Robert G. Zinkhan, Architect AIA


Is a modern country home a contradiction in terms? Some clients moving into the California wine country of Sonoma and Napa counties face this dilemma. They want a modern house with a contemporary plan, amenities and finishes, but also desire the homey casualness and imagery of country architecture. The challenge, for the architect who cares, is to create the desired ambiance without being utterly derivativeóreplicating a farmhouse, chateau or manor house.

The special sense of place that we associate with a country house usually derives from the unique connectedness of the building to its setting. The site of the modern country home inspires the architecture. It is some special quality of the site, after all, which first stirs the client's imagination. The home's form and floor plan are free to express an awareness of the assets and liabilities of the site: views, sun, shade, wind, contours, landscape, noise, privacy, etc.

Traditional styles provide very limited potential for response to either positive or negative site conditions. Their aesthetic requires ignoring such specifics. The picturesque house is more about image and nostalgia than appropriate design. Consequently, remodeling of the traditional house usually involves correcting for its limitations: opening walls to ignored views and sunlight, providing needed shade, adding exterior living areas and combining compartmented rooms to create open plans and great rooms.

Modern architecture can create the feeling people expect in a country house without rehashing old styles or being chillingly contemporary. Apart from the setting of the structure, the use and combination of materials send strong messages about the character of a home. A distinctly modern house can employ "traditional" materials. Painted trim, paneled doors, paned windows, trellises and lattice do not contradict a modern style. Tile or stone flooring can flow from interior to exterior living areas, dissolving boundaries with the landscape. A flat roof, possibly planted with native ground cover and shrubs, could further harmonize the building and the site.

Modern architecture will not enter the mainstream of residential design because the archetypes for "home" have been fashioned from history, fantasy and wishful thinking. The common perception of the modern house has been dominated by images of severe geometries and structures stripped of detail, color and romance.

If public perceptions are to change, new prototypes will be the reason. And, as in the past, they will emerge from the new generations of modern country homes.

Robert G. Zinkhan, Architect AIA

Does Sonoma County have a defining architectural style? Read more on Robert Zinkhan's philosophy in The Press Democrat article.