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Name That Style! Vocabulary for the Recent Past 

12-09-2015 17:35

Twenty years ago, when I prepared National Register nominations for a state historic preservation office, I knew all those terms for building parts and styles. I can close my eyes and imagine an "italianate commercial building" or a "gothic chapel" or "american four-square home." But could I fill out a survey form today and describe that 1950s church with the funny roof? The 1960s boxy apartment building with odd windows? Or the 1940s kinda ranch, barely bungalow, sorta split-level house? What terms would I use?

That was the challenge set out in an interactive session at the 2000 National Preservation Conference in Los Angeles called "A Guerrilla Style Guide: A Vocabulary for the Recent Past," led by George Kramer, cultural resource consultant and National Trust Advisor from Oregon. He was joined by Jeanne Lambin, field representative for the National Trust`s Midwest Office, and Alan Hess, author and architectural reviewer for the San Jose Mercury News. Together they discussed how preservationists are struggling to inventory, evaluate, and manage resources from the recent past without a common language or set of descriptive terms.

Using a slideshow, Lambin demonstrated how architectural styles of the past have been named based on unifying themes or characteristics-such as materials (log cabin, sod house), creators (Richardsonian Romanesque), and places of origin (Chicago School, Italianate). Hess recalled how a slang term-Googie-gained wide acceptance to describe a particularly exuberant form of roadside architecture. Then the 200 participants, divided into teams, were asked to review a set of photographs of recent building types and come up with terms for them. The teams varied wildly in their approaches, some talking more about materials and others general shapes. A good number just free-associated until they found something that fit. Despite the differing tacks, a number of similar names emerged. During the wrap-up portion of the session, the teams told their best new terminology. While the exercise and discussion generated plenty of giggles and guffaws, the challenge has a serious side.

According to Lambin: "Many would argue that the reason why no style names exist for the architecture of the mid-century is because architects were trying to break with the notion of style, to create an architecture without historical precedent that honestly reflected the impact that technological advances and new materials had made on building." But now, more and more such properties are being considered for listing in the National Register of Historic Places. "To assess the architectural significance of these properties, one must be able to evaluate whether it is a `good` or `bad` example of a style...If you don`t know or agree upon what to call it, how can you determine if it indeed is a great example of Brady Bunch Modern?"

Publication Date: March/April 2001

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Author(s):Linda Donovan Harper