duo chapel

Confusion of the Vanities: Why Architectural Style-Wars Are Becoming Irrelevant

Moderates are the Holy Grail of political conventional wisdom. But in our inflamed political reality, many are feeling alienated by the partisan divide. The only part of our government less popular than the president is Congress. Today there are few conservative Democrats, and no liberals in the GOP. As a country, we’ve become entrenched, ever more dug in. 

The culture is balkanizing, hardening its judgments, and that stiffening leaves many of the unconvinced behind. “You’re either for me or against me!” is proclaimed in virtually every forum, on every topic. Those who are alienated by division are left to look for calm dialogue and rational thought amid the din. 

What does this have to do with architecture? This cultural polarization impacts how we perceive what constitutes “serious” design. The boring style wars between the in-crowd of High Modernism and the insurgent, but marginalized, cadre of classical schools and practitioners seems less relevant than ever. The easy answers of architectural “correctness” of any type are increasingly flamed in the new environment.  

Perhaps in response to the noise, there are emerging facts and perspectives that reconsider beauty as a universal reality, not something to be revealed by genius. This third way beyond “style” is finding a voice in a changing time. In recent weeks, Making Dystopia, James Curl’s book-length attack on Modernism, has been hotly debated on the internet. Current Affairs magazine posted Nathan Robinson’s lively polemic, “Death to Minimalism,” which takes aim at the disconnect between the Modernist ethos of abstraction and how we perceive beauty. Nikos Salingaros will soon be posting “The Cult of Modernism” in the New English Review. Recently on Common Edge, Mark Allen Hewitt eschewed aesthetic ideology in favor of the truth that “beauty” exists independent of any style. A recent report shows how the high style imperative doomed many homes in Brad Pitt’s Make It Right development in New Orleans, as the “cutting edge” imperative simply was not up to the task.

The Mill Springs Ranch by Lake Flato Architects, a firm that deftly defies aesthetic categorization. Photo courtesy of the architects.

Beyond those failures, the understanding of how humans perceive beauty is becoming better understood, and it has nothing to do with ideology or canon. Richard Prum’s book The Evolution of Beauty and Ferris Jabr’s piece for the New York Times Magazine“How Beauty is Making Scientists Rethink Evolution,” offer scientific data that calls into question the role of beauty in life itself. These writings argue that the scientific reality of perceiving beauty is not easily rationalized and may have precious little to do with any aesthetic prejudice or pedagogy.

Donald Ruggles’ 2017 book, Beauty, Neuroscience and Architecture, goes farther, elegantly showing the fallacy of style-based aesthetics and describing how design can either be “top down,” originating in thought, or “bottom up,” welling from emotion. These evolving interpretations of beauty may become an alternative canon, undercutting many of the profession’s intellectual underpinnings.

These recent insights reinforce what 40 years of design and writing have taught me: Despite what many architects would like to believe, it’s the nonaesthetic world—money, weather, politics, technology—that largely shapes aesthetics. Despite the collective fine arts belief that style-forward aesthetics mold our cultural perceptions, the Canon of the Cutting Edge holds far less meaning than architects want to believe. 

The folly of  style wars—where architects control all of the talking points in a debate only they are interested in—is becoming more and more obvious, even to casual observers. We’re stuck between the old, knowable, reliable “safe space” of abstracted Modernism, and comfortable, nurturing Neo-Traditionalism—the mod/trad binary, so tiresomely defended (and attacked) by zealots on both sides.

This confused state of aesthetics reflects the fact that we’re in neither boom nor bust times. New architecture school graduates, saddled with massive debt, see a 40% hire rate in a changing profession. One of our heroes, Zaha Hadid, dies an early death, and her successor sounds like someone in the Trump administration. The clichés parroted by architects are now relentlessly mocked on the internet. Intellectually safe Modernism is now, like the McMansion, a disappointing cliche.

In this time of immanent change, the rest of architecture is “going along to get along,” where beauty is often a happy accident. And yet diligent, mission-focused architects are still devoting their entire lives to the profession, laboring in service of something beyond themselves. But soon a new generation will emerge in this rapidly changing profession. There is no clear road map to professional fulfillment in the coming time. New paths will simply manifest themselves, as they always have, because buildings have to get built, regardless of aesthetic posturing.

Like politics, the present state of architecture has evolved into a place that is losing its sense of humor and tolerance. There has to be a larger place for architects, between the 1% elite and the other 99% who use our buildings. Maybe architects will come to partner with those who build, rather than rely on precious genius and a mystic connection to High Art.

There are, I believe, cracks in the façade of accepted canon. Like Democrats and Republicans, perhaps Modernists and Classicists have become so radicalized in self-preservation that a third way of style-blind design based on human variety, cultural diversity, and living history may emerge. A third party always seems like a viable option when the establishment is out of touch. Maybe this time, in architecture at least, a new way may be possible. 

Featured image: Incarnation Camp Chapel, Ivoryton, CT., designed by Duo Dickinson Architects.


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