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An Introduction to the Principles of Traditional Architecture:

Based on observation and a bit of Ruskin:


People often wonder what it is about older buildings that gives them their character. Buildings that have this property exist in many styles of architecture, which often appear to have little if anything in common. All too often new buildings which try to emulate heritage buildings fail to do so convincingly, and the designers and their clients are often at a loss to explain why. I find that the following principles and rules of thumb are very helpful.

The Building as a Whole

A building should be designed at a range of scales, from its overall colour, massing and silhouette against the sky  as seen from a few blocks away, to the arrangement of openings and other details and the play of light across it as an observer draws nearer. Closer still more detail should resolve, and as the entrance is approached there really shouldn’t be any point where there is no more detail to see when the observer can still get closer. The finest detail should be where the observer gets closest to the building, namely the doorcase and door. A doorhandle should be designed to be comfortably grasped and closely scrutinised, and the leading edge of a door, the part of a building that gets closest to its user’s face really should receive some design attention. An entrance, a door, a newel post, a window or a window seat really should have a similar level of detail to good quality furniture, perhaps even of bold jewellery. If an entrance door handle for a four storey building is sketched with a 0.5mm mechanical pencil, then at the same scale that building’s roof crest might be sketched with a large house painting brush.

For this scale hierarchy to be effective, the outlines and massing the building and the layout and proportions of its opening should be composed. In industrial and commercial buildings this is rarely difficult. However, in smaller houses and other buildings with more complex functions, arranging volumes, rooflines, windows and doors purely for convenience of interior layout will rarely be effective, and there will likely need to be some compromise if a truly beautiful building is to be had. The sacrifices need not be much, but a perfectly  convenient and spatially efficient floor plan will rarely deliver an optimally beautiful building.


It is usually effective to use detail, ornament and text to draw attention to things, and use plain surfaces to draw attention away. The most detail will draw the most attention, and if getting closer promises to reveal more information, then observers will be drawn towards that detail. This is why entrance doorways are traditionally the most finely detailed and ornate part of a building facade.


Related to this is materiality. At the very least wood should read as wood, metal should be used where it does not try to resemble anything else, and stone, brick or concrete should read as such too. Plaster is only really convincing if it appears to cover masonry or concrete, and where this looks or feels improbable it will be unconvincing. Something that looks heavy and inadequately supported will always be unsettling. Rugged materials set into a more refined frame will rarely be as satisfactory as a more finished, detailed or graceful item set into a more rugged frame or surface. Using more resistant materials, such as harder timbers, metal, hard stone or terrazzo where they will be subject to wear makes both practical and aesthetic sense. Imitation materials are rarely satisfactory where they are subject to wear or scrutiny. Most modern plastics and factory finished materials that do not take in-situ refinishing generally do not age gracefully.

Detail Hierarchy

There really should be a clear hierarchy of detail and ornament across a frontage. Detail and ornament should be scaled to suit where it will be seen from. A person will approach a door close enough to touch it, but a first floor window frame will only be seen from a few metres away, and must therefore be bold if it is to catch attention. When designing ornament and mouldings it pays to be bold, and while curved and moulded detail will usually cost more than flat cutouts they are invariably far more effective, and far more responsive to shifting light. Flat cutouts are most effective in conjunction with other more sculpted detail, in richly textured materials, high up where crisp edges will cast stronger shadows, or silhouetted against the sky where moulding would be lost anyway.

The Entrance

An effective entrance will promise more detail on closer inspection, but it should also promise shelter, and perhaps offer transparency as well. One approach seen in many older buildings is two sets of doors, an outer solid door and across a small vestibule an inner glass door. With the outer door closed the building is clearly closed to all but those who work or live there, but with the outer door latched open the vestibule becomes a porch, and the glass inner door becomes the outer doorway, offering a glimpse deeper inside and welcoming in the client, customer or guest. A richly detailed and sheltering porch with windows within will always say ‘please enter here’, just as a relatively plain and solid door with no shelter and an uncomfortable handle will tend to say ‘ you are not welcome’. While a deep porch can appear gloomy, it can also promise definite shelter from harsh sunlight or driving rain and cold wind. A degree of transparency in the door or its surrounds implies welcome to enter further. A solid door in a deep porch suggest that while a visitor is welcome to shelter there, they should wait to be invited further in. Considered detail in a porch and around a door shows consideration towards those who must spend time there.


A well designed window should not only admit light and view, but should make an observer long to look out from that window, perhaps even fantasize about living or working behind it, imagine opening it and calling out to someone in the street below, or at least want to visit the space it lights. A window is almost invariably approached much closer from within, and the inner frames and hardware must be carefully considered. Too abrupt a window opening can be jarring, and an opening glazed with a single sheet of glass can seem too much like a hole in the wall, offering no sense of shelter in inclement weather. A window that attenuates will tend to feel more satisfactory, with carefully positioned mullions and glazing bars the best tool for this purpose. As a general rule divided openings are most effective when there is a clear hierarchy amongst them, with frames within frames. If the window contains panes of different sizes, then areas of glass should be largest closest to the centre of the field of vision of someone looking out. The converse will tend to be annoying. By the same principle then, if there is some variety in the windows across a facade, the larger windows that are to be looked out of should have the largest panes of glass.

A Note...

These principles and guidelines are independent of any architectural style, and indeed can be found in some of the best modernist architecture too. Traditionally much of this was never taught overtly, but tended to rub off on student and apprentice designers before the modernist era. It is really pretty much all common sense, but is little taught today. The principles are not inviolable, and many of our greatest architects have carefully broken some of them in creating truly beautiful and moving buildings. That said, to do this successfully an architect must have thoroughly mastered and internalized these principles, and will not so much defy them as transcend them. Few of us today have the talent to do that.
James Carr - June 2012