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Inexhaustible Nostalgia, Inexhaustible Shocks of the New: How to Navigate Through a Fake Controversy
A path to avoid the quagmire of architecture's style wars.
By Norman Weinstein
January 29, 2015
"A better politics is one where we debate without demonizing each other; where we talk issues, and values, and principles, and facts, rather than 'gotcha' moments, or trivial gaffes, or fake controversies that have nothing to do with people's daily lives." – Barack Obama, State of the Union 2015
U.S. Presidents are not usually quoted in debates about architecture. But Obama’s call for transcending “fake controversies” is too delicious to pass up. What constitutes a bogus controversy in architecture? How about any framing of issues that bifurcates the profession into starkly opposing camps sharing only a slim and shaky common ground? That has been said before by calm commentators. But let’s take it a step deeper. Fake controversies may prosper when architectural issues are superficially analyzed and sorted into rigid and dubious categories. A pluperfect example of a bogus controversy? Style Wars pitting some supposedly immaculate Classicism against some equally pristine Modernism.
Here’s an impolite question: What would the profession of architecture be in 2015 if you factored out entirely any notion of “style wars”? Let’s go further. Let’s pretend there could be a moratorium on even committing to public discussion about architecture any use of the word “style.” What might be gained or lost when “style” is not such a supreme guiding idea coloring so deeply the lives of architects and their critics?
Some things would not be altered at all. We’d still be considering many of the key words currently in play: site, materials, foundation, structure, façade, sustainability, light. . . and that oddly bland word some architects and critics only pronounce with hand on brow: “client.”
Clients are surely a category hard to generalize about. Perhaps that is why they serve a noble role of overarching invisibility in the curricula of architectural schools, trade magazines, and in heated discussions of so-called “style wars.” Some clients are not fond of the idea of their projects reflecting commonly held visions of modernity, or post-modernity, circa 2015. Describing their stylistic proclivities as “classicism” gives dignity and meaning to the fact that they would rather be living some of their life space, say, in Palladio’s age. Wealth allows such nostalgic clients to materialize their nostalgia. This is hardly immoral or criminal. Nor, by any stretch, can real or imagined “stagnation” in contemporary architectural practice be pinned to nostalgia seekers. The architects who serve these clients’ bidding may or may not, in their inner recesses, really care a whit about living in Palladio’s time. And the architectural critics, committed to a poorly paid gig at best, can’t afford to materialize their nostalgia or future visions – but can certainly cheerlead or dis nostalgic clients well served by talented nostalgic architects.
Lest you think this simply Swiftian satire, let me suggest that “cutting-edge” or avant-garde” or “Betskian-of-Show” architects and their critics (terrible word-play on Aaron Betsky’s name but indulge) simply have their stylistic proclivities in alignment with however they define and value and materialize 2015. Nostalgia isn’t a core issue in this camp. Maybe what the writer and critic Wyndham Lewis called “Ahead-of-ism” is their guiding (if not blinding) light. “The shock of the new” – a phrase lionized by Modernists and Post-Modernists alike – reflects a different sensibility than nostalgia. I happen to perceive a great deal more architectural excitement in this camp – but ultimately, I’m not a card-carrying member of any stylistic camp.
Because “style” is not at the heart of architectural experience for me. Is it present? Of course – critically, unavoidably. But I relate to architectural style as the materialization of levels of client sensibility in dialogue with architectural talent over and beyond the essentials of site, structure, energy processes operative through the interplay of site and structure, and functionalism over time. This is counterintuitive since it’s easy to consider style coloring all critical aspects of design creativity from the get-go. But I’m encouraging a play of imagination where the following may be true: “Style is death.”
That reckless-sounding motto was taught to me decades ago by the poet Robert Kelly. I hated thinking about it initially. In fact, I’m not certain Kelly, in his writing, has even practiced in any consistent way the gospel he seemed to preach. Restated less dramatically, “style is death” relegates style to a wholly non-essential function in many situations. This was laughingly illustrated in cartoon fashion in recent episodes of “Dilbert” where our heroic nerd of nerds invents “tube clothing” for himself. Dilbert’s shapeless sack with holes cut out for neck and arms may be actually a thoughtful meditation on the oxymoronic notion of “fashionless fashion,” a garment not subject to the “style wars” that drive our actual fashion world, in clothing and much else. Am I proposing the architectural equivalent of Dilbert’s style-less tube clothing? Of course not – though consider the visionary architecture of John Hejduk and Lebbeus Woods as category-dissolving experiments in transcending “style.”
Or, if we must center architectural discussions in “style,” can we discuss it eschewing the conventional historic categories of “Classicism,” “Modernism,” etc., and view style primarily as idiosyncratic time/space indicators. For example, Poundbury was built according to Leon Krier’s design, and according to the guiding principles and wishes of Prince Charles. It might be a masterpiece of what I’ll propose as “Nostalgia Architecture.” This would be perhaps quite fitting for an English prince who lives in the time of English royalty, whatever today’s calendar says.
Frankly, I hate Poundbury. Not just because I don’t live the life of English royalty. Maybe because I recognize the Poundbury style as reflecting a nostalgia for an England that never actually happened except maybe in the utopian imagination of William Morris. All that squeaky-clean arts-and-craftiness of it, the miniature train set village of retiree taste. And the functionalist in me hates bricked-up windows. Bloody stupid to me – however quaint they might appear to others. But this is a matter of taste, and reflects my sense of what living in 2015 means to unroyal unnostalgic me, not pining for Dorset’s “good ‘ol days” when bricked-up windows were in vogue. If I hired an architect tomorrow, I would want that architect to enter, in an immediate and vivid way, my sense of the present. Screw “styles.” I want to hire an architect who will be willing to inhabit my senses, my life-scape as a 2015 citizen. And design in measured fidelity to my quirky time/space experience.
Any candidates? The damn thing is: I’m a pauper – not a prince. And whatever design I want materialized, I want architecture that feeds no one’s style wars. Not retro. Not futurist. Architecture for an endangered species: the “stylistically impaired” hoping to put an end to the superficial palaver of “style wars.” You want real instead of fake controversies in architecture? During my proposed “time out” to retire the word “style” – let’s dive into the depths of the word “cost.” And I’m not just talking about money.
Norman Weinstein writes about architecture and design for Architectural Record, and is the author of “Words That Build” – an exclusive 21-part series published by ArchNewsNow.com – that focuses on the overlooked foundations of architecture: oral and written communication. He consults with architects and engineers interested in communicating more profitably; his webinars are available from ExecSense. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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(click on pictures to enlarge)
Collection SFMOMA. © Estate of Lebbeus Woods
Lebbeus Woods, SLIP House, from the series San Francisco Project: Inhabiting the Quake, 1995.
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