Style Wars in the Final Decade

Originally published in , No.7, 1992

When I was in college I had a friend who had a singing voice that was as beautiful as any live vocalist I have heard before or since. She had a gift. Her tone was clear and even like a bell’s. Her range was extraordinary—from piercing high trills through rich mezzo tones to a deep throaty contralto. She seemed to always have a guitar with her, and she sang to us at the least suggestion. She sang everything—a Bach cantata in the church choir, folk songs, country music, rock music. She could belt out an Aretha Franklin hit or a Barbra Streisand tune or the latest “down and dirty “Janis Joplin piece. She enriched all of our lives wonderfully with her talent. We were mesmerized by the potency and beauty of her art.

She was, quite naturally, a music major both in undergraduate graduate school.  Slowly, through her collegiate years, her musical sensibilities changed. She became more discriminating about what she appreciated and what she sang. The Janis Joplin songs were, rightfully, the first thing to go because they abused her vocal chords. But, pretty soon the Beatles and Aretha Franklin were gone from her repertoire too, along with any sort of country music. When people asked her to sing, she responded mostly with folk songs and English madrigals that were accessible to lay ears but also “acceptable” in the musically “refined” crowd espoused.

By the time she finished graduate school, the repertoire had narrowed further. Even the madrigals had lost their interest for her. Only opera survived, and, even then, she disdained historical opera, favoring little-performed contemporary pieces instead. Needless to say, she got few requests from her “ordinary” friends to sing any more. The restaurants and clubs where she had performed earlier found their patrons were not interested in her narrowing musical tastes, so she no longer had that outlet for her talents.

Few contemporary operas are staged, and many of those are on college campuses with meager pay, so she had little professional opportunity there.  She became very frustrated with her music which she refused to “compromise.” She finally went back to school and became a computer analyst.  She sings very little these days. In my estimation, a gift—a great talent that gave joy and meaning—was lost in this process.  And though I find the music she eventually focused on quite wonderful, I am deeply saddened by the fact that this narrowing process, in the end, actually alienated her from the art she loved.

I am also disturbed by the tendency in many academic disciplines in this final decade toward narrowness and inacces­sibility. Just as my friend was marginalized in her musical development, so students of architecture, economics, film, literature, painting, philosophy and many other disciplines are often pressed to focus their education and their interests so restrictively as to preclude a broad understanding of their discipline and its potential contribution to society as a whole. I am troubled by what seems to me to be an effort to replace broad-minded education with indoctrination or training according to a narrow set of values or tastes—tastes which, too often, have a very short shelf life and are replaced by new, but no more valid tastes, with disturbing rapidity.

This is especially apparent to me in architecture, where, over the short twenty years of my own professional career, I have seen a very regular and distressing “changing of the gods.” A clear, but narrow, set of architectural issues or forms becomes “hot” in the architectural media and in leading schools of architec­ture. A small group of advocates/practitioners becomes iden­tified with these issues and is crowned “stars” for the moment. The new “stars” often feel compelled to “kill their fathers” so that an acceptance of a new direction generally requires rejec­tion of old ones. An illiberal and constrained view of architec­ture is sold almost fanatically for a few years with dogmatic intolerance for other perspectives. Then, the “gods” change and a new, but equally narrow movement prevails and the cycle continues.

The result of this sequential and exclusive focusing has been, I think, a lack of real long-term progress in architecture and a loss of vision as to what we have to contribute to society. I sincerely believe that architecture has the power to be a central force for cultural progress. I accept Winston Churchill’s observation half a century ago that, “We shape our buildings, and, afterwards, our buildings shape us.” We have lost sight of the real potency of architecture as a fundamental factor in the everyday life of a society.

In this sense, I am not talking about architecture as media— drawings, models, photographs, magazines or books. I am talking about the real, direct experience of buildings and places— the inescapably literal nature of the discipline in its purest form. Real architecture occurs when there is interaction between physical form and the everyday tangible life of the society it is meant to serve.

