Say No to Style: Community Oriented Architecture

Consider Roman arches. Arches were used in the Roman Empire because the form allowed structures to pass weight from above to below using fewer materials. The arch was so efficient that it spread throughout the Empire and became a defining characteristic of the Imperial style. Its use was, as a result, a reflection of the empire’s technical prowess and cultural values. In contrast, medieval Romanesque architecture used arches because the Roman Empire used arches. Pay close attention to this distinction: the former is contextual while the latter is imitative. This imitative approach to architecture is the type of style I feel compelled to rail against.  When I refer to ‘style’ in the built environment, I refer to a package of aesthetic characteristics including form, proportion, and material, which historically represent a natural collision of technological advances and cultural shifts.

Frank Lloyd Wright said it best: “Styles… soon become yard-sticks for the blind, crutches for the lame, the recourse of the impotent (Wright 1928).” Beyond its creative implications, I argue that a reliance on imitative styles mitigates a community’s ability to express its unique context and brand to the world. I must note that I do not consider architects my primary audience here, since most architects have some literacy on this topic and have, for the most part, already chosen a side. Instead, I write to those who design and influence the vast majority of buildings worldwide, i.e. non-architects. More specifically, I write to city planners and urban designers, current and future, who have any interest in the built environment’s role in our communities.

Roman Aqueduct. See Photo Credit.

Brief History of Imitative Style

Architectural imitations have occurred for most of human history, but the institutionalized exportation of imitative style did not begin until 1570 with Andrea Palladio’s The Four Books of Architecture. Palladio, a post-Renaissance Venetian Architect, provided systematic and illustrated rules based on a pure Renaissance interpretation of classical Greek and Roman building traditions. His treatise spread quickly across Europe, North America, and the world, making Palladio perhaps the most copied architect in history. Monticello, for example, was built firmly in the Palladian tradition.

Three centuries of revivals followed, introducing some of the world’s first international styles (think Mission, Renaissance, Colonial, and Neoclassical Revivals). But an undercurrent of enlightenment and industrialization forces spurred technological advances and societal shifts that allowed Modernism to supplant this dizzying array of styles. At its core, Modernism was a rejection of style itself. In style’s place, Modernist architects developed an honest expression of a building’s use and structure. While the aesthetic manifestation of Modernist ideals may not be widely valued today, they freed architecture from the restrictions of style.

Dachlandschaft der Therme Vals
Peter Zumthor’s Therme Vals (Swiss Bath House). See Photo Credit.


Many current practitioners, particularly strict New Urbanists, believe that quaint interpretations of traditional and vernacular styles are needed for communities to be valued. I consider this a punitive approach because it obscures a community’s real contextual forces. Instead, I propose that designers build on elements of Modernist techniques and draw from theories in Critical Regionalism and Phenomenology to propose an imperfect method of evaluating whether a building is a valuable asset to its community.

First termed by Kenneth Frampton in 1983, Critical Regionalism accepted Modernist ideals but acknowledged that architecture must contextually inhabit and respond to a “public sphere” to achieve lasting cultural significance (Mallgrave and Goodman 2011, 97-107). Phenomenology, a strand of Minimalism that began in the 1990’s, similarly hopes to establish lasting cultural relevance, but with a focus on creating memorable experiences. Put simply, a Phenomenologist considers how architecture can affect an inhabitant’s senses to invoke a more meaningful experience (Mallgrave and Goodman 2011, 210-214). While I do not recommend strict adherence to either of these schools, I value their fundamental goal: make buildings that people are proud to host in their communities.

My proposal is quite simple: architecture will have lasting community value if its materiality, structure, form, and program are relevant, local, and have agency. A building is relevant when it reflects modern technologies and methodologies. A building is local when it reflects its nearby culture and resources. And a building has agency when it reflects the ambitions of its owners, occupants, and passersby. When the unique intersection of these elements are visually expressed, rather than obscured by preconceived aesthetic notions, architecture achieves a more honest beauty.

architecture will have lasting community value if its materiality, structure, form, and program are relevant, local, and have agency

Peter Zumthor’s Therme Vals (Swiss Bath House). See Photo Credit.

For illustration, I apply this method of evaluation to Peter Zumthor, a Swiss architect and Pritzker Prize winner who I consider to be a patron saint of community-valued architecture. Specifically, I examine his Therme Vals, a 1990’s Swiss bathhouse (I recommend this beautiful and brief documentary for reference). I consider this a good example of how the materiality of a project expresses its unique intersection of relevance, locality, and agency.

Peter Zumthor expertly used gneiss rock throughout Therme Vals because it was locally available. The stones were methodically stacked in a complex but visually subdued pattern to stage, not obscure, the activities of bathers (agency). This pattern and scale of masonry were only possible with recent advances in construction administration technology (relevance).


Ultimately, I propose this replacement to ‘styles’ because I see tremendous opportunity for city planners, urban designers, and any other stakeholders involved in a community to actively define the quality of their built environment. Through this effort, I hope communities can more aptly express their unique brands to rally change for a better tomorrow. So, take this tool, test it in your community, make it your own, and share your experiences! You are especially welcome to send me your thoughts at


Mallgrave, Harry, and David Goodman. An Introduction to Architectural Theory: 1968 to the Present. Chichester, West Sussex: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011.

Wright, Frank Lloyd. What ‘Styles’ Mean to the Architect. February 1928. (accessed October 20, 2015).

About the Author: Blake Montieth comes to UNC City and Regional Planning after working in Architecture and Urban Design.  He earned his undergraduate, professional degree in Architecture at UNC-Charlotte. He is a North Carolina native and community development enthusiast. Outside of coursework he enjoys day trips to Denver and regular game nights… always to be accompanied by homemade cobbler. Blake is a first year master’s candidate at UNC and Online Content Editor for ANGLES.