Writings

Looking Forward to Monday Mornings
A series of essays on business, architecture, and the business of architecture.
Nostalgia, Romantic or Pejorative?
by Daniel Frisch
Posted July 10th, 2020

The other day, I found myself leafing through a coffee table book, 100 Years of Iconic Toys (Roads Publishing 2016), and was overcome by nostalgia, precisely as the editors intended. The book belongs to a genre of romantic documentary journalism that helps people connect through shared memories, in this case toys. The first chronologic entry in the book is “Marbles 1884” and the penultimate is “Kinetic Sand 2013.” My children and I have played this year with both, as well as dozens of the featured toys from the years between. The last entry is “Frozen Dolls 2013,” and for my children’s generation, these dolls may someday elicit as much nostalgia as Lincoln Logs do for me. Carefully studying the table of contents, I realize I most probably relate to the material as much or more than anyone, as thirty-two of the toys date from 1965 (the year of my birth) to 1983 (the year I graduated from high school). Many of the earlier offerings are still in production, and a few of the more recent are favorites of my kids and are destined to create shared multi-generational memories. (If you are curious, the full 129-year list of Roads Publishing’s 100 Years of Iconic Toys is appended at the end of this essay.)

The Roads editorial team used a lot of curatorial judgment in compiling their toy history with each toy aspiring to be tagged as the Greatest of All Time (G.O.A.T.). I, for one, share their enthusiasm. Yet surprisingly, missing from the list is Monopoly (1935); and Battleship (1967); and the sports-oriented games like Matkot/Kadima (1932); and Trac Ball (1975). More notably, the curated collection skips over the technology games like Atari (1977), Nintendo (1983) and xBox (2001) – not to mention today’s ubiquitous smartphones and tablets and the endless catalog game apps available. Whether you fondly remember playing on the floor with a Barrel of Monkeys, expressing your creativity with an Etch A Sketch, still sleep as a middle-aged adult with a teddy bear, or play Candy Crush every time you take mass transit, the memory of toys of past eras and the addictiveness of today’s digital offerings trigger very positive emotions. How can you not smile at the recollection of seeing a Slinky snake-walk down the stairs, and at watching kids and grandchildren marvel in just the same manner? Other than a sad memory of a kinked Slinky or the tragic loss of a childhood plaything, our memories of toys are almost without exception, romantically nostalgic.

I suspect each reader feels this nostalgia, and from simply words on a page, without any visuals.  100 Years of Iconic Toys is a picture book, and while my descriptions are a reasonable testimonial for the book, words cannot compete with the memories triggered by the book’s photos – a picture tells a thousand words. If only the book were also scratch-and-sniff, the sensory triggers would be complete. Close your eyes, and you can “see” your favorite toy, yet now imagine that toy is Play-Doh or Silly Putty. You can remember how it feels in your hand, and even more vividly, how each toy’s distinctive smell takes you back in time. The olfactory is widely understood to arouse the most intense memories, more than visuals, and certainly more than words.

Adults enjoy strong memories of toys; toys usually played with in the childhood home. For our hundreds of clients, and for ourselves too, I think, recollections of childhood homes can equal and even exceed the nostalgia we feel for iconic toys. When working with homeowners for the first time, we often ask for pictures of their favorite homes. Sometimes, the images we receive are aspirational and other times less so; but as we dig deeper, we find that the strongest associations derive from childhood. (Thank you, Dr. Freud.) As a personal example, my childhood home was built in 1957, and was a flat-roofed mid-century builder home, turned forty-five degrees on it’s suburban lot and painted charcoal gray (black) with white trim. As a young child growing up in this split-level passive solar house, I had no real understanding of its uniqueness, or how formative the home would be to my career as an architect. I only knew the house was different from my friends’ homes. To this day, I can easily draw floor plans from memory, perhaps, but not solely because I am an architect. Many of the details I recall from this unusual and remarkable house find their way into my work, often sub-consciously. My childhood home had a white brick fireplace, as does ours today. My childhood home was sited to take advantage of the sun, as does ours today. Along similar lines, we have an attic fan to exhaust the hot summer air, just like we did when I was growing up.   My childhood home had an open plan and the kitchen was the hub of the house, as is our kitchen today.