This kind of architecture is the crucible in which most of the events of our lives occur. It is the cheery, messy classroom of our childhood where attitudes are shaped toward learning for a lifetime. It is the quiet shadowy front stoop where we feel the awkwardness of a first tender kiss. It is the antiseptic whiteness of a brightly lit delivery room where a child is born. And it is the lofty, noble galleries of a museum where we discover the meaning and emotion that can be captured on a canvas.

The places where we play out our lives have a direct and fundamental role in shaping who we are. If we, as a society, warehouse our lives in bland, lifeless environments, we reduce the richness and meaning of our existence. If, on the other hand, the physical environment we inhabit stimulates our senses, pro­vokes our curiosity and provides a broad range of real experi­ences, we are, as a culture, prepared for far greater challenges of creativity and self-actualization. If architecture is to fulfill its potential as a cultural force, it must play to its strength in real, visceral experience.

The perception of architecture in this very potent form must be understood to be implicit, subliminal or even subconscious in many instances. Attending a mass at St. Peter’s in Rome may be an extraordinarily powerful and moving religious experience. The processional, the liturgy, the ritual, the music are all absorb­ing and inspiring. You feel chills and lightheaded, and your emotions soar. The architecture of St. Peter’s is probably the most essential element in the chemistry of this phenomenal event. The building’s glorious majesty, its astounding scale, its rich excess and exuberance are all essential to the emotional potency of the mass. And yet, the event is not about architecture. It is about religion. The explicit, conscious experience is of the mass. The power of the architecture is implicit, subconscious, subliminal.

Architects and architectural critics are myopic, and we delude ourselves if we think that the experience of architecture is largely or even significantly one of people looking at buildings explicitly. The explicit gaze is, in fact, and always has been, a comparatively rare experience, largely confined to tourists, aficionados, critics and architects themselves. The far more prevalent and extraordinarily potent experience of architecture is implicit. It stimulates conversation in a friendly local bar. It tempts us to browse and window-shop on an urban sidewalk. It creates awe and respect in the lobby of a public building. It intensifies our communion with a painting on a gallery wall by its modulation of light, space and intimacy.

While architects may be tempted to envy music, film, theater, painting or literature for their ability to focus participants’ energies into an explicit experience, I think we devalue our discipline if we try to press it too fully into such a role. Architecture is often at its best when it is not fully controlled, linear and specific. It can be wonderfully malleable and is likely to be received in varied and unpredictable ways no mater how hard we try to make it otherwise. This is an extraordinary aspect of the discipline to me, and it is truly thrilling to see a building take a life of its own beyond the conception of its designer and fully engage with the lives and desires of the people inhabiting it.

Architecture is a completely quotidian enterprise. It is inescapable. It surrounds us. We play out virtually every event of our lives, from the christening of our child to a Sunday afternoon baseball game in a consequential architectural environment. The experience of architecture is constant in most of people’s lives regardless of interest or disinterest. It is critically important that we understand the broad, constant and non-selective character of the audience we reach.

From my point of view architecture is a cultural act, not a personal one. It grows out of the particulars of a situation – a range of needs and environmental conditions. At its best it makes magic of a set of societal parameters, and it has everything to do with the building’s purpose, its inhabitants, its landscape, its climate, its economic conditions and the technologies of its place and time.  The architect is certainly a key player in this cultural act, but so are, quite often, hundreds of other people, from engineers, consultants, project managers and clients to steel workers, stone masons, bricklayers, woodworkers and laborers. The architect is not, and never was, a romantic, lonely figure working in artistic isolation, but, rather, is an essential creative force in an enterprise far larger and more intricate then the work of one person could ever be.

We can, of course, struggle to extricate architecture from the broad cultural role I have just described. We can sever it from its life blood of real experience and define it very narrowly as a realm of drawings and models and ideas and discussion. We can distort its role in support of life, bring it to the forefront, and make a fetish of it—an end in itself rather than a means to broader cultural ends. We can paint the architect as a hero figure, a star, a lone combatant or a dilettante taste-maker rather than as a cultural advocate and master builder.

