I gathered the following seven images of Neoclassical styled estates from the internet.  Six of the images are historic structures that were built at the turn of the Nineteenth Century or early in the Twentieth Century.  One of the images is a house that was built in the 1990s and caught my attention on the front cover of a magazine on luxury estates.

A person who studied architecture history could identify several of the examples because they are historic, and were designed by famous architects, and by the process of elimination, could single out the estate that was built recently.  If a person has not studied architecture history, and is unfamiliar with the estates shown, would they still be able to tell which estate is the one that was recently built? 

Here’s a hint:  The architects that designed Neoclassical buildings were trained to design in traditional styles; it was fundamental to their architectural education.  When the Modernist movement came, architecture schools abandoned the training of design in traditional styles because it seemed as if it would never again be necessary.  Because of this discontinuity in architectural education, architects wishing to design in traditional styles had to be self-taught.  The result is that there is a large number of amateurishly designed traditional styled buildings, and very few that are academically correct.   The untrained architect does not understand the Classical Orders, and the details and proportions that are required to competently apply them to a design, and so the results end up looking more like a caricature of traditional architecture.   

A person who thoroughly studies traditional architecture would look at the posted images and would immediately identify the recent work because of its caricature look.  What I wonder though, is whether a layperson can distinguish a caricature looking traditional building from one that is academically done.  Could a person of average intelligence, with a college education, for example, a doctor, lawyer, accountant, biologist, etc. be able to pick out the estate that was designed in the 1990s?        

What caught my attention when I was browsing through the magazine rack at Barnes and Noble was that the house that was featured on the cover was built with a very large construction budget that could easily accommodate a properly designed façade.  I wonder how this house could have been built.  When the architect presented the sketches, drawings, renderings, and construction documents to the clients, couldn’t they see that they were getting a caricature of Neoclassical architecture rather than a relevant example of the style?  I read the description of the house in the magazine and some of the statements are laughable.  It is being described as “…an elegant, refined, luxurious, restrained and perfectly executed expression of neoclassic architecture inspired by the Louis XVI period.”  It goes on to say that the “…interpretation of the period style is masterful” and that “Painstaking attention to detail was applied to the execution of each facet of the residence.”

It occurs to me that this is one of the problems with practicing traditional architecture in the Twenty-first Century.  Not only are untrained architects designing amateurish, caricatures of traditional architecture, but the people who commission the architects are unable to distinguish the difference.  People can easily distinguish an image of Mickey Mouse as a caricature among other photos of various rodents, but not so much when it comes to architecture.  Was the architect’s client of a century ago better educated than today’s client, or does the proliferation of bad design make it difficult to distinguish good from bad?       


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  1. Joseph Jutras says:

    SPOILER ALERT!! If you don’t want to know the answers, read no further.

    Hi Michael,
    I love your posts and appreciate all the information in them. The idea behind this particular post was brilliant and I enjoyed testing myself. However, I felt the tone was a little pretentious.
    Modern architects have alienated the public by refusing to build beautiful, traditional buildings. Let’s not do the same by being pretentious.
    La Belle Vie may not be academically correct. But still, it was probably one of the most beautiful buildings built in 1993; and building beautiful buildings over ugly ones should always be encouraged.
    Again, I love what you’re doing here. Keep up the great work!

    For those that are curious, here are the answers in order of the photos:

    Rosecliff, Rhode Island. Built: 1898-1902
    The Breakers, Rhode Island. Built: 1893
    Carolands Chateau, California. Built: 1914
    The Elms, Rhode Island. Built: 1899
    La Belle Vie, California. Built: 1993
    Marble House, Rhode Island. Built: 1888-1892
    Nemours, Delaware. Built: 1909-1910

    Two of the biggest give aways of La Belle Vie are:
    -The windows: they are too tightly spaced together.
    -The moulding below the pediment: it should be the same, and at the same height as the moulding around the roofline.

  2. mrouchell says:

    Here’s the reason for this post:

    Architecture schools have abandoned the teaching of traditional design leaving it up to the individual architect to learn it on his/her own. Some architects designing contemporary traditional architecture are better than others. Some have learned well, others not so well because there is no teacher or mentor to critique the mistakes and direct the student in the right direction.

    The architects that take little time to study classical architecture will produce designs with proportions that are off and details that are not correct. They look to me more like caricatures of classical architecture than the real thing. So I Wonder. Can the average person, one without an architecture degree, or one who did not study art history in school, distinguish a properly detailed house from one that is not? Does the mistakes jump out for me because I’ve studied classical architecture, or do they jump out for anyone who views the images? Perhaps the designs were far worse, but the client required refinement after refinement that brought the design closer to what it should be. Or perhaps the client who commissioned the architect could not see the faults of the design as they were depicted in seductive drawings and renderings.

    So this post puts this house built in 1993 up in comparison with some more well known houses designed by architects of the Nineteenth Century to illustrate the point. A far more difficult test would be to take an image of a house designed by Quinlan Terry or Allan Greenberg and compare it with some lesser known houses that were designed in the early Twentieth century or late Nineteenth Century. In that case, it would be more difficult to select the contemporary design.

    I am in favor of teaching architecture students classical design and hope that we can get back to designing beautiful buildings. This is being done at Notre dame University, University of Denver at Colorado, and a few others, but the majority of architecture schools continue to deprive students of this education and graduate them out into a world where there is a market and demand for traditional design.

    Here’s my critique of Belle Vie:

    1. The landscaping completely hides the lower floor.
    2. The segmental arched windows are slightly too wide.
    3. The cornice of the pediment is misaligned with the main cornice.
    4. There is no architrave under the cornice.
    5. The building lacks a top, either a roof or a balustrade.

    • Joseph Jutras says:

      Hi Michael,

      Good question. I don’t know, but here’s my opinion:
      If viewed on its own, I don’t think the average person who hasn’t studied buildings would notice the shortcomings of La Belle Vie (not even the architect did and buildings are his career). However, if viewed side by side with any of the other buildings included in this post, I believe most people would prefer the other buildings. They just may not be able to articulate why.

      Concerning teaching architecture students classical design and your critique of La Belle Vie: I couldn’t agree with you more!

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