Questions of Style
John Whipple traces the evolution of style, both personal and regional
John Whipple of Whipple Callender Architects finds himself at the receiving end of the same two questions fairly often: What’s happening in the architectural world right now? and Do you have a style? His answers, he says, have changed over the years. “In our office, we like to say that we are not married to a particular style,” he says. “Each project has its own set of challenges to be addressed, with its own unique set of solutions.” However, architects can’t reinvent everything each time they approach a project, and like all designers, Whipple and his team have their own set of likes and dislikes: “We strive for beauty, pleasing proportions, graceful flow of space, efficiency of means, and lack of pretention. I like to look at a completed building and identify the logic for every part of it. If the parts work well, the finished spaces have an intentional feel and there is a recurring theme, as well as a coherent logic.” The same principles work on many scales—from light fixtures to libraries—and styles, from shingle to modernism. MH+D asked Whipple to tell us more.
Q. How has the idea of “architectural style”—yours and the larger world’s—evolved over time?
A. The first two houses I designed had shed roofs, vertical siding, minimal trim, and large windows grouped at the corners. The style of these houses was popular in the 1970s, due to the influence of buildings like Sea Ranch in California and Haystack Mountain School in Maine. Fresh out of grad school, I wanted to adopt a particular style, to be part of a trend. Now, not so much. My attitude is a reflection of what’s happening in the larger world of art and design.
In the world of architecture today there are few dominant styles. Trends in arts of all kinds vary widely. Their roots are global, due largely to the vast amounts of information provided immediately by the Internet. In food, fusion styles are the rage; the more improbable the mix, the better for attracting foodies. In music, we hear hybrids like Latin/gypsy/Middle Eastern/Cuban swing, or California roots rock reggae punk. The architectural equivalent can be found in cities like Beijing and Seoul, where crops of new skyscrapers have sprung up in every shape imaginable. Sophisticated computer programs and new building technology can execute almost any bizarre form, and there seems to be no limit to what people are willing to pay to be noticed. Absent any universal movement, descriptions of style use terms like “zig-zaggery” and “blobism.”
Q. But Maine has a dominant architectural style, no?
A. Here in Maine, on a smaller scale, style is influenced by location more than by fashion trends or a need to be noticed. Our buildings have to deal with a tough climate. They need to have thick roofs and walls to keep out the winter cold, a plan to divert the spring rains, and, more and more, the ability to exhaust the summer heat and ventilate an airtight envelope. Windows in the right places help warm a house and combat the psychological affect of our short winter days. We deal with the New England ethic of practicality, and we have a rich context of historical styles to relate to. You see local materials like white cedar shingles, water-struck bricks, and pine trim. While there isn’t a dominant historical style, there are common characteristics to all styles.
Q. What have you been working on recently, and how would you classify its style?
A. This year, I was excited to be able to design a contemporary house with a Japanese influence. It was fun to have clients with specific tastes and to be able to work in an unusual idiom. It wasn’t, of course, simple. The site, on an old rock quarry in Maine, was extremely tight, the functional requests were precise, and to further complicate matters, the husband favored inclusion of pattern and color and places to display collections, while the wife favored true minimalism. The resulting design is a combination of diverse influences, which, in my experience, is the best formula for interesting results. The house has shed roofs, large areas of glass, exposed fir beams and posts, minimal trim, and concealed places for life’s clutter in a carefully proportioned, sunlit interior. The materials are local. The jagged roofs and angled walls grow visually out of the rocky site. Heating, insulation, and weather protection suit the location. What style is it? Anything but generic. In musical terms: indie.