This, I think, is to a significant extent, what we have been doing over the last two decades and a direction we must confront in this final decade. For some reason, we seem to have lost confidence in the uniqueness and particularity of architecture itself as a discipline. Artificial and extrinsic agendas for producing form have overpowered intrinsic motivations. We have neglected those characteristics that set architecture apart, and have become enamored of and intimidated by related fields of philosophy, sculpture, painting, cinema, writing, linguistics and music.

Ironically, by trying to mimic the strengths of these other disciplines, I think we have only weakened our own capable enterprise. By defining architecture narrowly according to some projected coincidence with philosophy or linguistics, we certainly invent and redefine new boundaries for our field. But in charting these new boundaries we seem only to have narrowed our domain. We have isolated ourselves and marginalized our cultural role by eschewing the more catholic nature of the discipline traditionally. We have exchanged our role as “mother of the arts” for the far less central position of stepchild.

In the early 1970s, leading designers were running about looking for parallels between architecture and linguistics. They read Noam Chomsky and Umberto Eco and learned what a phoneme was and searched for comparisons between the structure of language and the structure of architectural form. They sought desperately to make architecture bear meaning in a linguistic manner—a task it is notably ill-suited to accomplish. Some fresh new forms emerged which rapidly became hallmarks of a new movement/style. But soon the futility of trying to make buildings behave like words and the frustration of trying to get people to pick up a building for a good read killed the effort. The few executed buildings were narrow polemics, not full, rich experiential architecture. They soon became more curiosities than meaningful environments. The new forms lost their appeal because they had little real merit beyond novelty. We tired of that shtick and moved on.

Several cycles later, a similar group of designers explored some equally forced parallels between architecture and litera­ture. They got very interested in allusion and reference. These interests became seminal forces in the creation of Post-modernism. Architects imagined that by alluding to certain historical forms they could conjure up all sorts of associations in the mind of the observer just as literary allusions conjure up associations in a reader. There was much talk of metaphor and poetic license. Buildings were imagined to tell elaborate tales, and intricate story lines were described in slide lectures that the era’s “stars” gave on their work. Again, a fresh new set of forms appeared and rapidly became the stylistic signature for the movement. They, too, were novel and provocative at the Lime. But when the resultant buildings just sat quietly on the streets of the city, without the aid of the architects’ storytelling, their meanings were not so clear or important. And, as with so many other novel formal systems, when the newness wore off, the stylistic signature of Post-modern­ism seemed hollow as well. And so we moved on.

In recent years, the rage has been for parallels between architecture and post-structuralist theories. Buildings are meant to become “narratives” or “texts” expressing deep meanings about angst or disintegration of our era. The new jargon refers to “forces,” “inscriptions,” “conflicts” and “traces.” The new stylistic forms physically attack one another causing damage by collision, interlodging, dents and scrapes.

Oddly enough, though the movement has claimed to be a rebellion against Post-modem style, it is, in many ways, only a minor shift. The projects are still about deeply imbedded verbal meanings that are incomprehensible in physical form alone and require extensive explanation—most effectively in slide lectures. The issues dealt with by the projects are very narrow, the key terms quite repetitive, and the formal language (right down to the details) is easily codified and imminently marketable. The forms themselves are often no less eclectic or historicist than in Post-modernism. They just draw from a different era.

The clearest lesson of Deconstructivist (Neo-Constructivist) style to me is that Modernism has, at long last, become acknowledged, not as a contemnporary expression, but as an historical style. After seventy years of being called “current” or “of our time,” it too is now being used in an historicist manner. While Post-modernism eschewed modern forms, Deconstructivism rebels in them. The eclectic hybridizations and recombinations of Constructivism, De Stijl, Expressionism, and Miesian Minimalism of the 1920s that are so prevalent today are, in many ways, just another version of mid-1980s Post-modernism. The clothes have changed, but, under the shiny new regalia, the ruling despot remains the same. Though the roots of Deconstructivism are claimed to be more philosophically au courant, the movement’s expression is as narrow and formalist as its predecessors, and it seems similarly doomed to an early death. Already the media savants are wondering, “What comes next?” (Architecture that usurps the visual qualities of film, video and computer imagery seems a good bet to me.)

