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Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Neo-Eclectic Style Architecture

Neo-Eclectic style architecture, AKA the McMansion.
Architects and art historians are not very good at naming things. They usually leave that to the critics who come up with highly visual names like Impressionism or Tudor, or Victorian, which, while useful and descriptive, at the same time leave a lot to be desired in terms of history. From an art-historian's point of view, what follows a popular style is often named "post" as in Post-Impressionism. Thus, in architecture (and also in painting) what followed Modern style architecture has been dubbed "Post-Modern." Unfortunately, these historian-driven titles, while fitting the history puzzle, tell us little about the style itself. Architecturally, the usually dependable critics in this case have come to call today's Post-modern housing, "Neo-eclectic," which really doesn't help much. So, what does this Neo-Eclectic, Post-Modern housing look like? The "Modern" style held sway until about the end of the 1960s or 70s when we drifted into Post-Modernism. One of the keynotes of the Post-Modern housing style is the "flavoring" or decorating of what had been relatively colorless Modern architecture by drawing upon subtle (usually) shadings of past styles with little regard for anything approaching authenticity.
 
If Neo-eclectic has a common thread, it is the multiplicity of forward facing gables,
here seen in a Craftsman Style flavor.
In studying it, we find this Neo-Eclectic, Post-Modern style actually consists of Neo-French, Neo-Tudor, Neo-Colonial, Neo-Mediterranean, Neo-Victorian, and very often, Neo-classical Revival (talk about a style wearing thin from overuse). Now we have terms that ring up images whereas Post-Modern or even Neo-eclectic don't. What really has occurred is that architects have taken to designing structures, then allowing the interior designers, who used to be limited to drapes, furniture, carpet, and accessories, to not only arrange rooms (or areas as we often refer to them now) but also to become exterior designers. It might seem hard to imagine, but you can now buy virtually the same floor plan in perhaps half a dozen different Neo-Eclectic styles. Like French? Fine, we'll add a mansard roof. Really like French? Okay, we'll add dramatically arched windows and a tall chimney too! How about something more colonial? Okay, scotch the arched windows, how about dormers instead, oh, and shutters--gotta have shutters to be colonial. TA DAAAA--instant Neo-Colonial.

All those Neo-Eclectic, forward-facing, gables often results in a very irregular
floor plan as seen here in the layout for the Craftsman Style house just above.
Such sprawling plans (even for relatively modest, 3-bedroom homes)
 demand sprawling lots leading to sprawling communities.
Note the Neo-Eclectic "two plus one" three-car garage.
It's a soda shop mentality applied to home design. Start with plain vanilla then flavor it with any of a half-dozen or so different "looks." I'm exaggerating a little, of course, but only a little. Each neo style does have some basic structural demands. Some are more symmetrical than others. Some work best as single story plans while others demand more verticality. Neo-Victorian not only demands two stories but also some diagonal walls, octogonalizing a room or two. Nearly all such designs like a lot of forward gables as seen in the home designs of the past twenty years. Some flavors look better with a narrow front, others with a broad street presentation. So it's not all just pure decoration; but in many cases it's hardly more than that. And curiously, the fallout from all this is that architects today seldom design Neo-Eclectic homes for individual clients anymore. When you see one of these homes (and it's hard not to in any recent housing development) you can bet they came from a plan book rather than being a one-of-a-kind creation, even in the case of the largest ones.

The Neo-Victorian flavor is alive and well, living under the broad, Neo-Eclectic roof.
Along side the "soda shop" flavorings, lingers the old post-war "cookie cutter" mentality, this time with a variety of different icings and "sprinkles." Of course each plan-book house is designed by an architect; and there are lots more "cookie cutters" than right after the war; but the affect is much the same. And that's where our three-century search for the American dream in housing architecture has brought us up until now. Have we come to the end of the rainbow? Have we "revivaled" and "neo-ed" ourselves right out of anything really new? Are we to be confronted next with perhaps Neo-Medieval, or Neo-Polynesian, or Neo-Native American as we search for the next new flavor of the month? Stay tuned. Next time we get into neo-prognostication!
Hey, I wasn't kidding about the Neo-Eclectic, Neo-Polynesian stuff.

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