What Should Be: the St. Louis Flounder

What Should Be - STL flounder_300pxAnyone who has explored the neighborhoods of St. Louis knows that its urban fabric contains immense charm, largely due to a proliferation of high quality historic buildings and interspersed mid-century modern structures. These historic structures help present St. Louis as a world-class city, and are an undeniably vital part of the narrative of the city. This fragile and nearly irreplaceable historic fabric, with very few exceptions, should be preserved however possible.

In many of our historic neighborhoods, this preservation has been accomplished, in part, through historic district designations and their associated historic standards. While the standards have often been successful at restoring and preserving existing construction within neighborhoods, they have largely been unable to create worthy replacement of the lost portions of historic fabric. The fundamental flaw in the process is the requirement that new construction adheres to historic standards. While noble in intention, this practice often results in the proverbial mullet houses or snout houses, and usually bearing little historical accuracy. Creating replica versions of historic neighborhoods ultimately doesn’t honor them, but instead it detracts from them. Worse yet, it cheapens them. World-class historic buildings deserve adjacent infill that is respectful enough to be original.

What Should Be - STL flounder
{the Flounder House, showing what we could see if we allowed the new and old to exist side by side}

Rather than try in vain to recreate the lost portions of historic fabric, a new layer should be added to the city’s built history- one that addresses the problems of the 21st century instead of replicating the forms of centuries past. The freedom to directly deal with evolving issues is ultimately a quality-of-life issue, but it’s also one of aesthetics. The resulting juxtaposition of the modern and historic is arguably the most material way for a rejuvenated urban core to exemplify positive change. There is a vibrant synergy that results when buildings of different eras share a street wall. They highlight each other’s unique qualities, and their history and stories play off of one another, both visually and rhythmically. This dynamic quality is usually desired in a city, yet is formally prohibited in many of the city’s most attractive neighborhoods because of the restrictions imposed by historic districts.

What Should Be - STL flounder
{the house would be located within the Benton Park Historic District, and therefore would be held to the historic standards for new construction}

What Should Be - STL flounder
{while its aesthetics are modern, the design maintains the density and contributes to the rhythm of the historic fabric}

St. Louis has numerous historic districts accounting for large portions of its residential neighborhoods. Almost all of these districts prohibit, in some capacity, the possibility of creating the innovative architecture that commonly germinates in cities- including, historically, St. Louis. This present system of new construction standards should be scrutinized. Interestingly, only the first historic district standards adopted in St. Louis appear to demonstrate a clear understanding of the balance of values between old and new:

“It is not the intention of these regulations to in any way discourage contemporary design, which through careful attention to scale, materials, siting and landscaping is harmonious with the historic, existing structure. Distinctive older buildings are not enhanced when new construction, which resorts to ‘fakery and imitation’, is used to fill gaps in the streetscape.”Central West End neighborhood historic standards.

Historic neighborhoods are great places because the buildings are authentic and their character and details sprung organically from their own particular time and circumstance. These buildings are real and you know it when in their vicinity. They exude an authenticity that simply can’t be recreated through cheap imitation.

As St. Louis continues to struggle with population loss, its elected leaders search for solutions to various interrelated problems. St. Louis needs to look in the mirror and analyze the reflection of what it truly is: an evolving place that will never again be the intact, historic city that once housed 850,000 people. It’s tragic how much of the St. Louis urban core has been lost to both outward migration and senseless demolition, but the extinguished historic buildings are gone and can’t be authentically recreated.

With the number of vacant buildings in St. Louis, it is evident that there is not a colossal demand for historic properties- at least not enough to continuously foil the wrecking ball. It should then be obvious that to mandate building new ‘historic appearing’ homes, while real historic homes crumble only blocks away, is needlessly counterproductive.

With this realization, a review of the terms for new construction within the historic neighborhoods of St. Louis is warranted. Alternatives are needed. Modern infill should not only be allowed, but should be encouraged. The improvement to quality of life would be palpable.

