when so much of architectural/building practice in the U.S. over the last 400 years has been conducted on the backs of the least fortunate among us. And continues to be built on the backs of immigrants, addicts, poor folks, and the unfortunate who didn’t grow up in a wealthy family. There is an unfortunate amount of back-patting that goes on among architects and the design world in general that needs to be checked. We (architects, landscape architects, designers) aren’t doing that great in recognizing this, and we need to be honest about the consequences of the work. Labor, compensation and resources.

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  2. khoavantay says:

    Bài viết rất hay 😉
    Cảm ơn tác giả.

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  3. Steven W Semes says:

    David, thanks for this and congratulations to Andrew and his colleagues at Historical Concepts, an excellent firm that has, indeed, established a new kind of practice. On the decision to name the firm for something other than the principal(s), I remember years ago in the San Francisco Bay Area there was an architecture firm that was known as Interactive Resources. When I asked one of the people there why they chose that name, she responded, because the partners’ names are Tom Butt and Chuck Beaver. The work of our friends in Atlanta is super under any name.

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    • Ha ha! Beaver & Butthead! Steve, I just read a Dan Brown novel, The Lost Symbol, and enjoyed it, learning new things along the way. Now I’m reading reviews of it and everyone is complaining that his plots don’t vary enough. They seem to want him to write a completely different book with each publication, ignoring what works for him and what pleases his readers – sort of like a modernist architect. Historical Concepts and other great traditional firms may be said to make the same “mistake,” which is not a mistake at all. Do Brown’s books, one after the other, improve on the formula with each successive publication? None of the reviewers seems to care. I gather from James Strickland’s introduction that HC plans to expand its work to include more community-related buildings. Good! Let us hope they do not forget the traditional principles that have got them to where they are.

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  4. Daniel Morales says:

    They do excellent work. The name reminds me of modernist professors more interested in a student’s “concept” than whether a project exhibited firmness, commodity, or delight. Historical Concepts seem to be branching into the home builder market as I’ve run across them in my work. I would encourage more classicists to pursue this market instead of complaining about the system being rigged, especially since modernists dismiss it out right as the province of provincials. The truth is they can’t do it because the last thing they think about is the person on the street.

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    • I think there’s something, Dan, in what you say regarding “concept” in the firm’s title. But of course it is difficult to have a collection words intended to mean x without having some people interpret one of the words to mean y. Oh well. If that has occurred to them I am sure they are able to put it aside. And maybe you are right that architects should pursue their work rather than grumbling about the unfairness of life – but it is possible to do both, and be effective at both. As for those of us who are not architects, and who cannot just pursue the market, we can either grumble or remain silent – the latter being entirely ineffective, yes? – or find something else to do. I’d rather remain in the game.

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  5. David Andreozzi AIA says:

    A wonderful book, a wonderful firm, Andrew is wonderful patron and artisan, and lunch at Pizza Marvin… wonderful! A unbiased opinion of course! :^) http://www.pizzamarvin.com

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    • Agreed on all points, David, and am looking forward to another visit to Pizza Marvin.

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    • Anonymous says:

      Ugh ugh ugh a wonderful firm??? Blah !, Artisan? Ugh! Architects don’t make things so they can’t be artisans… Historical Concepts designs overwrought buildings with details that are unsustainable, the congratulations are disappointing

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      • Huh? Overwrought? Details that are unsustainable? What are you talking about? Are you with a competing firm? Have you been sacked in the past by Historical Concepts? Your use of anonymity raises that sort of suspicion.

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