Le Corbu_RAM Stern Stitch

Architecture Ignores History At Its Own Peril

Gravity is undeniable. We stand, lift packages, wince when we see our weight on the scale. For architects, gravity has special meaning: it is the essential force to be dealt with. Weather, energy, materials all matter too—but those all have local realities specific to their location.


Gravity is the forever constant. But there is another universal element in design: history, the role of what has passed from idea to reality in all things, everywhere. Whether there are “reasons” for a building being formed or finished in a certain way, the undeniable lens of history is always part of how designers think about what’s to be built.


There is a hard break in architecture: dealing with history is a little like eating food. We all have to eat, but to some eating meat is both unhealthy and immoral; killing another animal when plants are available for calories becomes the hardest of convictions. For others a hamburger is no different than the bun that surrounds it.


Architecture is similarly bipolar. Either history is fully rejected like a Vegan’s take on any animal-based food, or history is the basis of design, like meat is the essential protein in a carnivore’s diet.


Architecture is similarly bipolar. Either history is fully rejected like a Vegan’s take on any animal-based food, or history is the basis of design, like meat is the essential protein in a carnivore’s diet.


Both fundamental takes on history do not recognize essential truths.


The loss of history in architectural design is worse than these simplistic styles. History is a constant, not a “then” and “now” sorter of pre-20th century and post contemporary aesthetics. History, and time, is a given, an inevitability. No matter how seductive the fresh image is, architects do not freeze time. We do not control future history.


It is time to end the magical thinking. Architects do not create and shape history, we respond to it: just like we respond to gravity.


It is easy for designers to use history as a crutch or a whipping boy, and avoid the harder truth that no building is created in a vacuum of time. Buildings are of our culture, neither unprecedented nor replicated. No imitation of the past makes new buildings anything other than new. No abstract aesthetic can effectively deny the world that surrounds it.


The advent of Artificial Intelligence will happen soon enough, and the only legitimate value beyond aesthetics architecture can offer our culture will be the human creativity that no technology can imitate, regardless of style.


Technology changes buildings, not matter what magical thinking of style-based rationalization we apply. No one said, “We need taller buildings, let’s invent steel.” Steel happened and skyscrapers resulted from it. That historic fact changed everything: central heating, facades, electricity, elevators. Every technological change creates aesthetic change, because if used it has visual and functional realities.


My guess is that this century’s technological upheaval will pivot off of AI. In this era where our cultural literacy often devolves to the depth of a Twitter war, the only way human creativity is undeniably important is in the truth of its reality in history. That means that architects, the architectural media and the academic engine could all benefit from a pause from their defensive rituals and look at the larger picture.


The breadth of architecture in training, practice and publication needs to as diverse as history, not as self-serving and exclusive as any individual project’s polemic. That means putting an end to the present style-conscious sorting of what is celebrated and taught.


There are specific ways of thinking about architecture that are simply not interacting in today’s culture. These distinctions are evident in the institutions that are full of media exposure, that laud the teaching of the bipolar mindset of architectural expression. But websites and magazines publish very consistent aesthetics, so why not open up editorial policies to provide exposures of every “type”? In the places I have been, and the people that I know, there is often lip service but an aesthetic herding to one of the two paths of dealing with history (love and hate). So schools need to explore aesthetic diversity, and hire designers as teachers with a range of outlooks—from abstract, to ethnocentric, to historicist and technocratic—and everything in between.


I am sure there are those who loudly declare that we have diversity now, that the distinctions are simply diversions of preference, but pick up a magazine, or look at a blog, go to a design jury at a college. The segregation of approaches between the history-worshipping and the history-denying is pretty effective between these institutions. History itself does not reference or deny itself: because history is what all our culture is, not just the parts we prefer. I think we either open up our bandwidth to reflect all of architecture in our teaching, sharing and making of buildings, or the coming universal sorter of AI will make choices for us: like the predetermined routes on our GPS.  


There are no easy answers for a time when change will be radical and pervasive. We know just enough to know what we don’t yet know. Older architects cannot know what the questions will be in the next generation’s unavoidable melding with A.I., but this older architect can see how our natural impulse to create “style” as a defense mechanism is a dinosaur of my time.


The facts of perspective and creativity can become mute and invisible in the coming tidal wave. If we defer to what is as easy as our GPS, we cease to see the landscape of history, and do not know where we’re going—simply because we do not need to. If we come to trust only what is provided by the technology alone, we willfully ignore the vital creativity that is the essence of our history.  


Forgetting history would be like forgetting gravity. Architects can’t hide from the facts that history provides. Le Corbusier’s vision for Paris did not become the city’s urban future. Yale’s new residential colleges are not old. History is a part of everything, because it is the truth, not a style. In architecture, we tend to use the superficial aesthetics seen in history as a way to justify the wrecking or the reproduction of the past. But the new does not exist to simply invalidate or replicate the old. Meter and melody have to work together, or there is no music, frozen or otherwise.


Featured image: Le Corbusier’s Plan Voisin For Paris, and one of Yale’s new neoclassical residential colleges, designed by Robert A.M. Stern Architects.


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