Why Modern Architecture is difficult

Alan Chimacoff is a colleague and dear fried. During a recent e-mail exchange about why it is truly difficult to achieve satisfying works of modern architecture, he offered the following astonishing assessment.

The exchange began with a photograph he took of a Doric column in Ithaca, New York.



Alan,  Thanks for the photograph. It makes me wonder.  Why is it truly difficult to accomplish a modern building that is beautiful and resolute? While, generally speaking, classical architecture is much more reliable in these respects. — assuming of course, an architect who has thoroughly learned the orders.

Considering how LeCorbusier tried with his five points, is my generalization the lack of a useful treatise or that no one has yet to produce the right pattern book of “modern orders?”

Without any such reference, the modern architect is abandoned by history – willingly or unwillingly – and is left to invent a language – a solution – that can equal or overcome the collective benefits of classicism that were hammered out over centuries of trial and error. As a premise, it seems like a task that is virtually impossible and only observed in the rarest.

Is a pattern book of modern architecture possible? Andres Duany once claimed he could do it, especially with Wright’s early Prairie Style productions.





Kevin, I’ve thought about this subject quite a bit over the years and believe with certainty that Modern Architecture is not A Style…by definition…since it has no prescriptive rules.  Instead, it defines a “condition” that is determined by proscription, as the residue of “thou shalt nots,” like good behavior defined by the ten commandments, i.e. what’s permissible and good is what’s left over after the “thou shalt nots” are stated.

Modern Architecture, then, is a series of personal INVENTIONS of style and character, where personal rules are/were created to determine what each version of Modern Architecture is.  Hence, Frank Lloyd Wright (twice or three times—many personal styles), Mies, Corb (twice—two personal styles), Aalto, Kahn…and EVERYONE, Michael Graves included (twice also, because he invented two personal styles) are all Modern architects practicing different-appearing, personal versions of Modern Architecture.

Duany was wrong.  He could not create a universal copy book.  But he was right in saying that he could create one using Wright’s early Prairie Style buildings.  I.e. a copy book of Wright’s personal style.  As one could for early Corb (that would also hold true for a number of International Style architects) and/or late Corb (that would only hold true for him).  Et. al., i.e. the personal characteristics of PERSONAL STYLE can be identified, codified, and described

I hope this helps.


Alan Chimacoff, principal

ikon.5 architects

864 Mapleton Road Suite 100

Princeton, NJ 08540

609.919.0099 P

609.919.0088 F




On Alan Chimacoff

Until recently, Alan was a professor of architecture at Princeton University. Currently, a partner with Ikon.5 Architects who were cited as the sixth best design firm in the US by Architect Magazine, 2014. You can view his extensive awards, building designs and accomplishments as well as his recent work as an architect/photographer at the following links. 


www.chimacoff.com :  www.ikon5architects.com

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