To be fair, the suburban home in which I grew up was not a perfect house. The house was inexpensively constructed, required constant maintenance, and the acoustics were dreadful, unless of course, you enjoy hearing every word spoken in every other room. Had my parents been yellers, I doubt I could have recovered. Living in a black house attracted many airborne eggs on Halloween, and cleaning the residue from stained cedar siding is no easy feat. The basement wasn’t a basement – it was a concrete bunker and tornado shelter accessed by a ship’s ladder. And yet, there was more good than bad – I like to think this is the case of every happy home, even one with a tornado shelter, a crawlspace attic, and eggs on its face.

Two current-day stories remind me of the power of memories and nostalgia. The first is a story shared recently by a repeat client who has become a good friend, and who willingly and thoughtfully shares his insights. After finishing renovation number one, we went out to dinner and spoke about the completed project and its impact on his day-to-day. He expressed that he and his wife regularly wake up noting how happy they are in their re-imagined home, enjoying the functional success and beauty of the design elements, and that our work had a meaningful daily impact on their lives. I’ve worked hard over the years to learn to accept a compliment, and while it doesn’t come easily, I knew enough to say “thank you” – and to try not to blush. The second part of the conversation was more unusual, and to me, more interesting. My friend shared that on certain mornings, he would step into his beautiful new master bathroom, only to somewhat inexplicably realize that he missed his old bathroom, no matter how dysfunctional and less beautiful when compared with the new. In spite of the objective differences, he experienced an unexpected and confusing ‘nostalgia’ for the old space.

The second story is more personal. A few years ago we built our dream home, Three Twelves Farm, and no matter how perfect, and it is pretty exceptional, our kids will once in a while remind me that they miss our old house – a 1400 square foot c. 1760 antique with a greater squirrel population than human. The power of nostalgia is extremely powerful, and wholly detached from both objective and subjective criteria.

With the above thesis in mind, it would seem that nostalgia would be high on our list of prescriptive design strategies. Simply find out what a client remembers most fondly about a childhood home and replicate those elements. While such an approach may be to some degree fruitful, a more thorough study is in order before blithely adopting nostalgia as a design tool. Until the twentieth century, romantic nostalgia was, indeed, the basis of most architectural expression. From the Renaissance and Greek Revival, to the Beaux Arts; nostalgia for a former era or epoch was universal. The Industrial Revolution, Art Nouveau and even Frank Lloyd Wright’s Prairie Style all incorporated details from previous eras. Not until the Bauhaus school and the International Style, did architects and designers fully turn their backs on historic precedent. With the predictability of a pendulum, the nineteen-eighties and nineties brought a resurgence of historicism in in the form of the Post-Modern movement. Thirty years later, we are enjoying a mid-century modern revival, based upon an extremely stylish and popular yet equally referential design language. When I was an undergraduate, we looked upon Jefferson’s Monticello and the Academical Village at the University of Virginia as primary sources, establishing the foundational underpinning of our studies. At the same time, we were taught that Palladio’s la Rotonda was the inspiration for Jefferson’s two masterpieces – even the revolutionary and innovative Jefferson borrowed sources.

As a graduate student at Columbia University in New York City, helmed by the deconstructionist architect Bernard Tschumi as dean, we were taught that all historic precedent should be cast aside and that a reverential or nostalgic approach to design was unfounded, and any anything but innovative. We studied at the altar of the deconstructionist theorists and masters Zaha Hadid, Daniel Liebeskind, Peter Eisenman and Frank Gehry. By the time I set out on my own, there was zero consensus in the Academy as to whether nostalgia was a romantic or pejorative concept, and even today, perhaps more than ever, the battle lines are starkly drawn. On one side are the Classicists, promoting designs borrowed from and exalting a former era, and on the other are the Deconstructionists designing iconoclastic buildings of warped planes and acute angles and willing to tear down (architectural) monuments with little concern for heritage. Armed with an appreciation of both schools of thought, I suggest a more centrist philosophy. Form need not follow function, nor function follow form; they should reinforce each other. In the same manner, nostalgia and innovation can and need to coexist, celebrating the best of what has come before, while steadfastly embracing and imagining all that has yet to be.