Nostalgia as a design influence

(Grumbly architect alert)
Nostalgia is a powerful design influence for most clients. I find it interesting that otherwise artistic and creative people get all conservative when considering their own houses and I think a lot of this is due to a sense of nostalgia and a search for an emotional connection to something from their past whether real or imagined. Sometimes, however it may be less nostalgia and more along the lines of simple thinking about architecture as something that happens to other people. People are not very nostalgic or conservative when it comes to choosing their automobile or smartphone or clothing but there seems to be a strong disconnect between architecture and the other visual arts. In my own practice, I have seen this nostalgia border on a crippling anachronism where people really want something that may not be in their best interest or conflicts with their other requirements. A few years ago I did some projects for a dance camp in Massachusetts and found that these supposedly creative and artistic people were incredibly conservative to work with and really demanded a strict re-creation of the existing architecture (but up to code). It was frustrating as an architect to see so much potential to do wonderful things but to meet with such resistance to change. Imagine trying to put a modern Honda civic engine and interior in a model T shell – Except it is not even a real model T shell but a carbon fiber copy that sort of looks like a model T (ish). That is what so many people want in their homes. Not far from here is a house that replaces an old cape that burned down a while back. The owner took the insurance money and build a new “old cape” except the builder got the proportions all wrong and the trim is kind of cheap looking and the windows have fake muntins and there are french doors everywhere and, well, it looks look what I would call a faux neo-colonial. To me it looks yucky but I am aware that most friends and family would look at it and say “Oh how lovely, it looks like it has always been there”


  • Jeremiah says:

    I feel your pain, brother! *man hug*

  • bob says:

    I guess I had a particularly grumbly day

  • Lee Calisti says:

    Robert, great post. I love the Honda analogy. I’m so ripping that one off and using it.

  • […] related to the previous post. There seems to be a lot of psychology to what I do as an architect. When someone comes to me with […]

  • Have you read the Fountainhead? It addresses this exact issue of designing around nostalgia in a very eloquent way. The gist of it is that people want to recreate a feeling, a sense of importance, or a sense of meaning by copying what they associate with those things. I agree, it is very frustrating.

  • bob says:

    Hi Brinn,
    I’m a fan. I did read the Fountainhead in college and I remember it influencing my work there. But I don’t remember specifics and it is on my LoBtR (List of Books To Read) as I do remember some elegant passages. My blog is where I get to be grumbly and work things like this out for myself (with an audience) and seems to help in that way to put words to my angst so I know better how to deal with such things. – And it gives my wife a break. Thanks for the reminder! I was liking the idea of nostalgia as a legit design tool. Some days, less so.

  • Nostalgia is a crippling agent in architecture. In my hometown of Lancaster, PA. a brand new Marriott Convention center went up a few years ago. The facade of a Beaux Arts department store was saved, a typical Marriott was plugged in behind it, and some kinda contemporary corporate style convention center fills out the rest. A truly compromised design a mixed bag of old and new. One can only imagine the possibilities had Lancaster City asked for something new, bold and innovative. These missed opportunities occur everyday for nostalgia’s sake.

  • bob says:

    oooo ouch! sorry. Yeah I can’ think of anyplace of-hand where nostalgia has a place in commercial architecture.

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Robert Swinburne in Brattleoboro, VT on Houzz
Robert Swinburne in Brattleoboro, VT on Houzz


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