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The Long and Tangled History of Architectural Style

In the late 1960s, Ben Bradlee, the storied executive editor of The Washington Post from 1965 until 1991, confronted making the paper more appealing to younger readers. He ditched Lifestyle as the name of a new, updated section, which he found irksome; instead, he chose Style. As he explained in his memoir: “I liked the word ‘Style’ … I like people with style, with flair, with signature qualities.” After 50 years as Style, and nine years after Bradlee’s death, the section has been renamed Lifestyles. The editorial change notwithstanding, Bradlee used “style” as most non-architects think of it and much in keeping with how Duo Dickinson seems to frame it in a recent Common Edge piece: “Wrestling With Architectural Style in a Post-Style World.” Yet in matters architectural, at least historically, it’s long been another thing altogether. 

Teaching students and working with practicing architects over the past four decades, I’ve found the term challenging to comprehend for both groups; the chronology of historical styles (a la Sir Banister Fletcher) remains another fuzzy matter for many. That said, the third decade of the third millennium seems to have much in common with the 19th century, each with an “embarrassment of riches” when it comes to the style thing. 

The 19th century had an august array of styles, ranging from neoclassicism to nascent modernism as we later came to know it in the 20th century’s interwar period. It was during the latter that the term “style” became not only unfashionable but problematic, as the first generation of newly emigrated European modernists established beachfronts in major American cities and notable schools of architecture. That the new (modern) architecture would be not only the hallmark of the 20th century, but also exist outside the concept of style, was central to modernity’s mythos, prompting Ludwig Mies van der Rohe to wistfully long for “an age without epoch.” 

Yet, as Dickenson notes, contemporary practices have no shortage of options regarding how the finished product will look, depending on the budget. Moreover, it may be a product of additive manufacturing or traditional site-built construction. That said, a glut of stylistic options seems at odds with the fundamental notion of our being in a “post-style world” unless one presumes that to be in a “style world” requires all the world to be built in the same manner. Were this the case, Dickenson’s world—which seems to refer largely to Europe and the Americas—has been “post-style,” arguably, since Bernini was run out of Paris and Claude Perrault engineered winning the commission to design the Louvre’s east façade. 

To sort through the style thing, Dickinson checks in with two other practicing architects, each working earnestly to create what was once called, in academia, “place-based” architecture. Oklahoman Clay Chapman laments, “Why don’t people stay in place anymore? Why are families disintegrating x distance?” If architecture is the monumentalizing of cultural values, as Chapman later suggests, it’s reasonable to ask how that’s possible when one’s cultural network is constantly in flux?

America has long been synonymous with the American Dream—and fundamentally, the latter is about being upwardly mobile. How can one be immobile and upwardly mobile? Is the American Dream fundamentally at odds with rootedness?


When it comes to the style thing in the context of American culture, Chapman hits on a key issue: America has long been synonymous with the American Dream—and fundamentally, the latter is about being upwardly mobile. How can one be immobile and upwardly mobile? Is the American Dream fundamentally at odds with rootedness? History certainly suggests as much. Moreover, the farther one moves up the economic scale relative to where one begins, the farther one tends to move geographically, at least until the pandemic rewrote the rules. 

Perhaps because of this, Americans have long treated their homes as investments, selling when the market is right and investing in a larger, more luxurious property to ascend the equity/social scale. This is just one way in which dwelling in one place over time and the American Dream seem at odds. While there have been innumerable articles about “tiny homes” published in Dwell (invariably for ectomorphic DINKs), and a recent New York Times article (about how Americans want smaller houses with less yard and smaller, better equipped kitchens), both require much filtering. 

Philosopher Ivan Illich was one of the great social and political filters of the previous century. In 1984, he delivered a keynote speech to the annual meeting of the Royal Institute of British Architects, during which he explained that one could not truly dwell in a place where (akin to Chapman’s complaint) one did not remain over generations; that we dwell by making marks in our homes (not houses) and leaving traces for subsequent generations to apprehend, familial signposts. To live in an investment, for Illich, was little more than living in a garage with a house attached, a phrase he may have coined. This was essentially apartment living for Illich, not dwelling. Absent dwelling, the style thing seems moot.

For this and several other reasons, I’ve found it more productive in my work to eschew the term “style” entirely, preferring the Italian maniera, or “manner.” Manner speaks to the architect’s productive task along with the finished product (the manner of making as much as that which is made). 

Making architecture in a manner that’s particular to a place and time can only occur when there is a place in time, over time, requiring shared values along with common public spaces. This is consistent with Dickinson’s argument, yet it’s also where the style thing runs off the rails as the term, architecturally and historically, is so tied up with image and the mutations of images over time.

Dickinson explains that his “own work is not based on ‘style.’ … When we build anything, our values are revealed. Mine are human, not aesthetic.” Curiously, this was also the Greek chorus of The New Brutalism. The Smithsons and Reynar Banham claimed that their work was about humanism and ethics, not aesthetics. Whether it’s possible for a building to be ethical is a matter best left to philosophers; there’s little question, however, that the New Brutalists were no less interested in aesthetics than the generations that came before them. It was simply an aesthetics of a different sort. That said, the style thing ought not be conflated with aesthetics, which is always a human thing. In the end, style may be the MacGuffin of what concerns the core of making any claim to architecture today. 


In 1828, the young architect Heinrich Hübsch, confronting many of the same problems that Dickinson and other serious thinkers concern themselves with, published the polemic In What Style Should We Build? While not the most gifted designer of his day, Hübsch proposed an intriguing solution. At a time when the only potential solution was to choose a style from the past, Hübsch argued that rather than choose an architecture from a period already perfected, the best choice was Romanesque, as it was the only period left unfinished. Hübsch (who also favored the period’s round arch) argued that this gave architects the opportunity to invent more freely, and to complete, an unfinished project, an ethos central to 20th century modernity. 

In short, as Romanesque was rendered in a rather raw state, compared with other periods, architects could focus on the manner in which it was designed—its structure, materials, construction methods, and cultural conditions—rather than its style, leading to more open-ended responses. That the Romanesque later became the favorite historical period of the New Brutalists seems, in retrospect, inevitable. 

The term “style” may remain in the architect’s lexicon in perpetuity, long past its expiration date. Whether straw man or MacGuffin, the style thing seems a distraction from weightier issues, such as architecture in service of dwelling and whether architecture, as much of the world has understood the term for the past 3,000 years, remains. Or are we left only with the afterimage of what Ben Bradlee called its “flair,” its “signature qualities”?

Featured image created by the author, who used Google and searched “architectural styles.”


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