Christmas wasn’t Christmas at our house if it didn’t include a tree strung with lights, carols on the town green, the cinnamon scent of baked goods, and mom, in the kitchen, close to collapse. 

As in, propping up the walls of a listing gingerbread house, tucking canned goods in the corners and hoping no one looked closely enough to see inside.

Every year without fail, our family made a gingerbread house. When I say “our family,” I don’t mean us kids erecting a cunning, gumdrop-laden confection. I mean the four of us gasping as mom once again attempted to cement the corners of her gingerbread walls without incurring third-degree burns.

Years later, I wondered: Why didn’t she forgo her own mother’s traditional spoonfuls of boiling sugar syrup and instead use a pastry bag to pipe joint compound made from egg whites, lemon juice, and powdered sugar?

Sugar syrup was history by the time my own daughter was old enough to want an edible house out of Hansel and Gretel (hold the witch). With her grandma then living three states away, I was on my own, mixing and rolling out the dough, conjuring a pattern, cutting out and baking the many little pieces, and assembling le tout with held breath.

I didn’t assume it would be easy. I just assumed it would be easier. After all, didn’t my generation, famed for its competitive cooking, develop a better way of making everything from bread to cassoulet? 

Yet there we were, gazing at a house only its builder could love. Picture overhangs so exaggerated they nearly scraped the ground (failure to proportion properly), a sagging roof (heavy hand with the molasses?), chimney sides that didn’t quite meet (miscalculation of said roof’s pitch), and doors cut larger than their openings (no comment).

Less Victorian gingerbread, in other words, more subdivision bungalow, design and build by Dr. Demento.

Jump forward a dozen years. Our daughter, by then in college, was dating an aspiring architect named Ashton, and he was interested to learn that her family’s holiday traditions called for a gingerbread house. So he borrowed our recipe and made one. 

Specifically, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Robie House (as shown in the photo above). 

Goodbye, crooked DIY disaster, its flaws masked by wildly extravagant use of Necco Wafers. Hello, sleek, low-slung modernist icon. 

The Robie House has the perfect balance of what’s called retreat and prospect; you can hide under the overhang and look over the city street and feel protected,” says Ashton, now our son-in-law and better known in some circles as a principal at Studios Architecture, in its Washington office.

All this time later, Ashton is still working with baked goods (aided by a 5-year-old intern, better known in some circles as our granddaughter). Two years ago their gingerbread “house” replicated an 11-story waterfront apartment building with cascading terraces, which his firm had just designed for Washington’s Navy Yard neighborhood. 

“Architects now spend so much time on a computer,” he says. “The chance to do something with your hands where the stakes are low is very satisfying.”

Also, no clients with annoying questions. 

Speaking as a non-architect, I would add that if you choose carefully, you can benefit from modernism’s straight lines and circumspect facades. You may even be able to skip the corner-covering candy canes. 

I wish my mother had thought of all this when we were growing up. Our hometown, after all, boasted a number of modernist classics, including Philip Johnson’s Glass House

Though come to think of it, spinning transparent sugar walls might have been even scarier than spooning on boiling syrup. Here are some pro tips for modernist design gingerbread builds, should you decide to take one on this year.