I should make it clear that I believe there is a tenable coincidence and potentially meaningful interface between architecture and art, computing, economics, engineering, film, linguistics, literature, philosophy and physics. What troubles me is the myopic singularity of a focus on one of these to the exclusion of the others and of the broad cultural role architecture can play. Of the body architecture, any one of these might be a finger or, at most, a hand. To distort that relationship, and blow it out of proportion, is to create a freak. The new formal results that have developed from this process over the last two decades should not be mistaken for true architectural invention, originality or creativity, but should be seen merely as the freakish novelty that they are.

My colleague Michael Benedikt recently wrote, “style and stylistic evolution in art, cinema, publishing, music, architecture run on their own crazy energy and shallow logic, and no one involved need understand deeply or care what is going on for the enterprise to flourish.” Though Benedikt acknowledges that style “covers over” or “suppresses” much of the “serious business” that architecture might deal with, he seems tolerant and accepting of such “sport.” I am afraid I cannot be quite so sanguine in the matter. The enormous energy that architects pour into their fetish with style seems to me a significant and counterproductive force in diminishing their contribution to society and their uportance in contemporary culture.

While there is certainly nothing intrinsically wrong with explorations like Postmodernism or Deconstructivism, such arts can become negative when they draw attention away from architecture’s broader mission or when they crowd out a real and productive breadth of design alternatives. When architects give inordinate status to design which is perceived as being in the latest “style” or on the “cutting edge,” they distort appropriate evaluation of quality and cultural contribution. They marginalize their efforts by aiming them narrowly at a subculture which values stylistic conventions, but cares little about broader social and artistic goals.

Contemporary music, in the last decade, has overcome some of its earlier allegiance to style conventions and, in so doing, has increased its cultural power significantly. Recent music offers an extraordi­nary range of possibilities for its diverse audience of listeners. The old categories of country, heavy metal, jazz, pop, rhythm and blues, rock and soul are becoming increasingly meaningless. A country-western star can acknowledge a debt to Jimi Hendrix. A rock group can admit to being big jazz fans. “Guns & Roses” can make a hit out of an old Paul McCartney tune. And Paul McCartney can write music for a symphony. The result of this broad-minded diversity is music that is having an enormous impart on our culture. I envy that for architecture.

Unlike music, architecture plays an increasingly marginal role in contemporary culture. Whereas a broad cross-section of society is enriched and nurtured by the current musical scene, hardly anyone (outside of architects and a small group of aficionadas) knows or cares about the current architectural scene. By its clannish, esoteric directions, architecture has marginalized itself to the point that whatever new style happens to be the range, it really does not make any difference in terms of the larger society. For a discipline with such long-standing cultural power, this is indeed a pity.

Why are architects so “hung-up” on style consciousness? In particular, how can we justify such “sport” in a discipline where our products are so expensive and time consuming? Even if one could get excited by fashions in dress or graphic design (which are, by their nature, short-term media), architecture, except in the odd case of temporary exhibitions, seems intrinsically ill-suited to such ephemeral taste orientation.

Perhaps one explanation for our “hang-up” with style lies in the high esteem that has characteristically been granted the avante-garde in art and architectural criticism in the twentieth century. Despite recent challenges to the contrary, I believe that in the early century there was a potent, viable and admirable avante-garde movement that deserves sincere esteem. It rebelled against a solidly entrenched and repressive power structure and helped release a flood of responsive and creative solutions to real issues of a rapidly changing society. Our admiration for that movement should not, however, perpetuate a myth that this is the only viable means for progress for all places and all times.

In the final decades of the twentieth century, however, any pretensions toward a viable avante-garde have resulted instead in the creation of an effete and nostalgic taste-making culture which feeds on change for change’s sake. There is no longer, in fact, a monolithic power structure to rebel against. We are a diverse and relatively permissive society. Novelty and experimentation have become the rule rather than a powerful exception in art and architecture to the point that they have lost their ability to shock or move us. We have seen too many critics, artists and architects flying around the country demanding large lecture fees and first-class airfares, claiming to be rebellious members of a social avante-garde, while they live in conventionally stylish SoHo lofts and dine in all the right chic and expensive restaurants. The notion of a genuine avante-garde as a vital force for progress in our own time is corrupt and dying, if it is not dead already.

