Not long ago, in a pleasant, Sixties-era neighborhood of California ranchers, I came across a renovated house that looked all too familiar. The owner had replaced the original front doors, all the windows and the garage door in a style that could most kindly be described as Home Depot Eclectic.
To begin with, there was a huge, modernistic vinyl picture window. A few feet away were a pair of casement windows bordered with those now-inescapable Craftsman style “simulated divided lites.” The garage door, meanwhile, was topped with a row of little Colonial sunburst windows, while the front doors boasted an elaborate Frank Lloyd Wright pattern done in beveled glass. Just about the only style that was absent, in fact, was that of the original California rancher.
Setting aside the wisdom of trying to transform one architectural style into another, any one of these motifs might have worked had it been used consistently and alone. Combining them all together, however, simply yielded a stylistic hodgepodge.
It’s amazing how a single motif can call up a whole architectural style. Motifs act as a kind of visual shorthand — when we see fishscale shingles, we think Victorian. When we see zigzags, we think Deco. When we see curlicues, we think Spanish, and so on. But this same evocative power can cause a lot of trouble when it’s not used carefully. Few motifs, for example, could be more at odds than those New Englandish sunbursts being played against the jagged lines of Prairie School glass just a few feet away.
Probably the most clear-cut dividing line between irreconcilable motifs is the one between traditional and modern architecture. There are always exceptions, but in general, traditional and modern styles spring from diametrically opposed philosophies, and seldom the twain shall meet. This realization might have discouraged our exemplary renovator from mixing in a little Ben Franklin with his Frank Lloyd Wright.
Is all this just stylistic nitpicking? Sure — but nitpicking is what makes for good design. Nor are such clashing motifs something that would only bother an architect. Lately, more and more homeowners come primed with an impressive grasp of architectural styles — due, no doubt, to “This Old House”-style TV shows and instant Google searches. Lots of people are able to sense when things don’t seem to fit together right.
So unless you aim to be eclectic, try to limit yourself to a few favorite motifs, and apply them consistently. If you use segmental arches, for example, don’t mix them with round ones — the first speaks Italian, while the second screams in Spanish. For similar reasons, don’t mix double-hung windows with sliders, Art Nouveau with Art Deco, divided lites with glass block, and so on. All of these pairings come from very different eras and sources, and they’ll get along none too happily in one facade.
If you’re not sure which motif goes with which style, consult some books on the style or period you’re interested in. Find five or six examples of buildings you really like, and take note of the motifs they have in common.
Then, pay equally close attention to the things you don’t find, and you won’t be bedeviled by those mixed-up motifs.