What Style Do You Build In?

Upon graduating from architecture school I was often asked, “What style do you build in?”

Sure, there are hundreds of different architectural styles – but this question always left me a stunned. At the time I would’ve probably said Progressive. Because out of school you are tapped into the zeitgeist of digital fabrication, 3D-printing, and parametric design. It isn’t until you are in the industry for awhile before you realize that construction techniques are still driven by dimensional lumber and Milwaukee drills. Plus, 3D buildings in reality are ugly (like the world’s first 3D-printed bridge in Spain) and look like a third-grade art project made out of sugar cubes after a rainstorm.

© institute advanced architecture catalonia

So, today if asked the same question, I would probably answer Modern. But when people hear the word Modern, it sounds dated; Frank Lloyd Wright inevitably initiated the Modern Style a full millennium ago. After Wright came the Mid-Century Modern architects of Mies, Neutra, and Schindler. Mid-century modern is often described as being “classic” and “never going out of style.”

Thus, by designing lasting architecture it is difficult to not touch on modern architectural principles – with updated technological standards. And without going into a long history lesson on my disdain for PostModernism – PoMo architects thought they were culturally beyond the Modernist principles of light, space, and natural elements – and simply stuck colored Euclidean shapes together. Therefore, no alternative “modern” names are left to describe how to build good architecture today – except Modern.

However, I think the obfuscation of the question “What style do you build in?” is premised on most people not understanding what architects do. Indeed, all of the prominent and historically heralded houses in a community often have a promoted architectural style. Therefore, most people probably assume you go to architecture school, learn about all of the cute styles, and then go out and draft the blueprints in the house plan books.

Car Salesman School

Architecture School is not like Car Salesman School. Where I imagine you graduate, and then go work at a car dealership which sells the brand of cars you are fond of. Unfortunately, there aren’t enough job openings at Tesla, but you are still happy to be employed at the Kia Hyundai dealership in your hometown.

Architecture School teaches you broad design skills, but there are no niche Victorian Architecture boutiques, nor are there any architects in my hometown.

Indeed, architects are often generalists – so we also don’t graduate architecture school and yearn to design exclusively Victorian Style houses. But historical preservationists could tell you that building new (faux) Victorian style houses actually reduces the value and character of existing Victorian architecture. Minimizing architectural styles to nostalgic foam-painted sculptures.

I’m sure if it were up to my architecture history professor – we would still be designing buildings inspired by the Renaissance. In three semesters of architecture history we spent the first week learning about ziggurats, the final week learning about modern architecture, and one-and-a-half years analyzing every detail of Brunelleschi, Bernini, and Michelangelo.

The Laurentian Library

© The Museums of Florence

I mean, sure, Michelangelo’s stairs in the Laurentian Library are interesting and invoke movement; but three stairs that lead up to a single door and waste half of the library’s floor space is also unnecessary. Perhaps Michelangelo had the same A.R.E. stair vignette on his BCDS exam as I did.
Problem: There is one door on the south wall randomly placed 6 feet up the wall. Provide 3 accessible stairs from the lower library up to this door.
Solution: Although it looks ungainly, and the 6” risers and 12” treads with exaggerated stair nosings wind around the entire room before converging upon a single landing, you have successfully passed the vignette.

However, nobody is clamoring for flying buttresses on their houses. So if it wasn’t the enlightened minds of the Renaissance – who is responsible for the fondness of past architectural styles recreated on buildings today?

The fucking Greeks and Romans. They are to blame for this. (And probably culture, money, and lovers of history.) The Greeks and Romans set out a system of mathematical orders, and principles, and ratios, and proper descriptive names to vertical elements of columns that exist between the pediment and the entablature. Therefore, good architecture becomes more of a science than an art. If you are familiar with structural load calculations – and utilize the same mathematically proportioned building components – architecture is reduced to re-using the same styles that “high-society” has deemed significant.

Because of this, we still wrap materials around steel columns to have the visual impact of girth. And we still add non-structural Ionic columns flanking the entryway of banks. Every region has unique traditional architectural styles; and certainly, architecture SHOULD deviate between regionalities based upon climate, local resources, and neighborhood context.

But Modern architecture is not a defined style. Modern architecture is based on the principles of light, shadow, open floor plans, and nature. Perhaps architects are also to blame for using stylistic jargon and for knowing what a cornice and a frieze are, but if you build to the style that your context requires – you inevitably will build it modern.


This post is part of the #ArchiTalks series in which Brian Paletz, of The Emerging Architect, selected this month’s theme and a group of us other (architectural) bloggers all post on the same day, on the same topic. This month’s theme is Style.

Bob Borson – Life of An Architect (@bobborson)
Style – Do I have Any?

Lee Calisti, AIA – Think Architect (@LeeCalisti)
style…final words

Lora Teagarden – L² Design, LLC (@L2DesignLLC)
The AREsketches Style

Eric T. Faulkner – Rock Talk (@wishingrockhome)
Name That Stile!

Michele Grace Hottel – Michele Grace Hottel, Architect (@mghottel)

Collier Ward – One More Story (@BuildingContent)
Good Artists Copy; Great Artists Steal

Brian Paletz – The Emerging Architect (@bpaletz)
You do you

Michael LaValley – Evolving Architect (@archivalley)
Defining an Architect’s Style

Jarod Hall – di’velept (@divelept)
What’s Your Style?

Greg Croft – Sage Leaf Group (@croft_gregory)
Architectural Style

Jeffrey Pelletier – Board & Vellum (@boardandvellum)
Should You Pick Your Architect Based on Style or Service?

Samantha R. Markham – The Aspiring Architect (@TheAspiringArch)
5 Styles of an Aspiring Architect

Kyu Young Kim – J&K Architects Atelier (@sokokyu)
Loaded With Style

Nisha Kandiah – ArchiDragon (@ArchiDragon)
Regression or Evolution : Style

Keith Palma – Architect’s Trace (@cogitatedesign)
Stylized Hatred

Jim Mehaffey – Yeoman Architect (@jamesmehaffey)
What’s in a Style?

Mark Stephens – Mark Stephens Architects (@architectmark)
Architectalks 23 – Style


  1. Hey Brady – Great post, you took me back to Arch History 101 there for a second, which is a scary enough thought on its own. Great take though on what true modern (the time in which we are living) architecture can be.

    • brady ernst

      You should change your firm’s name to Thousand Compliments Studio – you’re too much!

  2. Nice post again, Brady! Thanks for sharing and also developing the idea for the brand new game show, “Car Salesman School.”

    This is perfect description of that bridge, “like a third-grade art project made out of sugar cubes after a rainstorm.” I bet Mom and Dad are really proud that their children are building such things thousands of dollars and several years of school later.

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