And yet, in a nostalgic, last-gasp gesture we frantically hold onto the notion that something new must be better—that even shallow and immature rebellion and change must be a path to progress. We desperately shift from fashion to fashion like an impatient and indecisive child avoiding the challenge of true vision that might lead toward real, culturally significant progress.

A second explanation for our “hang-up” with style may lie in the very real benefits that stylistic change accrues to its two most ardent perpetrators—the architectural media and architecture schools. Undeniably, these stylistic changes sell books and magazines. They produce a kind of controversy and excitement that draws attention and provokes discussion. As long as there is change, subscriptions must be maintained to all of the right journals to “keep up” with the “latest word.”

Promotion of a well-defined style with a clear label makes good media sense. Product identity is a key concept in any promotional campaign. Identification of designers with a readily recognizable “look” in their work is an essential ingredient in selling a style. They become an effective product to market.

Stability or diversity, on the other hand, are less likely to serve the media’s goals. Stability denies the immediacy, even urgency, that popular periodicals thrive on. Diversity precludes the kind of one-liner “punch” that is so marketable to readers with short attention spans. Though pluralistic and evolutionary progress may serve the society and the physical environment well, it does not sell books, newspapers and magazines. And, increasingly, the media of our profession is dominated by a concern for selling its wares.

Architecture schools, as well, often thrive on quick cycles of stylistic change. In recent years, new graduates of leading architecture schools have managed to stay in demand—often over more experienced (but less “current”) personnel. Design departments in style conscious firms have become ghettos popu­lated by a consistent group of twenty-eight-year-olds. A principal in one of the largest architectural firms in the Midwest once described to me how his firm liked to lure talented young graduates fresh out of school to do their design work. They found, he confessed, that after a few years, it was best to let these people move on and get a fresh crop of replacements. Under such a system, as long as a school stays “current,” its newest products remain in demand. But what about its older products— those who could contribute experience and maturity to design?

Students who graduated from Princeton in the mid-1980s would have been the cream-of-the-crop of their generation. Michael Graves was the reigning “star” architect and Princeton was his long-time home. The best and the brightest enrolled there, worked slavishly and received what would have been deemed the best possible education of the day. Upon graduation their lushly rendered portfolios were the “right stuff that would win them positions in leading firms (and teaching in other schools of architecture) across the country.

A mere five years later, the same portfolios had completely lost their currency and had even become the brunt of ridicule in many circles. The authors of the work were no less talented, no less hard-working, no less capable than they were a few years earlier. They were just out of style. By then, of course, their alma mater had moved on to other things and was producing a new generation of “hot” young talent. By staying current the school could ride the wave of style change. But it is not so easy for the graduates who actually believed in the narrow stylistic doctrine they were fed and found themselves lost and alienated by the new vogue.

Schools of architecture have become very adept at making such lightning-quick stylistic changes. I am amazed and appalled at the speed with which the work in the best architecture schools has totally transformed itself visually over the last five years. The schools have become extraordinarily adept at rapid change with the times. In this mode, faculty members who can change their skins with great regularity are of great value. Especially if a teacher does not build much (buildings tend to stick around and haunt their authors), such changes can be made in the midst of constantly rotating student bodies without seeming too hypo­critical. Many schools, on the other hand, have addressed the problem by virtually eliminating long-term faculty positions. Some of the leading schools in the country have acquired a revolving-door faculty that can be quickly and flexibly traded out from year to year maintaining complete currency.

I am greatly disturbed by the kind of planned obsolescence of designers and teachers that has proliferated rapidly in recent years. We need the best talents of the current generation to grow steadily for decades—not to languish or he used up in a few short years. Surely experience can be a great teacher and maturity can produce strong, vital results which freshness alone cannot. And surely the architectural press and architecture schools have more to contribute than merely being a taste-making subculture for the profession.