What Should Be - STL flounder
{the Flounder House is an example of contextual modern infill and is a direct reference to a common housing form mostly unique to early St. Louis, with examples still found around St. Louis’s oldest neighborhoods. Its distinctive half-gabled roof gives it its character, and can be described diagrammatically as a brick volume with a long sliver of exterior circulation. Here, the design extrudes the circulation corridor through the building, dissecting the minimalist brick screen facade to create a roof deck within the brick screen and a community friendly front porch below}

What Should Be - STL flounder
{2nd floor bedrooms and 3rd floor loft space manifest as a sculptural element that playfully interacts with the circulation and brick massing}

Through juxtaposition, modern infill frames historicism- it proudly displays both our past and future as something equally special and deserving of respect. Well-designed modern infill that respects its historic context through massing, materials, and detailing can provide St. Louis with a jumpstart to a most diverse urban landscape.

The possibilities of modern design celebrate the present, and show that even with fewer inhabitants than in decades past, St. Louis can expect its best days ahead.

What Should Be - STL flounder
{shown here on the winter solstice, the brick screen creates an ephemeral ambiance that changes hourly and seasonally}

As a theoretical project, this modern flounder house has not been subjected to the critical review of the local Cultural Resources Office. Though the design cares to respect its context, it would certainly not be approvable by authorities having any jurisdiction over new proposals because it is not based on an appointed, model example. One must wonder if such a system of prescribed cultural conservatism is stultifying St. Louis neighborhoods.

What Should Be - STL flounder
{this building section highlights the fluid spatial connection between various tiered interior and exterior spaces. The possibilities for non-traditional spatial layouts are either outright prohibited, or significantly hindered by current historic standards for new construction}

New buildings can satisfy the criteria that respects historic context without trying, falsely, to appear historic. Model example or not, the Flounder House would satisfy most of the requirements of the Benton Park historic district standards for new construction. These matched standards include site alignment, setbacks from rights-of-way or property lines, massing, scale and proportion. The facade is composed of an approved material in brick, and has an appropriate mass-to-void apportionment.

What Should Be - STL flounder
{a truly historic building is flanked by both a cheap historic imitation and the Flounder House, which reinterprets a historic housing form through a modern lens. These reinterpretations, when in contrast to authentic historic detailing, add richness to the street that is impossible to replicate with only buildings of the same era}

As soon as one becomes divorced from the restrictions of model examples, countless possibilities open up for innovative solutions that can meet the needs of a 21st century society – functionally, socially and aesthetically – all while respecting their historic context. Most solutions won’t have an explicit historical reference, nor should they. Through the well-known concept of form-based zoning, proper massing, materials, sense of scale and quality of construction, we can readily assure compatibility with the historic architecture of St. Louis neighborhoods.

Buildings of different eras narrate the history of a city’s built environment. St. Louis has a rich and vast history that should be preserved and celebrated however possible. Yet ultimately, the story will stretch far beyond this rich history.
St. Louis is awakening and jumping headfirst into the 21st century. The evolution of her built environment should celebrate this awakening.

An inclusive evolution won’t happen through demolition or replication, but instead through adaptive reuse, invention and thoughtful modern infill. Perceptions matter, and the way to shape them should be through the adjacency of well-designed contemporary buildings and revitalized historic buildings. While a dynamic eclecticism certainly won’t happen over night, it should be the clear, ultimate goal.

As a quality of life issue, the successful marriage of modern infill to rich history is obvious, but it also demonstrates a truth: St. Louis was once great, and still is.

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  • gmichaud

    If the house had a floor plan it would be easier to understand, it does not seem to read the same in all of the illustrations, but I may be missing something.
    A couple of points, the early flounder house was part of a modular system of architecture, without going into it too deeply: one example is the use of the flounder on the rear of gable, mansard and other main structures to expand space and often allow the main building access to the yard.
    Another point is the corbeling of the brick near the top of the parapet in the old buildings is aesthetic, defining the top, casting a shadow line as well as technical, forcing water to drip away from the face of the brick.
    Such marriages of art and function are not as common as they should be in modern architecture.
    Finally what is modern? Victor Horta worked in Art Nouveau, is modern architecture even the right vocabulary for today?  What is the role of decorative arts? At one time architecture included sculpture, painting, iron work and many other arts.
    It looks like a nice building that might be fun to live in, the illustration with the mansard building next door does make it appear harsh though.

