Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Crankin' out the Hits: Why Many Architects Won't Design Traditionally

On the question of what is good design, architects and non-architects rarely seem to agree. Particularly since the ascendancy of Modernism during the last century, architects have used a different set of values in deeming what a well-designed building should look like. Much of the public, particularly in the U.S., have expressed their dislike of modern design and often for very good reason: modern architecture struggled to express monumentality, function was not apparent to the users due to the style’s minimalism and lack of signifying ornament. Modern architecture seemed contemptuous of the local context, deliberately clashing with the surrounding built context instead of harmonizing with it.

In response, the trends in design have adapted to these criticisms, incorporating context to form a new synthesis commonly called critical regionalism. The rise of the Post-Modern style addressed the importance of traditional architectural motifs and the need for the building to clearly express what it is (albeit in its ironic and ambiguous way). And still much of the design highly regarded by the architectural profession still borrows heavily from the formal innovations of the earliest Modernist pioneers. This incessant tendency among the most highly regarded architects to design in the modern idiom fails to win many fans outside professional and academic circles or people with a general appreciation for modern art. One gets the impression that only if architects could return to using traditional styles and conform to classical rules of design and re-use time-tested building typologies, then all would be hunky-dory and architects wouldn’t come off as smug aesthetes.

Quite a few architects have taken that route with much success, but in my opinion the reason that the most ambitious designers dedicate themselves to the modern style has lots to do with the nature of architecture as a profession. For much of the history of Western civilization, a pleasing design was one that embodied the visual harmony brought forth by the skillful use of proportional systems, of following proper architectural vocabularies evolved from local tradition, and often applying symmetry where applicable. Building types were few and simple technologies derived from masonry construction were all that was available for large permanent structures. The profession of architecture as it is currently understood did not exist throughout most of our history, since the job of designing structures was left to the master mason along with the engineer. Vitruvius, who wrote the first major theoretical manual on architecture, was a Roman military officer and engineer, with much of his text devoted to the successful planning of encampments and fortresses. During the European Middle Ages, the Gothic cathedrals soared because of the knowledge of the master mason, who drew very schematically the plan of the church and tried to retain designs of each design in the form of shop secrets.

The notion that a building should be designed by an academically educated professional came about during the Italian renaissance. This new kind of specialist, the architect, would be steeped in the theoretical knowledge inherited from the Ancients (Vitruvius’s manual, for instance) as well as be broadly exposed to prevailing intellectual doctrines of humanism, science, mathematics and art. Rather than coming from the work site as a mason and being closely involved in the manufacture of every building component as was typical of construction projects before then, the architect would generate a plan and compositions for the facades of the structure through the abstract techniques of drafting on paper. He would naturally use the knowledge he had acquired from his theoretical education instead of methods and common practices learned from a mason’s many years of apprenticeship. It is not surprising at this time that architects were credited with authoship, as individuals like Alberti, Brunesleschi and Palladio becoming among the first to be identified with their designs.

With the establishment of the first schools of architecture during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the profession became more formalized and naturally more mired in design theory. Although architecture schools did not train designers on how to manage a practice, it did inculcate a sense that what distinguished architects from other construction trades was a unique poetic insight. Before Modernism took over the beaux-arts curriculum at the architecture schools, the debate was on the nature of the proper rules that should govern design, such as the tension between the respect for the traditional orders and the desire to innovate within them. The Bauhaus-inspired curriculum would throw out such concerns, concentrating more on the re-learning the most basic concepts of forms, visual relationships, color and technology.

Contemporary architects in the U.S. are mostly educated under a curriculum loosely based on Bauhaus principles. They have studied the history of architecture to some degree, often traveling to old European capitals to sketch its marvels. And yet the notion that to be a modern architect is to therefore be a creative and artistically professional comes as a given. Modernism’s lack of precise rules of composition allows anyone to believe that they are generating a scheme as unique as any other. Everyone gets to be a special designer, can create their distinct signature on a building. The only problem is that a miniscule number of such designers actually have the talent to pull off an original but transcendentally beautiful building. For many, the design process is a true joy, but achieving a moving design is extremely hard. It is doubly difficult when applying the Modernist style precisely because the rules are too few or too subtle. In my ideal world, those who are short of design talent (but are good at everything else) should incorporate a traditional style and diligently apply classical rules of proportion and composition. It is a foolproof means toward pleasingly attractive buildings, and would be a much better alternative to the numerous lazy modernist design experiments gone wrong.

When people are given the right to express themselves as individuals in any vocation, it usually will never be voluntarily revoked. Creating an original object, whether it is art, an artifact, or a building is often fulfilling precisely because it allows an individual to realize himself in the physical world. The architectural profession during the last century has made this experience accessible to those who aren’t quite artists nor are they pure engineers. Demanding that architects should give up on employing Modernist design in favor of using historicism is in reality a demand for architects to renounce their identity as a theoretically educated specialist of poetic license. It is a demand for architects to resume a role similar to master masons and mere practitioners of classical rules of composition.

The American Institute of Architects supposedly awards projects that demonstrate genuine design talent and technical mastery. It does not award the skillful application of historic styles. Such awards are a recognition by the architectural community of efforts in innovation and quality. Judging by the comments from this post over at 2 Blowhards, it is clear that quality and sophistication are defined quite differently between those within the architectural profession and those outside. For those outside the profession, it is fundamental to understand that the buildings awarded were very difficult to execute and the risks involved much higher than a more traditional solution. The result might look minimalist at times, but such designs require tremendous meditation on the part of the designer. Classicist design, because of its elaborate codification handed down from the ages, requires relatively little reflection. It is the meditative aspect of the profession that inspires the young to become architects, and serves as a major basis in judging excellent work.

Would you rather have architects crank out the old hits anyway? Most of them think they are more than that, to their own success or demise.

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