Some of the very best architects of the twentieth century have managed to free themselves from the hegemony of style and have produced rich, mature buildings that resist historians’ labels but lodge themselves firmly in our minds and hearts simply because they are extraordinary, vibrant physical environments. I am impressed by the breadth and variety, for example, of Frank Lloyd Wright’s mature work of the late 1930s. He is a designer working at his full creative potential and without the narrow constraints of a prevalent style of the day or even a fixed personal style of his own.

If we were not all so well versed in architectural history, I think it would be difficult to tell that such diverse works as Falling Water, Wingspread, Taliesin West, and the Johnson Wax Building were all done by the same designer at virtually the same point in time. Wright was free to react creatively to the Arizona desert, the woods of Western Pennsylvania or the rolling hills of the rural Midwest. His work is unfettered, responsive, appropriate and truly creative.

Le Corbusier reached the same kind of pinnacle in his mature career, creating such rich and diverse works as the Villa Sarabhai, the Villa Shodan, and the Heidi Weber Pavilion in a brief span of time. He was not limited by the sort of narrow palette of forms and materials that characterize so many stylish designers today. He created dark, low vernacular-inspired brick vaults in the deep wooded site of the Villa Sarabhai and then made a tall spindly concrete frame soar on the higher, more open site of the Villa Shodan nearby. The Heidi Weber Pavilion utilizes yet a third vocabulary of form and materials—a robust steel frame with glass and sheet-metal infill. Again, this is a designer with broad, diverse capabilities and a clear talent that transcends the narrow con­straints of style.

Louis Kahn demonstrated this kind of mastery as well in the late 1960s when he conceived concurrently two projects which I think are his best, but which are very different from each other—the Kimbell Museum and the Exeter Library. Low, flat, and tawny gray and tan in color, the Kimbell Museum hunkers into the north Texas prairie where it is located. Tall, proud and ruddy red, the Exeter Library is a quintessential New England building sitting like a jewel on the lawn of its Georgian campus. Their buildings are not about superficial aesthetic predilec­tions of their designer. They are rich, thorough cultural expressions inextricably tied to where they are and to the societal purposes they serve. They were not high profile trend setters of their day. They remain, even after twenty years, singular and inimitable.

In our own time, there are many architects who practice in this broadminded, astylar mode. They are generally not “media darlings.” Many, in fact, are not well known at all. But their work is sophisticated and mature, and it serves the society they build for, I would argue, far better than the work of the artsy style-conscious crowd who are so influential in publications and in architecture schools. I greatly admire the work of Sverre Fehn in Norway, Alvaro Siza in Portugal, Giancarlo de Carlo in Italy, Jorn Utzon in Denmark, Christian Gullichson in Finland, Fay Jones and Christopher Alexander here in the U.S., Richard Le Plastrier in Australia, Kazuo Shinohara in Japan—the list could go on and on. Many of these architects have long careers during which they have produced a very wide range of build­ings. If their works were compiled into a book, it often would not make a very coherent volume—nor should it. Their work is not meant to be experienced that way, but rather as real physical settings in diverse places and times.

Surely a hallmark of the final decades of the twentieth century is the startling variety of cultures that exist on the face of the globe. This extraordinary political era has appropriately focused on the inde­pendence and identity of diverse ethnic and political groups and is working to find away for all of them to coexist in a finite world. Surely ours is an era when acceptance, broadmindedness, tolerance and mutual respect should be apart of any real intellectual enlightenment.

How liberating it would be to imagine an architectural era characterized by a broad diversity of design not easily codified into “camps” or styles. What a powerful advance it would be if leading architects were prepared to accept and even advocate a much broader range of design than they themselves might be prepared to execute. In the presence of such acceptance, our best design talents might be reoriented to meeting the authentic range of visual character appropriate to a diverse world.

If we are to regain the kind of real cultural power intrinsic to the medium of architecture, we cannot relegate our best minds and talents to marginal and esoteric pursuits of taste and style. We must liberate those minds from a repressive environment of style wars and set them loose to produce real, diverse, responsive environments for the cultures we are meant to serve.

Thinking about Life as an Architect
Originally published in , No.7, 1992