Elements Of Style
Architect Norman Askins is a leading proponent of New Classicism
“From the time I was 10 years old, I knew I wanted to be an architect,” says Norman Davenport Askins, who fulfilled his childhood aspirations on an international scale, having designed and restored buildings from Atlanta to the White House to Doonbeg Golf Club in County Clare, Ireland.
Askins, 66, is considered one of the premier architects designing in “New Classicism,” which is not actually one distinct style but rather an approach to design influenced by Federalist or Greek Revival elements: symmetrical shape, tall columns rising the height of the building, triangular pediments or gables. A Birmingham, Ala., native, Askins admired the Greek Revival homes belonging to his grandmother and aunt. “Even as a kid, I loved the way they looked,” he says. “I said that was the type of building I wanted to design.”
He learned to do that and more as a student at Georgia Tech in the mid-1960s. “It was a real boom time in Atlanta,” Askins recalls. “Everyone went downtown. It was an exciting, exhilarating time.”
But it wasn’t necessarily a boom time for traditional designers. Askins graduated from Tech in 1966 as Atlanta’s skyline blossomed with modern buildings, such as the Hyatt Regency with its blue-bubble Polaris lounge. He continued his education in the belly of Classical architecture, the University of Virginia in Charlot-tesville, earning a masters in architectural history in 1968 before serving four years as architect and architectural historian at The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.
There, Askins learned the ropes in early building technology and the philosophy of restoration. He received hands-on experience when he was assigned to a special yearlong project redesigning much of the Executive Office Wing of the White House, including the Cabinet Room and Vice President’s Office.
Askins made a brief return to Atlanta in 1972, spending two years with Heery and Heery Architects, before moving to West Chester, Pa., where he served four years as director of restoration for John Milner Associates, the nation’s foremost preservation/restoration firm.
Throughout his career Askins traveled extensively, cultivating his understanding and appreciation for classic architecture, especially Italian. Of its appeal, he says, “It’s the mother lode of design. I can’t pin it down to one thing, and though I love the larger civic buildings, I prefer to go off the beaten path, out of the city and into the countryside. It relates more to what I do.”
And what he does is design houses. In 1977, armed with loads of practical experience, Askins finally returned to Atlanta to open his own practice specializing in residential design, historic preservation and restoration. “I thought I’d starve to death,” he says, modestly.
But classical architects were retiring at that time and a friend encouraged Askins to hang out his shingle, which he did. The work came rolling in. Norman Askins Architects employs 10 architects. “We’re not a big firm,” he says. “And don’t want to get any bigger. We’ll have 150 projects at any given time from picking a paint color to spending 15 minutes at a house picking a cornice or months designing a residence. I’m always on the go.”
Askins uses a team approach, assembling craftsman quality landscape architects, contractors and decorators. “We talk about the project and march forward together,” he says. “The team effort makes the whole process a richer experience.”
Though he has designed large spaces, he prefers to focus on quality and attention to detail rather than size. “I think there has to be intimacy to enjoy a room,” he says. “Big rooms are fine when you have a lot of people but let’s face it; most of us end up in the kitchen.”
But that doesn’t mean Askins won’t take on a big project. He was asked to design the interior architecture of the Doonbeg Golf Club Lodge in County Clare on the west coast of Ireland. “It’s a gigantic clubhouse with apartments that people can buy,” he says. “We teamed up with an Irish firm and a U.S. architect and designers.”
A preservationist by temperament and training, Askins carefully shared his views on Atlanta’s rampant infill housing. “It’s a free country,” he says. “But I do think it’s sad to lose the character of a neighborhood. I wish people would be careful with the character and scale where they’re building, but you can’t legislate taste.”