VISUAL HISTORY: Context-Based Design

Formerly as a student and now as a professional in the field of architecture, I have often been asked what “style” of architecture I like to design. It’s always a difficult question to answer, but I’ll give it a shot. In a nutshell, I believe that architecture should tell the story “of our time”. That is, it should speak to the values and ideals of our current culture. It should be an indication of the materials and construction techniques that were available and practical and, quite frankly, “in style” at the time it was built. It should not simply imitate the buildings around it, nor should it try to mimic the style of a previous era.

I don’t hate historical buildings. In fact, I actually really love them. But the thing is, they weren’t always historical. At one point they too were “of the times”. Saint Louis is full of red brick buildings because it was a readily-available, local, economical building material at the time that much of the city was being built. Now they are a part of our city fabric. They give us a glimpse into our history. That is one of the great things about architecture… it allows you to read the history of a place- a street, a neighborhood, a city. Each building tells a story about the time it was built. If we try to replicate or imitate the architecture of the past, we lose the ability to visually read that story. The narrative becomes confused by buildings that look historical, but are not.

Building architecture that is current and relevant doesn’t mean that we completely disregard our historical context. We can use these materials and techniques to create buildings that do, in fact, complement and enhance their context.  Things like scale, proportion, and massing are all aspects of design that we use to make sure that our new designs “play nice” with the buildings around them that may be much older. We can learn from the past and respect it and reference it without simply replicating it. Instead of trying to tell someone else’s story, we can aim for continuity of the narrative while still moving it forward.

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We see this approach taken in many other fields: automobiles, clothing, and electronics, just to name a few. In these fields, design is not stagnant. They may reference or draw inspiration from designs of the past, but it is constantly moving forward, staying current, and experimenting with new designs and technology. Why shouldn’t the field of architecture be the same? Why shouldn’t we, too, be designing products that speak of our culture and its innovation?


If you haven’t already, use one of these beautiful spring days to take a walk down the 4200 block of McRee. Here, you’ll see a streetscape made up of both 100-year-old houses and houses that were built in the last year. They stand side by side and make up a rich neighborhood fabric. Together, they tell the story of this little part of Saint Louis, and we can read that story simply by walking down the street.