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Calling For An End to Architecture’s Style Wars

“Architecture has a serious problem today in that people who are not alike don’t communicate,” Rem Koolhaas said, speaking at the American Institute of Architects recent convention. ‘I’m actually more interested in communicating with people I disagree with than people I agree with.”

 

 

Red states versus blue states. Republicans versus Democrats.  Black-and-blue dress versus gold-and-white dress. Humanity does love a good debate. Other than disagreements over whether the word “niche” is pronounced nihtch or neesh, it’s the debate between Modernism and Classicism that has been the major controversy within architecture since the early 20th century. I suspect this debate doesn’t keep most people in the field up at night (do many practicing architects even describe themselves as “modernists” anymore?),  and the “modernism rules, classicism drools” paradigm is tacitly taken for granted by any “serious” architect in the academy. New buildings that celebrate their place within a classical tradition rather than expressing the current zeitgeist (whatever that means), risk being written off as “cliche,” or worse, “pastiche”.  This insult is hurled almost as flippantly as politicians this election cycle toss out the “political correctness” insult.
On the other side of the aisle, the classicist camp is often too quick to write off all contemporary design as “contemptuous of context” and “mindlessly arbitrary.”  In my short career so far, I find myself caught somewhere in-between: I love high-quality new classical buildings, and I hate bad “pastiche,” and I see a clear difference between the two.  I also appreciate high-quality modern buildings, but I hate arbitrary design for the sake of “innovation,” and I see a clear difference between the two. Here with me in the midst of this, I find a public that’s caught in the cross-fire and wondering why they should care. Utopian as it may sound given the political gridlock America is in, I wonder if there is a “post-partisan” way forward for architecture?

 

Let’s start with a definition of terms: what exactly does “pastiche” mean?  If we look way back to its Italian roots (as classicists are want to do), it stems from a word describing a varied mix of pie-filling. The Oxford Dictionary of Architecture is rather benign when it calls pastiche “an eclectic composition incorporating allusions to earlier styles” adding that this is often done with considerable “originality.”  According to Wikipedia, Alain de Botton was one of the first critics to use it pejoratively toward a style of building, but I’m not sure why it caught on. Sure, directly copying an entire previous work is objectively bad for the cultural and artistic progression of a creative discipline, but decorous references to previous works are not.

 

Good new-classical design, the kind coming out of offices like Allan Greenberg or Demetri Porphyrios, is hardly anti-progressive or lazy: it begins with the architectural vocabulary developed by generations before us, stretches these established conventions to meet specific contemporary challenges, and improves upon them within a continuum of rules and references. These use a more subtle creativity, much like a poet creatively uses standard grammatical conventions. And if symbolism is important to the form of our built environment, these traditional references often provide a meaningful connection to specific ideas and histories for the people who inhabit them.

 

Implicit in the “pastiche” insult is the idea that new-classical work fails to “represent” the present day. I’m not sure why more architects don’t question this perceived need to differentiate every era of building into specific style conventions—and who gets to decide what’s representative of our era, anyway? There seems to be this fear that if we built, say, a new museum today with a classical facade, it would somehow confuse our children’s children about when it was built. If the scale, ornament, and symbolic beauty of such classical language can evoke the gravitas required of a modern major public building, why shouldn’t we? This hypothetical building’s cornerstone (and the thousands of archived Instagram selfies taken in front of it) will no doubt alert future generations to when it was built.

 

But a pitched roof and some Doric columns do not a great building make.

 

Bad new-classical buildings (which include things like the entire Toll Brothers’ design inventory, most suburban strip malls, or this new residential tower pointed out recently by Inga Saffron) absolutely deserve to be called-out as inappropriate uses of pastiche and not worthy representatives of our best current culture. These buildings don’t understand or respect their historic references, don’t challenge or advance the building language, and often present banal or grotesquely out-of-proportion details. But these lazy, watered-down buildings are common enemies to both parties in this debate. Dismissively categorizing all new-classical work as “pastiche” unfairly reduces the definition of good, creative architecture to be synonymous with “novelty.” And indeed, now that modernism is nearing its centennial, I’d contend that there is a tried-and-true modern vocabulary that many celebrated contemporary designs refer back to (i.g. the horizontal window, the pilotis, even parametric equations nowadays). Tell me that the windows in this 2015 Stirling-prize winning school aren’t referencing window patterns pioneered in the 1970’s—a bit “pastiche,” no?

