Style Wars

Some classicists have called for a  “war” with architectural modernists. While this sounds rousing, I believe it widely misses the mark.

For one thing, it creates a straw man called The Modernist. As if you could really lump Thom Mayne, Renzo Piano, Peter Bohlin and Moshe Safdie together. Modernism is as internally riven as the Republican party. The Koolhaas-Hadid-Libeskind fringe receives media attention, but many of the big serious jobs go to the Piano-Foster-Rogers faction. The Centre Pompidou was seen as the swan song of so-called high-tech design, in fact it was the beginning of a style that has come to dominate a variety of building types: airports, museums, office towers. There is also a reaction within modernism to the excesses of Koolhaas and company in the form of much more “traditional” and dare I say intelligent wing that includes Peter Bohlin, Bill Rawn, and Jack Diamond. They often pick up the pieces after their glamorous colleagues. For example, Diamond is completing a ballet-opera house, the Mariinsky II, after two failed competition entries, the first by Eric Owen Moss, the second by Dominique Perrault failed to produce a satisfactory result.

I do not include Frank Gehry. He is sui generis, more a Gaudi figure than a Le Corbusier let alone a Mies. He should be valued, but not imitated. Incidentally, I have seen the model of the proposed Facebook headquarters, and it’s hardly Gehryesque, nor iconic (and actually much more appealing than Foster’s donut for Apple).

Some years ago, I think in 2002, I participated in an Institute for Classical Architecture symposium. I remember Robert A. M. Stern chastising the audience. It’s not enough to design expensive houses, he said, if classicism is to survive it has to expand into public buildings. Well, in the intervening decade, Stern, David Schwarz, Allan Greenberg, and Tom Beeby have done exactly that. There have been traditional public libraries, concert halls, and courthouses, as well as campus buildings, apartment buildings, and soon, a presidential library. I say “traditional” rather than classical for all these designers are eclectics. That is a strong card to play with clients, as John Russell Pope, Charles A. Platt, Paul Cret, Bertram Goodhue, and Ralph Adams Cram all understood.

It is clients, not competing architects, who are the key to a style’s survival. It is true that at the margins, politicking and intrigue play a role, but ultimately, it is clients not architects who decide what to build. Or not to build. That is why Frank Furness’s career foundered, as did Paul Rudolph’s, and why Louis Kahn’s rather ascetic architecture found few takers. If people like it, they will ask for it (that’s why Venetian Gothic lasted well into the Renaissance—the Venetians simply liked it). As for that old bugaboo—“educating the public”—it didn’t work for the modernists and it is unlikely to work for the classicists.

The modern American public has grown to expect a range of choices in food, dress, entertainment, culture, and so on. So why should architecture be exempt? I don’t see a world where classicism replaces modernism, even less where modernism conveniently disappears. “You cannot not know history” said Philip Johnson. He was reminding modernists that the past matters. But the immediate modernist past matters too. There are still lessons to be learned from Aalto, Mies, and Kahn, and an architect—any architect—would be foolish to ignore them. What I do see is an uneasy (at least for architects) coexistence. This is not a call for complacency, but neither is it a reason for pie-in-the-sky appeals to battle.

Sorry to be long-winded. I am finishing a book on this subject so it’s uppermost in my mind.

5 Responses to Style Wars

  • Witold:

    No need for apologies; a slightly extended post from you is a welcome read!

    An uneasy coexistence is good for architecture; perhaps better yet, open conflict. Let the zealots from all quarters proclaim the superiority of their world views. Architects can learn from the style wars. Regardless, good architecture is agnostic in the sense that it need not hew to any particular doctrine.

    One point: I suspect you meant to say “Foster’s donut for Apple” rather than “Google.”

    Randy Nishimura, AIA

  • Witold,
    It has been nice having you participate on the TradArch listserv. I have not sensed Andres’ call for a war as a war against something but for something – the continued vibrancy of the classical tradition. As you know from seeing the phenomenal growth of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, Notre Dame, the Prince’s Foundation and the tradition-based New Urbanism over the last three decades, there is a broad and deep practice today, from the urban realm to the individual building, which respects and uses traditional urban and architectural knowledge. Residential work from affordable to custom, institutional, civic, and sacred projects are all being built in both modernist and classical traditions. Though, generally, the mainstream architectural media ignore the traditional work as if it does not exist.

    The classical tradition is as diverse as the modernist. Neither are made up of identical practitioners, though The Traditionalist and The Modernist, terms useful for generalization only, each have very different views of the utility of the past and the role of architecture.

    Best wishes, and looking forward to your continued engagement on TradArch,

    Christine G. H. Franck

    • Witold says:

      Yes, war is for something, usually about taking something away from somebody else–land, resources, colonies, oil, power–in this particular case, commissions. Architecture is a zero-sum game, ie if you get the job, I don’t. The British are much more up-front about this, which is why the debate is fiercer there (the traditionalists also have HRH, a big if erratic gun, on their side). Having said that, I still believe that war is the wrong metaphor. Not that dissension is a bad thing. Architectural history is full of strong debates: the Renaissance all’ antica crowd vs. the traditionalists, the Gothicists vs. the classicists, the American classicists vs. the Beaux-Arts classicists, the Prairie School vs the International Style.

  • Dave Johnson says:

    Mr Rybczynski,(I feel I owe you the respect in place of Witold)

    I rank you at the top of all architectural writers- the Lewis Mumford of our age..

    As far as the Moderne debate. curious as to your thoughts on the proposed demolition
    of Bertrand Goldberg’s Prentice Women’s Hospital..

    All the concern and yet is it really an iconic jewel for Chicago?

  • Jenny Bevan says:

    I see no mention of the role of the academies, though perhaps it will be addressed in your forthcoming book. The problem as I see it has little to do with educating the public and all to do with educating the architect. Students of architecture are being TAUGHT a modernist philosophy of design—even discouraged when they seek to do otherwise. And so, still today, many small seeds of traditionalism are (at best) not given the nutrients for growth or (at worst) stomped underfoot until they give up on architecture all together (perhaps assuming that what they thought was architecture no longer exists!) Like the mainstream architectural media that Christine mentions, most schools ignore the traditional work as if it does not exist. A war? Perhaps, but maybe the short hand of Modernist against Classicist is too simplistic. As you have described the vast array of Modernist “styles” there are those that aim to reject tradition (and culture) and those that aim to advance tradition (and culture). If back in school some of those who aim to advance the tradition had been told it was okay to do so— would they then label themselves as traditionalists today?

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