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Inspired by Tradition

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“When are you publishing a book?” was a question Norman Askins fielded for more than 20 years. He finally answered at age 72, and not a minute too soon. Considered the bridge between the old (Philip Shutze, Neel Reid) and new guard of Atlanta traditionalists, the esteemed architect is almost unanimously lauded as the dignitary of our time. 
His debut monograph, Inspired by Tradition ($60, The Monacelli Press), is in some ways a tribute to the dusty tomes he once thumbed through during his years at Georgia Institute of Technology, where he was a “closet classicist” drowning in the mod Brutalism of the 1960’s.

A rare type of publication, the monograph’s 256 pages and 15 projects gorgeously illustrate how thoughtful architecture can take so many stories and formats. Hitting store shelves on October 14, it traces Askins’ roots from his Alabama youth to his graduate studies at the University of Virginia; from early work with Colonial Williamsburg to the founding of his eponymous Atlanta firm in 1977 and his first flurry of public and private preservation projects.

“At the time, I was the only one [in Georgia] really qualified to do this stuff. I was very lucky,” the maestro recounts. “People wanted classical, but they didn’t know how to get it. I looked up and I was at the right place at the right time. I got some plum projects that I am still pretty proud of.”

Askins proceeded to usher in the next generation of Southern classicists, a total of 18 firm principals who cut their teeth under his tutelage. But even as we count our blessings for Askins’ exponential influence on our city, we find still more reward in a tome that captures his voice and presence so palpably.

In person, you get the addition of his acerbic wit, his high-Southern drawl and the winsome vocabulary he’s used to charm countless clients. Over the course of 37 years, he has fine-tuned a masterful methodology to tap into their truest desires. “Ninety percent of it is psychiatry,” he admits, noting the thrills of architectural problem-solving. Part of that process is carefully considering which wall will host a bed, how a passageway will connect two spaces or, perhaps, whether a room can accommodate an heirloom piano. To Askins, these decisions are essential to the formula of success.
“I’ve always been interested in design, my entire life. I studied at Parsons one summer. I know enough to be dangerous about a lot of things. I’m always happy to throw in my two cents about landscaping or decorating,” chuckles the architect, who understands these collaborations intimately. After all, he is married to an interior decorator himself. During his career, he’s worked with Atlanta’s top tier, including “grande dame” decorator Edith Mansfield Hills, who he describes as “absolutely amazing.”
“She was part of what I call the ‘ancient regime,’ along with Dan Carithers, Dottie Travis, David Byers. I learned so much from these old timey-type people. They had superb style.”

“Old-timey” is a phrase Askins adopted long before learning the term “classical.” As a 9-year-old boy in Birmingham, Alabama, he witnessed the boom time of the 1950s, post-war homogenization and a general rush for things shiny and new. During bicycle jaunts around his neighborhood, the young Askins winced at the homes’ low-slung elevations, front-facing carports and unsightly windows. “Those ranch houses just didn’t get it,” he declares. These days, he’s happy to improve upon them with floor plans that consider the beings within.

Askins’s new-construction houses are famous for their rambling layouts, with wings that post-date the home’s “original” style and appear as though they were added over many decades. “It’s that tongue-and-cheek stuff that makes a house charming,” he asserts. (As do apt architectural details—beadboard, interior stone surfaces, interior windows, intimate alcoves, oversize mantels and more.) “I stress appropriateness for everything—the style, the location, the family,” he explains. “Tons of windows on a west elevation [for example] make no sense, because it’s hot as hell,” he professes.

Distilling a house down to its essential elements is an Askins hallmark, and Inspired by Tradition reveals how he arrives at these ideal solutions. He vets dozens of architectural styles with a family so they can “back into” what works … by process of eliminating what doesn’t. If they want floor-to-ceiling windows, for example, Askins can nix a Georgian in favor of late Federal, Greek Revival or Italianate.
Though he’s designed a multitude of second (and, yes, third and fourth) homes, Askins creates houses for clients to dwell in for the rest of their lives, rather than downsizing later due to too much house. To that common experience, he retorts, “What a shame they didn’t build a sensible house in the first place!”
Working with Askins is both digging in and letting go. Details are exhaustively pondered, yet edited. The resulting structures are the exact-right size, yet allow space for every favorite activity, and even room for potential grandchildren to visit—eventually. “Too many empty rooms can get depressing,” he advises. “A house should embrace you at the door and coddle you all the way through. Even a big house can do that, if you build it the right way.”
And when all is said and done, that’s what Askins wants to be remembered for. “That I gave people a family home rather than a monument. A house to be proud of, but also comfortable in.” As a gentleman architect who defines the term passionate, we’re also delighted that “fun” remains his favorite adjective; he uses it more than any other.
“I’m still having a hell of a time,” he declares. “I’ll never retire. I plan to keep working till the day I die.” To that, we say: Bravo. And, Mr. Askins, when’s your next book?
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