  • heldover

    I get why people think it looks out of place.  I kinda feel the same way.  But to those whom I am agreeing with, is it because of the single 45-degree angle the roof makes from the front of the home?  Cause that’s what’s throwing me off.  I also think if the designer worked a balcony or some kind of opening into the top area so it wasn’t all brick, that might win a few more people over…

  • http://yastlblog.blogspot.com/ Kevin Barbeau

    I like what they’ve done on 13th Street near Lafayette (just west of Tucker, facing the Walgreens). It’s a pretty modern approach to urban infill which takes the context of the existing buildings into consideration without mimicking or overshadowing them.

    I would like to see these more of these new buildings set even closer together if possible though, and create more three-flat floor plans rather than individual residences.

  • CortezSTL

    I think this design looks good!  

  • Zundo

    I think there is a fine line between trying to replicate past architecture and being aware of their character and responding accordingly. To me, too often architects go for designs that clash with their surroundings, just so they can grab attention. In essence the buildings represent ego fulfillment…the starchitecture desire… or they are built as stand alone entities. The best architects can produce something different, functional and part of the character and fabric of their surroundings. Although the building represented above looks ok standing alone, it really seems a distractive clash when placed in this neighborhood. 

    Sometimes I think the design professions try to be the first to come up with the next big thing. Instead we should keep evolving what works, rather than starting from scratch and trying to make something new and artsy. 

    • Alex Ihnen

      I don’t know that I agree. Take a look at what’s been built in the German Village area of Columbus, OH. The modern (infill and additions) certainly seem to work there: http://nextstl.com/placemaking/how-much-modern-architecture-can-you-find-within-three-blocks-columbus-ohio-s-answer-a-lot

  • gmichaud

    I agree that probably the biggest failing of architects is the handling of proportion. Ornamentation and roof line are also important in my view. But everything fails without correct proportions, in fact I would say much of the failure of the faux old style home is proportion. Look at the Lafayette Square inspired infill around 12th and Chouteau. They are ill-proportioned all around, especially many of the roofs, instead of pleasing to the eye they are artistic failures.
    I do think the historic standards could be loosened up, a dogmatic approach towards design is not the answer.
    The current flounder pictured, while correct to ask the question, doesn’t seem to answer that same question on how to integrate a building with the surrounding urban fabric. In general, integration of individual architecture with the environment is poorly done everywhere in the region, even discounting historic districts.
    Design is a building of ideas and not static. Hopefully other solutions are forthcoming.

  • Jake

    I like it.

  • Samuel

    Not sold. I agree with the sentiment behind this post, but I’m not sold on the architecture. The top half of the home is visually a big brick wall.

    I like the contrast of modern lines next to the historic, but I don’t think this particular home is the best example.

  • Theresia

    yeah i’m sorry but it looks really dumb to the beautiful architecture of our St. Louis homes.

  • Alex Ihnen

    I don’t know that I would live in one of these new flounders, but I think it works. One struggle STL has is updating its housing. SOMETHING must fit in the vacant lots, or on the same block as the unending 1890-1920 brick homes. How do we do that? Much of the infill (think EcoUrban) mimicks the existing form, why not a flounder? I love the rehabs, but not everyone does and there’s no one-size fits all for new construction. The city needs housing options and this would be a great addition to the city fabric. 

  • RobbyD

    I like the juxtaposition created by contemporary looks (lines, windows, angled front) while still holding onto certain features (brick, proportion, “flounder” sillouette) that unite the homes…It often seems just silly to build today like we still live in the 19th century…

    I was back at my alma mater this last week (UGA down in Athens, Ga) and much new construction on campus has true, wait for it, Georgian influence, but is cleaner, more substantial and is filled with today’s materials and floorplans (LOTS of red brick ;> ) So nice when we design and build off the best/success of our past rather than arrogantly throwing everything out and starting over…

    • john w.

      funny, considering the term ‘Georgian’ refers to the style preferred by (or, demanded by) King George the 3rd, and not the Atlantic Colonial state, but that the state was named for his Grandfather, King George the 2nd.

  • JasonToon

    I’m sorry, but the Flounder House looks ridiculous and awkward in that context. I get the point about cheap theme-park faux-historic infill, but the answer isn’t to discard the basic principles of a street’s houses – window proportions, roof line, ornamentation, etc.