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Index by Medium

Neo-Eclectic Style

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 (as also in painting) what followed Modern style architecture has been dubbed "Post-Modern." Unfortunately, these historian-chosen titles, while fitting the history puzzle, tell us little about the style itself. And architecturally, the usually dependable critics in this case have come to call it "Neo-eclectic," which really doesn't help much either this time. So, what does 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 Post-Modernism is the "flavouring" or decorating of what had been relatively colourless Modern architecture by drawing upon subtle (usually) shadings of past styles with little caring for anything approaching authenticity.

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 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 buildings, 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 exact 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.

It's a soda shop mentality applied to home design. Start with plain vanilla then flavour 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 are. 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. Several styles like a lot of forward gables as seen in many home designs of the 1990s. Some 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 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 development) you can bet they came from a plan book rather than being a one-of-a-kind creation, even in the case of some very large homes.

Basically, it's 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 the 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 "neoed" ourselves right out of anything really new? Are we to be content with perhaps Neo-Medieval next, or perhaps Neo-Polynesian, or Neo-Native American as we search for the next new flavour of the month? Stay tuned. Next time we get into neo-prognostication!

contributed by Lane, Jim


19 December 2000

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