 

Creative Classicism: Porphyrios’ Rockefeller Park House, built 1992. (via Wikimedia Commons, Beyond My Ken)
Creative Classicism: Porphyrios’ Rockefeller Park House, built 1992. (via Wikimedia Commons, Beyond My Ken)

 

Not that long ago, it was modern design that was the restless minority. Modernism offered simple forms built from industrially-produced materials that would bring light, airiness, and state-of-the-art “machines for living” to the masses. A noble democratic design goal. My own desire for this profession certainly includes creating better spaces that are accessible to all segments of the population. I can also sympathize with the early modernists’ desire to challenge what was likely an oppressive stylistic regime dictated, top-down, by the Ecole de Beaux-Arts in France. The beginning of their movement held some promise for a rich infusion of these progressive ideas into the well-established traditional building culture: Louis Sullivan, the Vienna Secessionists, even Mies van der Rohe come to mind.

 

But somewhere along the way, the idea took root that modernism needed to totally “re-boot” architecture from scratch, and at that point the baby was thrown out the horizontal metal window with the bathwater. I don’t so much lament the aesthetic or material revolution as much as the cutting off of the public’s connection to the built-environment. Building became more about esoteric philosophy than “silly nostalgia” for recognizable forms and materials. Suddenly the architectural mainstream turned into a zero-sum game and you were either full-blooded modernist, looking forward by rejecting everything that came before this very moment of time, or you were a pariah.

 

Much has been written by historians about the philosophical divide between modernism and classicism. The heart of this debate, as I understand it, is the question of whether each generation has the responsibility to create their own ideals of truth and beauty, or whether these ideals are a constant that humans tap into at particularly transcendent moments.  As critical as philosophy is to the human experience, I wonder how much the everyday building user is actually aware of the underlying philosophy of a building they experience—that is, until such philosophy results in a building where it’s impossible to navigate from the front door to the bathroom without a map. For the moment, if we set aside the question of each philosophy’s merit and look just at the buildings that they produce, do modernists always produce buildings that are ill-fitting to the human condition, mindlessly arbitrary, or just plain bogus? Of course not.

 

Great modern buildings successfully re-imagine formal configurations of space, often through study of the human interactions within those spaces. Great modern buildings dramatically capture the outside world with large expanses of glass or playful apertures that restrict our view.  Great modern buildings provide a venue for simple materials to be celebrated. (See much of the work of Tod Williams & Billie Tsien if you don’t believe me.)  It could certainly be argued that great modern buildings can do all of the same things that great classical buildings do, but they do so with a palette that ventures away from the historical continuum.

 

On the other hand, modern buildings that seem to illicit outrage (often from their inhabitants and their neighbors) are those that are single-mindedly concerned with novelty. They use materials and forms to provoke or shock, and then metaphorically spit on anyone who dares object to their fight for “progress.” Ill-considered contemporary design that aims to “wow” with novelty is like pop music. Its hook may be catchy, but its value lies in the fact that it’s never been seen (or heard) before, not in the longevity of its replay value. But pop songs need feel no guilt about being “novelty-centric” because, when they wear out, replacing them on your playlist doesn’t require significant financial (or more importantly environmental) resources. Buildings are much more permanent affairs. Once their conceit of novelty is over, they still have to do things like keep water out, hold themselves together, and age gracefully. The fact that novelty and “shock value” have so saturated our common definition of “innovation” within the industry has severely impaired our collective judgment.

 

Sullivan Center in Chicago (formerly the Carson Pririe Scott Building), Louis Sullivan, 1899.
The Sullivan Center in Chicago (formerly the Carson Pririe Scott Building), Louis Sullivan, 1899.

 

Given that both philosophies will likely continue to coexist for many building eras to come, how then do we forge a via media? A traditional bipartisan approach would treat this as a zero-sum trading game where one side gets some of what it wants in exchange for giving up something to the other side, but dialogue beyond negotiation isn’t required. This doesn’t sound any more fruitful than our current situation. To be honest, the profession really doesn’t have to find common ground in order to keep building—each side need only continue to find sympathetic clients with adequate pocketbooks. But it seems particularly irresponsible to uphold this status quo when together our discipline faces major threats like irrelevancy and climate change.  

 

There’s another political approach, coined at some point in the early-2000s, called “post-partisanship.” It prioritizes creative and practical dialogue from diverse perspectives, criticism that is adequately balanced with self-criticism, long-term visions and big ideas, a bias for action, the idea that compromise isn’t the only endgame, and the notion that relationships are as important as convictions. Its viability in the political sphere has been contested, and some of it does have a ring of implausibility (Congress, anyone), but imagine if the two architecture camps were to open up to one another with these principles in mind? 

