There was once a time when “modern” was not considered an aesthetic.
It was synonymous with innovation and forward thinking, first gaining popularity in the 1920s as it reshaped the design industry. It was a word for pushing bounds and drumming creativity — a challenging of the status quo, of sorts.
Most importantly, it was not a trend. It was a way of life.
But a century passed, “modern” took on new meaning, and even though the word now conjures up myriad of sleek lines, glass walls and flat roofs, some architects still buck when “modern” and “trend” are paired in the same sentence.
“I think trends in architecture are bad because I don’t think they’re thoughtful. They’re more like, ‘Let’s just jump on the bandwagon,’” explained Paul Masi of Bates Masi + Architects in Sag Harbor. “Anything that’s a trend, what happens? It becomes outdated. I think we’re in a crisis of overbuilding and we need to conserve our resources, but meanwhile, these ‘trends’ are abusing that. What a party pooper I am, huh?”
He laughed. “For me, in terms of architecture, it’s like, ‘Number one: Avoid trends. Number two: Avoid subscribing to a particular style.’ You have to have an open mind and you have to think critically and beyond those certain fashionable items. They come in, and they come out — like fidget-spinners, for kids. But this is a landscape; we don’t want to ruin the landscape and the environment. Building has a big impact.”
Today, modern architecture represents a move toward minimalism — in an overall architectural sense, but also spatially and materially, according to Viola Rouhani of Stelle Lomont Rouhani Architects in Bridgehampton.
It is less formal and more inventive, with a focus on connecting a home’s form to its surroundings, from the woods to the fields to the beach, she said. This was the case with her Shore House project in Amagansett, which was sited among the dunes and up against the elements.
“Now that modern architecture — in the context of its early days — has been practiced so much, people think of a style. But to me, that isn’t necessarily modern architecture,” she said. “With Shore House, we took a lot of materiality into concern, specifically catering to an owner who was very concerned with maintenance. The building is zinc, so we used these zinc panels and came up with these wooden slats for the windows. They are all on rollers, so they can roll across the entire façade and provide privacy and cut out the sun.”
Horizontal and vertical wooden screens, such as these, have helped modern architecture move away from multi-pane windows and toward larger expanses of glass by eliminating solar heat gain. And while glass walls have long been trendy on the South Fork, points due north are finally catching up, according to Southold-based architect Meryl Kramer.
“I am, myself, getting more into the window wall, but this has been going on in the Hamptons for years and years and years, where you have the flat roof and an all-glass wall looking at the ocean,” she said. “There are more of these houses popping up on the North Fork that were not here before. At least from my experience, we are trending more toward modern than traditional architecture — and part of that is what manufacturers are displaying, and what is more sustainable.”
Nearly every build by Wainscott-based Greg D’Angelo features a “tremendous amount of glass, where the architects are trying to make it feel like the inside of the house flows right to the outside,” he said. He attributes this particular piece of modern design to advances in materials, as well as increasing familiarity with the technique required to execute it, he said.
“Traditional homes have a historical common thread like, ‘This is the way you do that.’ There are typical details in traditional construction, where there are many atypical details in every single modern build,” he said. “Just because you built one or two doesn’t mean it’s gonna be easy to build the next one. They’re just so unique, each one of them.
“The architects, a lot of their design ideas push the envelope more and more,” he continued. “‘How cool can we make it? How different can we do it?’ In traditional architecture, if you’re doing something odd, that’s wrong. You need to conform in traditional architecture, and if you’re trying to push an envelope, then it’s a mistake. Not in contemporary architecture.”
There is innovation happening that doesn’t necessarily look modern, explained architect James Merrell, with a classical simplicity that has an eternal appeal.
“If you look around the Hamptons, you see houses that were designed and built within the decade that are being knocked down. It means the original house was not architecturally timeless. It was maybe stuck in an idea, a moment — it was not about a larger perspective,” the Sag Harbor architect said. “The trends, then, and the historical goal of houses being heirlooms, those are completely at odds with each other.”
The key is to acknowledge the past while thinking about the future, Masi explained, which was the strategy with his Georgica Cove project in East Hampton. The architect acknowledged the vernacular of the area and his clients’ needs — a couple with grown children, and grandchildren, who wanted a home that could accommodate the whole family, yet feel intimate the majority of the time.
Meet the New England connected barn.
“We partitioned these pieces of the house up, where they could literally close off a section of the house. You can really put that part of the house into sleep mode and feel like you’re living in a much smaller house,” Masi said. “It’s a home made up of four individual units and they’re literally detached from each other and have a glass courtyard that connects them. They can shut them off, physically, with a door, so you deactivate them and when just the owners are there, they feel they’re in a much more appropriately scaled home for them. When the kids and grandkids come and it’s fully occupied, the house can expand. The house expands and contracts depending on who’s there.”
Whether that house — and the countless other modern builds across the East End — will stand the test of time remains to be seen, though Merrell says he can typically tell. And more often than not, the differences between houses that capture a certain sensibility and the ones that do not boil down to trends.
“Our world has such a short attention span. Custom houses are increasingly being seen as a disposal consumer object, like cars,” he said. “Everything else in our lives, we use and essentially assume we’re going to throw it out after a season or two. I think houses are maybe the only thing left that shouldn’t be that way and isn’t reproduced in a mass sense.
“So when you’re talking about houses — as opposed to cars and clothes — are trends the goal or are trends passing obsessions, and things that make something commercial in the moment as opposed to timeless?” he continued. “To focus on trends is a small window through which to look at something that’s supposed to last a century, a lifetime. Houses are supposed to last generations.”