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Standing on the Shoulders of Architect Giants – How we all intuitively understand precedent.


architecture informed by precedent is the best

Caring Wood, RIBA House of the Year 2017 – architecture informed by precedent

CRM's Hill House of 1903

Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s Hill House of 1903



Why and how does the architecture you love look so right? How do we know when we watch the RIBA House of the Year show that these spaces will be fulfilling, nurturing, exciting places to be? Conversely, why are we so sure when architecture is not right, when it jars? What informs those intuitions?  Simply: every building we visit, in the flesh, in movies, music videos, books and magazines. Architecture is the constant backdrop to our culture,  we are all unconsciously fluent in understanding it, including when it makes no sense.

Studying, analysing and utilising precedent may be the architect’s most valuable tool. Understanding the language of a building types, decoding, copying and modifying its skeleton and applying a skin of your own, is how all good work happens. Without that knowledge of precedent, architecture doesn’t sit right.

The two of the best house in the RIBA House of the Year competition clearly referenced precedents:

Caring Wood (which I knew instantly would be the winner) re-constructs the vernacular of kentish oast houses and the soaring forms of Charles Rennie Mackintosh and Ned Lutyens.  CRM and Ned themselves reinvented “traditional” forms, so Caring Wood plays a double-blinder in nods to history. The architects (James Macdonald Wright and Niall Maxwell) are more than capable of composing contemporary form and space, which could be said to have evolved from the drawing boards of Zaha and Libeskind, thirty years ago, and the whole is a near-perfect almagam of reference and continuing innovation in domestic spaces and home design.

The Quest, the other outstanding competitor in the shortlist in essence a love child of Pierre Koenig and Phillip Johnson, after they eloped from Mies Van der Rohe’s austere basement. Beautifully detailed, soft, powerful, composed and brave, architect Magnus Strom designed something wonderful by sticking to a language they, you and I know understand and  love, and writing a poem in it for their clients.


Phillip Johnson Glass House New Canaan

Phillip Johnson Glass House New Canaan

The Quest

The Quest,architect Magnus Storm  © Martin Gardiner

Pierre Koenig's famous case study House 22, as seen on TV!

Pierre Koenig’s famous case study House 22, as seen on TV!