In a recent internet interaction, a professor called me a “Post-Modernist … but a good one,” and I immediately flashed to a 2001 cover of Architect magazine, when then Editor in Chief Reed Kroloff quoted Robert Venturi, stating, “I am not now, nor have been, a Postmodernist.” His declaration intentionally harkened back to the denial of Communism during the “Red Scare” era.
No one wanted to be called a Communist in the 1950s, and no architect wanted to be labeled a Postmodernist in 2001. The brief heresy of Postmodernism was only heresy because, like democracy in America after World War II, architecture had a norm, a fundamental canon: Modernism. Postmodernism was a threat to the canon, contrary to the way architecture was done, the values it embodied.
Today, no one seems to care. Architecture may be where it was a century ago: plenty of building, brilliant work by individual designers (Frank Lloyd Wright, Eliel Saarinen, Raymond Hood), without an aesthetic consensus beyond each architect’s work. The International Style was still polemic and European, and Neo-Classicism was very last century.
There were great architects, but no culturally sanctioned architecture until Modernism became the architecture that was taught, published, and awarded for the last century. This may be where we are in the third decade 21st century, because consensus is impossible at a time of great change. It may be because “the internet has changed everything.” But I think that no matter what era, the personality of every architect is evidenced in their work.
Here are three architects on the thorny subject of style.
Silva is an architect in San Diego, California. His office is extremely successful in tangible terms: recognition, prominent commissions, and the happiness of his clients. But more, he has the perspective of architecture in a post-style period.
Organic architecture means the design is organically conceived through the personality of the owners and the personality of the site. Owner, program and vision, and site constraints, opportunities, orientations, etc. I selected this photo because to some, there may be an inferred “style.” After analyzing the program and site for this client, I determined it would be perfect to do a modern take on an old California Mission. This is what came out. My work today does not have a “style,” but is simply a modern take on the program/site.
That said, my influences are apparent and identifiable (many have said) in all of my work. Not sure how that relates to or corrupts the “style.” Merriam-Webster defines it as “a distinctive quality, form or type of something, e.g. the Greek style of architecture.” I tend to relate the word “style” to the word “fashion” in some respect, however fashion is fluid and in the definition above, style is not. A happy family loves this house, having raised three children, and on through college.
Chapman is an architect and builder in Carlton Landing, Oklahoma. His mission to create both a home and a community is matched by his devotion to address the meaning of building. That direct address of home and history goes beyond the craft of his work to the revelation that “style” is an invention, not a reason to create.
Aside from the typical ailments and maledictions bemoaning what is built today, within this incredible vacuum of what once was a healthy diversity of vernacular, the question must be asked: Why don’t people stay in place anymore? Why are families disintegrating x distance? Why are there fewer and fewer actual funerals, for instance?
Even the low-hanging fruit of reverence is evaporating.
If you move every five to seven years, that means you don’t live anywhere. Civilization exists because agriculture provided an option to stay. Architecture was born from this. There’s an empty nomadism going on now, though, which is not to be confused with functional Bedouins born to wander. But more in the cast of “vagrants with means,” an itinerant, distracted people, extracting from culture more than their capacity to contribute, by orders of magnitude. How depleted is the current reservoir of enlightenment? How long will the cash hold out as empathy, beauty, authenticity, etc., nose dive?
There are a number of factors, but whether cause or consequence, the buildings we create are not important anymore. We occasionally create important places, but it’s so incredibly rare to experience a new, stand-alone structure that truly embodies something profound. I’m not talking about grandeur. Contrast that. We have to divorce ourselves from “the grandiose” because design is now, foremost, an exercise in hyper, overcompensation for the patent lack of substance enshrined by industry and standard “peel and stick” practice.
And, if architecture is essentially a repository, a battery, for storing the cultural energy of a people, doesn’t that mean our culture will only last as long as the hard drive we’ve saved it upon? What have we embraced? The work I do is reactive to these concerns and hopefully an echo to those built environments that have survived a very long time and compose a living architecture that continues to speak. I have zero desire to build places that look old. This is different than creating something sincere that might one day grow to be old. What’s all this, then, in a nutshell? I’m trying to create buildings and places that are hard to leave.
My own work is not based on “style.” When we build anything, our values are revealed. Mine are human, not aesthetic. The forms and features found in style or culture, or even the traditions, are woven into each of us.
Architects often impose a defensive contrast between tradition and expression. Rather than see the yin-yang of dualities simultaneously present in architecture, many define old as either aesthetically correct or retrograde. There is safety in the past and a complementary power found in freedom. We live with the past just as we base our lives on gravity, and hope for the future that has not happened.
History is safe, because it can do no harm. Freedom is exhilarating, because it is all about you. Traditional architecture is safe. Modern architecture is exhilarating. For good or ill, humans crave a combination of freedom and safety.
Whether high modern architecture distills abstraction, or traditional architecture embodies memory, human aesthetics swing between denial and ritual. Simultaneously, we want validation (historic precedent) and control (determination of our own design). Why not live in both?
Trying to deny who we have been or the beauty of invention denies who we are. “Style” freezes the dynamic we live in. Only humans revel in this—and create architecture. It’s now a time where our buildings may be telling us that the last century is over.
Featured image by the author.