 

Approaching architecture in a “post-partisan” way, perhaps our long term vision could be for buildings, no matter their style, to interact harmoniously with one another, aware of when to be part of the “fabric” versus standing out as an “object.” We would recognize that the “architecture of our time” should include continuation of our building history and be more than just glass and steel and swoops—and as new aesthetic vocabularies organically arise, they be challenged to be as good as, if not better than, their predecessors. The framework for evaluating (and awarding) spaces wouldn’t be weighted so heavily on the designer’s aesthetic “self-expression.”  

 

A post-partisan architecture might approach design by first examining previous successes and would be careful about scaling new ideas without consistent stakeholder input (see: modernist urban renewal planning philosophies). Most critically, post-partisan architecture recognizes that claims about authenticity of place are best settled by the people who inhabit those places, not by a top-down authority—after all, creating architecture that fosters successful relationships between the people who use it is much more important than any philosophical conviction.

 

Just a thought: maybe our post-partisan era could start with the Pritzker and Driehaus prize juries meeting for drinks?

 

Now I am not suggesting that the debate, or the passion of either side, be diminished. Nor do I think we should start creating hybrid half classicist/half modernist buildings (talk about a chimera!). I am advocating for a generous open-mindedness and a rigorous evaluation of ideas and contributions from both sides. This dialogue might help us discover that being a purist about your preferences can create blindspots where we miss valuable lessons from how the “other” approaches the design process. We might find the real enemy is a disconnected public and underfunded projects: with enough value engineering, both classical and modern can look cheap and poorly done. We might even find that architecture’s best contribution to the built environment lies in discovering solutions to open up equitable, climate-friendly places that promote vibrant, local identities, regardless of whether they reinforce a specific artistic or aesthetic agenda.  

 

Four of the “New York Five” architects, clothed in their specific aesthetic agendas.
Four of the “New York Five” architects, clothed in their specific aesthetic agendas.

 

For any non-architects who have read this far, you may be wondering “why does this matter to me?” But you, the public, are a vital part of this conversation. Since the Great Recession, architecture has been desperately trying to re-establish a meaningful connection with you, lest you leave us behind as a frivolous commodity. Insofar as the debate between Modernism and Classicism represents a debate about what thought processes should be allowed to be taught in school, and therefore how spaces are designed and built for your use, it directly affects your experience of the built environment for better and worse. Currently, the conversation about what constitutes appropriate, culturally-relevant architecture happens primarily in esoteric circles insulated from the public, and then the decided-upon message is dictated via national and international awards, magazine and newspaper critics, and an academy be-speckled in Corbu glasses that often turns up its nose at anything other than “avant-garde.”  If we actually want the public to recognize our value, we have to involve them in this conversation. 

 

I imagine what concerns the public most about architecture is closer to the base of Maslow’s hierarchy: safe and affordable shelter, proximity to employment centers, sustainable means of construction, and creating public spaces that are useful and appealing. It might seem frivolous to debate building styles in light of these concerns, except that I believe a building’s style does play an inherent role in the way people feel about a space, which in turn effects where we want to spend our time (and money) and how we create and frame our identity.

 

Studies exist that illustrate a general public preference towards traditional architecture, but I have plenty of anecdotal evidence of non-architects who are passionate about modern design. Unless architects want our discipline to be a dictactorship, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution we can impose. We owe the public a post-partisan approach, and hand-in-hand with a robust, heels-on-the-pavement, local public outreach to empower more people to be involved in imagining (and then advocating for) a better built environment. But the voice with the most power is the voice who finances the buildings we design. So it becomes incumbent upon us to find a balance between listening to their desires, digesting why it is that they gravitate towards a particular style, and helping direct those desires to a reasonable solution.

 

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I walk past this streetscape in Providence several times a week. When I first came out of architecture school, I would have immediately pointed to the classical facade on the right as the facade worthy of admiration and emulation, and the modern facade on the left as a rude invader. But lately I wonder if there isn’t something beautiful in the tapestry that well-apportioned buildings in a respectful dialogue—a contrapuntal harmony if you will —can create. It’s not that a new building has to be different in order to be relevant, but it also doesn’t have to be absolutely identical to be harmonious. I’ll continue to practice on the classical side of the spectrum as that approach seems like the most consistent means to a successful building, and I’ve long been an optimistic underdog. But I’m always ready to meet a modernist counterpart in the middle, with as large and diverse a public as we can gather, and determine together how to create relevant places with decorum and dignity.

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