What Is Style? An Architectural Conundrum

Look for Defining Characteristics

Photo of two different house styles digitally combined to form one house
What Is Style?. Digital composite by Laurence Dutton / The Image Bank / Getty images (cropped)

In general, style is a manner of expression—a description of presentation. Architectural style is the vocabulary we use when we classify buildings according to their appearance, structure, materials, and historic period. The word's origin is associated with the Latin word stimulus, which is something that affects something else—that thing that makes the neighbors talk.

If you've ever tried to define the style of your own home, you know that "style" is a vague and confusing term.

Architects, home builders, and real estate professionals often don't agree on what they mean when they describe a style.

What do we mean when we say "house style" or "architectural style"? Why do we call some houses "Cape Cod" and others "Bungalow"? Is "Victorian" a style? Do some buildings have "no style"?

Checklist of Style Features:

Buildings are said to belong to the same classification (or style) when their exteriors share many of the same characteristics. Here's a quick checklist:

  • roof shape and pitch
  • building size and number of stories
  • window size, shape, and placement
  • door shape and placement
  • decorative details such as brackets and cornice trim
  • structural details such as arches, columns, and porches
  • construction materials such as brick, stucco, adobe, or wood
  • footprint and floor plan
  • historic period

Homeowners often become frustrated when trying to identify the style of their houses. This is because most buildings are actually a combination of several styles.

Stylized modern-day homes are often called neo-eclectic, meaning they are a wide-ranging mix of details borrowed from many times, places, and building traditions. To complicate further—interior design styles can be different from a home's exterior style. Why not have a modern kitchen in a Victorian home?

Do All Buildings Have Style?

Many people say no, that utilitarian shelters of any type—like Laugier's Primitive Hut—are not styled at all. They have been called "folk" or "vernacular" buildings (or rural folk or rural vernacular, as this type structure is not often found in urban areas). Cobblestone Houses, a distinctive construction method found in Western New York State and elsewhere, have been called a type of vernacular building, yet it is the method of construction that is defining.

  • What is vernacular or rural vernacular? Vernacular is a word that means indigenous or native to a region. It is not the name of a house style. The word vernacular is most often used to describe language or local speech patterns—African-American Vernacular English is one example. Architect John Milnes Baker describes vernacular buildings as "regional architecture with no stylistic pretension. Nonarchitected rural buildings."
  • How does vernacular differ from neo-eclectic? Professor Dell Upton suggests that vernacular buildings are the result of conscious design decisions, just like any other architecture. Upton says that the difference is in the process. "Fashion and aesthetic ideas are incorporated into vernacular building, but they are subordinated to the more immediate purposes of the farmer, the storekeeper, the householder, the speculative builder and the fast-food merchant." That is, the structure's purpose, function, and convenience of building materials and local methods dictate the design first and foremost. "Fashion and aesthetic ideas"—what we may call a style—are secondary, if present at all.

    The Wright Explanation of Style:

    "What is style? Every flower has it; every individual worthy the name has it in some degree, no matter how much sandpaper may have done for him It is a free product, a byproduct, the result of an organic working out of a project in character and in one state of feeling....A style is some form of spiritual constipation."—Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959)

    So, What Is Style?

    At its best, style is nonjudgmental. It is neither good nor bad, whether you're talking about hair, clothes, or architecture. Style is a description of trending characteristics and nothing else. A style descriptor becomes more genuine and accurate when the source is knowledgeable, rational, and fair.

    In the great melting pot of the United States, architecture is more often than not mashups of traditional styles with new ideas.

    Does this create a new style or falsify the whole notion of style?  Debunking the style myth has become as entertaining a pastime as style itself.

    Learn More:

    • What Style Is It?: A Guide to American Architecture by John C. Poppeliers and S. Allen Chambers, Wiley, 2003
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    • Architectural Styles: A Visual Guide by Owen Hopkins, 2014
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    • How to Read Buildings: A Crash Course in Architectural Styles by Carol Davidson Cragoe, Rizzoli, 2008
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    Sources: American House Styles: A Concise Guide by John Milnes Baker, AIA, Norton, 1994, p. 177; Frank Lloyd Wright On Architecture: Selected Writings (1894-1940), Frederick Gutheim, ed., Grosset's Universal Library, 1941, pp. 68, 211; "Vernacular Buildings" entry by Dell Upton, Built in the U.S.A., National Trust for Historic Preservation, 1985, p. 168.