The Importance of Contemporary Architecture in Historic Regions: The Case for Contrast

Known for his innovative style, Brandon Holben’s dedication to contemporary design is not in spite of the historic character of our region, it is, in fact, because of it.

For more than 25 years, Brandon Holben, Principal Architect, LEED AP BD+C at Winter Holben Architecture + Design, has been practicing architecture in our region, and beyond, designing a wide range of award-winning, contemporary structures amongst New England’s richly historic architectural landscape. His decades of experience working with planning boards and Historic District Commissions on projects such as the renovation of landmark music venue, The Press Room, the challenging reconfiguration of the historic Inn Downtown, and the visionary, adaptive reuse at the regional hotspot, 3S Artspace —all in downtown Portsmouth, NH—have given him expert knowledge in the approval process, and an understanding of how different cities and towns approach this issue.

Contrast supports character

The character of historic districts is due in large part to the evolution and assemblage of different architectural styles converging over time. According to Holben, good contemporary design ideas can highlight true historic architecture by creating intentional contrast, allowing the history to stand out and be celebrated. Reproduction serves to dilute the valuable, actual historic architecture of a neighborhood.

Often, however, historic areas have somewhat arbitrary design guidelines drawn from the fear of change or simply because it is the path of least resistance. Rules that aren’t well conceived can deter successful contextual architecture and municipalities stunt their ability to creatively flourish and limit what each generation has to offer. Contemporary design contributes to the character of historic districts by adding a fresh perspective to the architectural tapestry. This approach allows each generation to leave its own mark while respecting the evolution of styles that define these neighborhoods. 

Considering the context 

By considering the context and environment as an active partner, architects in historic settings can establish an adaptive relationship between a structure and its surroundings. Acknowledging existing architecture while introducing fresh and progressive elements like a low slope roof to maximize a solar array, can offer unique views and add points of interest while benefiting the entire community. By playing with proportions and patterns, architects can contribute creatively within context. The key is designing a solution that will contrast and enhance.

Contemporary is sustainable

Contemporary design features that respond to the climate are more sustainable than historic elements that replicate history. The environment and sustainability play critical roles in new design—particularly in historic regions where the infrastructure is increasingly affected by the force of climate changes. Every project offers a new opportunity to integrate sustainable practices, resilient design strategies, and energy-efficient technologies while also applying lessons from the past.

The AIA Framework for Design Excellence challenges the profession with “finding creative solutions that ensure design excellence and climate action as we make progress toward a zero-carbon, equitable, resilient, and healthy future." We employ this approach in each project as a way forward for the community at large.

“We are equally committed to the preservation of historic architecture as we are to the creation of new contemporary buildings that promote diversity in our region” – Brandon Holben