How Architecture Reflects Society

A thought seized us recently as we were discussing a previous blog post on the history and influence of shingle-style architecture. Near the end of the article, we point out that the style reflects “the slow and romantic lifestyle of the Victorian era.” And it does. But at the height of its popularity, shingle-style architecture stood for one thing: wealth. These houses were how the upper crust of late nineteenth-century America expressed their wealth. Spacious houses showcased the bare fact of their affluence, global influences proved they had the means to travel and absorb culture, and the aforementioned romance of a life at ease indicated that they were well-enough established not to lead harried lives.

Seaside Manor Living Room

Interior of one of our classically Victorian homes, the Seaside Manor House.

Part of our mission statement cites that we aim to reflect our clients’ identities through the homes we create for them. This concept is more than just pretty words on paper; it informs our design decisions from start to finish. But in order to understand just how that works, it is important to see how aptly architecture has always reflected individuality and culture. The history of shingle-style architecture is a prime example, because it elegantly expresses not only the importance of wealth in the post-Victorian era, but also precisely what that wealth meant and how it behaved. For wealthy landowners at the turn of the century, a shingle-style house demonstrated wealth better than any Victorian adornment. The owners did not only have the money to commission impressive estates—they also had ample time to spend luxuriating on the premises. The industrial age also provided new opportunities to demonstrate wealth through machine-made products, intricate millwork, and impressive architectural detailing that would have been improbable (at best) only a few years earlier.

Shingle-Style MMA Home.

Notice the shingle carve-aways at right, reminiscent of turn-of-the-century shingle-style architecture.

Architecture’s reflection of society is far from a new concept. Consider how the great pyramids of Egypt underline their rulers’ power and prestige, the importance they placed in the afterlife, and their enormous value for material goods, even in death. Every era of human history speaks with a distinct architectural voice. English architect Sir Norman Foster (noted for rebuilding the Reichstag in Berlin after the reunification of Germany) explains, “Architecture is an expression of values—the way we build is a reflection of the way we live. This is why vernacular tradition and the historical layers of a city are so fascinating, as every era produces its own vocabulary.” In recognizing these values and the identities structured around them, we hope to design homes that reflect the spirit of their owners and the specific cadence of the world around them.

Modern Shingle-Style Cape House

Our Great Island House on Cape Cod represents a distilled modern interpretation of the shingle style.