Thomas Jefferson's drawing for the President's House based on Palladio's Villa Rotonda

Thomas Jefferson’s drawing for the President’s House based on Palladio’s Villa Rotonda

“Our lust for originality is wrecking the city, delivering a rash of formally new, but ultimately anti-urban hideous skyline baubles reducing city-making to a spectacle of super-size billboard branding gestures while inhibiting the multiplication of good ideas,” writes Phineas Harper in a recent post on Dezeen. He correctly questions the modern obsession with originality, and asks rhetorically, “Is bad originality really preferable to a brilliant copy?” Of course, it isn’t—never has been. What Harper does not mention is that copying had a long and honorable tradition in architecture. Scamozzi copied Palladio’s Villa Rotonda, so did Colen Campbell, Lord Burlington, Thomas Jefferson, and most recently Julian Bicknell in Cheshire. Some of the copies are more faithful than others (Jefferson added skylights to the dome), but all recognize that Palladio’s was a rich idea, worth exploring further. Palladio himself used motifs such as Serlianas, which were derived from others. Basing one’s work on an earlier model was partly hommage to a masterwork, and partly a recognition that true invention in architecture is rare, and that good ideas are worth repeating. One of the sins of the modernist revolution was that it undermined this tradition and actually made it dishonorable to copy earlier precedents. Ever since, architecture has been caught in a downward spiral of diminishing originality.


serveimage-2The Canadian design mag, Azure, ran a post recently titled “Canada 150: Canada’s Future Role in Architecture and Design.” The magazine posed the question to a number of prominent and not-so-prominent architects. Predictably, perhaps, the answers were uniformly upbeat: a world leader in sustainable design, a catalyst for change, and my favorite, in the forefront of developing pluralistic cultural identity. Perhaps it’s worth looking back to get an idea of the future. International leadership doesn’t loom large. The list of Canadian architects whose names would appear in an encyclopedia of world architecture covering 1867-2017 would not be long. There was no H. H. Richardson to shake up the architectural scene, no Charles McKim to establish a classical standard for civic buildings, no Frank Lloyd Wright to preach a northern organic gospel. Modernism, when it arrived, tended to be a pale imitation of what was going on south of the border. It is not until Arthur Erickson that we find a native-born Canadian architect who develops an original style that has an impact on the international scene. He is followed by Moshe Safdie and John Andrews, immigrants both, who make their mark with Habitat and Scarborough College. I would add two stylistic outliers, whose idiosyncratic approach ruled them out of fashion but who deserve at least a footnote: Montreal’s Ernest Cormier and Ron Thom. The latter’s Massey College is an original masterwork that demonstrates how Wrightian ideas might be adapted north of the 49th parallel. Erickson might have become Canada’s Aalto, had his architecture been a little less theatrical, a little more, well, Canadian. The frosty Canadian climate and long winters don’t demand—or tolerate—flamboyance or whimsy. They do demand robust construction; zoomy shapes covered in Dryvit just don’t cut it. In any case, Canadians were never much interested in iconic buildings. There is no neoclassical Macdonald Memorial or Parliamentary Dome. Perhaps the closest you get to a national icon, apart from the Peace Tower, is the series of romantic chateau-like CPR hotels built at the end of the nineteenth century—and they were designed by Bruce Price, an American,


serveimageThis week the short list was announced for London’s new Center for Music, which will be the future home of the London Symphony Orchestra and the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. The usual suspects include Frank Gehry, Renzo Piano, Norman Foster, and Snøhetta. Traditionalists need not apply; that’s a shame. Léon Krier has recently written about a new site for the hall, and it would have been nice to see at least one name like John Simpson or Robert Adam on the list. Or Bill Rawn of Boston, who has designed some admirable low-key concert halls. But the Symphony Orchestra wanted fireworks. Gehry’s Disney Hall is hard to beat, but London may not be the place for his brand of acrobatics. Piano’s hall will have red seats, and be predictably workmanlike. Foster will be Foster. My money is on Amanda Levete. She is teaming up with Jack Diamond and Donald Schmitt of Toronto, who have designed opera houses in Toronto and St. Petersburg, and a concert hall in Montreal. If London wants a building that sounds good and can be built without breaking the bank—or cutting corners—they should consider this team.


serveimageThe other day I read in The Architects Newspaper that the dean of IIT had stepped down. While this is undoubtedly of keen interest to IIT faculty and students why is it considered news? Perhaps because five years ago, when Wiel Arets was appointed dean, that decision was widely reported. But why was that event newsworthy? Architecture schools operate under a handicap where publicity is concerned. Law schools periodically gain attention when their graduates attain high positions, the Supreme Court or even the White House; business schools are lauded for the wealth of their graduates; and medical schools can announce the occasional cure for this or that. But architecture schools rarely conduct groundbreaking research, and when all is said and done the education of architectural professionals is a dull affair. Every year, year in and year out, a new group of graduates is sent out to stock the nation’s drafting rooms, and year in and year out a new cohort arrives at the door. Not much news there. Architecture schools attempt to promote exhibitions of their students’ work, but it is after all, student work, that is, the exercises of trainees, of little interest to the world at large. Which brings us to the appointment of deans and chairs—not big news in itself, but a change in the routine. Or perhaps news, if the name is recognizable, not an obscure academic, of course, but a globetrotting practitioner. In a culture driven by celebrity, that is sufficient to pass for news.


serveimageMy first car was a Volkswagen. It was a 1960 model bought in Hamburg in 1967, and it carried me without a hitch as far as Valencia (which is where it was stolen, but that’s another story). I’d never driven a VW before, but the simple controls required no advance knowledge. The only gauge was a large speedometer that included an odometer, turn indicators, and two (unidentified) warning lights, one for oil pressure and one for the alternator/generator. A third warning light lit up when the gas tank was empty, which required flipping a switch to access the reserve tank (about a gallon, or 40 miles)—there was no gas gauge. There was no temperature gauge because the engine was air-cooled. In addition, the dashboard included two white pull-knobs; the left was for lights and the right for the windshield wiper. I think there was a choke knob somewhere.

I was reminded of my VW the other day when a friend offered my a ride in his new Prius. The digital read-outs of what Toyota calls the Multi-Information Display, covered a range of technical information such as low tire pressure and fuel consumption, and included such extraneous information as which door was open. Basically, the traditional gauges were replaced by a small computer screen, and like most personal computer screens, it was awash in icons, numbers, and information. Since the marginal cost of adding more information is minimal, I got the sense that the designers had simply piled on the bells and whistles.  No doubt one gets used to it in time, but I would miss the minimalist elegance of my old VW.