Sworts, Scott Crisman. The Fashion(ing) of Architecture. Sine loco, Sine anno.pdf

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The Fashion(ing) of Architecture Scott Crisman Sworts Architecture has devolved into a stylistic excess, lacking in solid theory. This erosion of theoretical fundament began in the first half of the 20th century, and has culminated in the Starchitects 1 of the early 21st century. This is not to say that there is no deeper thought behind today’s architecture, and there are certainly architects creating masterpieces; what I am talking about is the lack of “deep theory” underpinning those work
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  The Fashion(ing) of Architecture Scott Crisman Sworts  Architecture has devolved into a stylistic excess, lacking in solid theory. This erosion of theoretical fundament began in the first half of the 20 th  century, and has culminated in the Starchitects 1  of the early 21 st  century. This is not to say that there is no deeper thought behind today’s architecture, and there are certainly architects creating masterpieces; what I am talking about is the lack of “deep theory” underpinning those works. Theory has devolved into process. In design studios, students are taught process driven design rather than theoretically based design. The difference is subtle, and many architects today may not recognize that distinction. Theory creates design discourse and a means to engage that conversation. 2  Process driven design depends on a set of steps or a kit of parts to create the design. Process driven design acts like an assembly line; if you put in the parts here and apply the process there, you will get a certain result at the end. 3  This sounds like theory on the surface. Both methods seem to lead to the same end, uniformity of form. However, without the cultural container of theory, there is no way to examine the results and weigh them except with the most base and crude analysis, which is the Market. And since the Market values either innovation or economy over other aspects, the deeper meanings are lost. I will illustrate this concept by comparing the architecture of the Renaissance with today. In the Renaissance, there was a certain homogeny in architecture. Even though there are distinctions between Brunelleschi and Alberti, there is a great deal of similarity as well. Even the average architecture student would be unlikely to be able to identify the specific architect who designed a Renaissance building unless it was well known. (And had appeared in an architecture history exam.) The lesser buildings of even the great architects blend together. It must be noted though, that homogeny of form reflected deeper thoughts about beauty, 1  Starchitects is a contraction of Star Architect and Starchitecture is a contraction of Star Architecture. I will use these terms throughout this paper. I have not been able to track down the srcin of the word. 2  Interestingly, a solid definition of what architectural theory is very hard to come by. Most modern writers side step the issue, most historic writers spend entire books trying to define it. The definition on Wikipedia is typical when it says “ Architectural theory  is the act of thinking, discussing, or most importantly writing about architecture.” These definitions include nothing about applying theory to the actual design. 3  This assembly line metaphor is not accidental. Le Corbusier, who led the Modernists to throw out theory as we knew it, was entranced by the industrial revolution, and applied machine logic to design.  about philosophy, about man’s place in the universe. They were not arbitrary compositional guidelines, but were infused with layers of meaning that could be read like a book. 4  Renaissance architectural theory created a set of rules that all architects followed. In essence, it was similar to music theory, where compositions have a set of rules that must be followed, in order for the music to sound “correct” and “pleasant.” When compositional rules are not followed, music sounds dissonant, even disturbing. 5  By the same token, in the Renaissance mind, when architectur al composition was not followed, the building was also dissonant and disturbing. 6  Contrast that to today, the great architects are all highly distinctive. Even a lesser known work by Calatrava or Gehry is instantly recognizable, and it is unlikely that an average student will misattribute the building to another architect.  A primary reason for this is that an architect’s style has become a brand. People hire Gehry, not for his superiority to another Starchitect, or even for any particular skill, but because they want his particular style for their building. 7  Cities now collect Starchitecture the way that Lady Gaga collects fashion designers. Further, the process is now part of the brand, and is a closely guarded trade secret. No famous architect will ever be genuinely honest about their design process. Some will obfuscate, others will lie outright, but none of them will ever actually share their true design process. I remember attending a lecture a few years ago, given by Frank Gehry, which I thought was a wonderful lecture; he was funny, sarcastic, profane, and quite possibly had had a couple of drinks with dinner to lubricate this joie de vivre. In all, it was one of the more enjoyable Starchitect lectures I have ever attended. 8  However, my students did not find it at all enjoyable; instead they had found it to be a waste of their time. They wanted him to go over how he had designed the buildings he talked about. They wanted to know the process. 4  Which led to some very obscure inside jokes in the architecture of the time. Renaissance architects sometimes deliberately screwed with the rules to create designs that they found hilarious. Even solid, upstanding Americans engaged in this tomfoolery, for example, George Washington’s whimsical façade for Mount Vernon. It’s a joke, even if we no longer get the punch line. 5  As a side note on this, when the Rite of Spring by Stravinsky premiered, it set off a riot. The ballet is one of the most “rule breaking” pieces of music ever composed, and still sounds alien and modern a hundred years later. 6  This explains much of the attitude toward Gothic Architecture. The architecture of that period had a very different set of rules to classical architecture. 7  This is not to imply that Gehry has no skill, although his design for the Eisenhower Memorial does raise questions, I am simply saying that Gehry has become a brand name. 8  Frank Gehery HATES being called a Starchitect. As he raged at a reporter from the British paper The  Independent  , I don't know who invented that fucking word 'starchitect.' In fact a journalist invented it, I think. I am not a 'star-chitect', I am an ar-chitect . To that I say, if it looks like a Starchitect, walks like a Starchitect and acts like a Starchitect, it’s a Starchitect.  That is the one thing I knew going to the lecture that he would not share. His process is intimately tied into his architectural identity, and it is the thing he sells to the world. If he revealed his process, others could copy it, and through that, dilute his brand. If there were a hundred copycat architects churning out Gehry styled architecture, there would be no cachet to the actual Gehry design.  And this illustrates one way in which process is different from theory. An architectural theory is not a linear path that will lead to a specific outcome; it is an umbrella of rules that inform the design. It is a series of proportions, architectural elements, archetypes, arrangements, hierarchies, relationships, and compositional rules that refine the boundaries of architectural thought. 9  It is a container for cultural expression and higher ideal. It is layered with meaning and metaphor – it enframes architecture. Theory differs from style. Style is the physical manifestation of underlying architectural theory. Renaissance, Neo-Classicism, Federal, and even Baroque are derived from classical architectural compositional theories. They are stylistic variations on the application of those theories. 10  Gehry, Hadid and Libeskind, could all fall under the umbrella of Deconstructivism, which is the current style and can be confused on the surface with theory. They all use different processes to come up with radically different works. But, unlike previous architectural stylistic periods, there is no underlying theory uniting them. These radical differences between architects are the calling cards of their brands.  As Rem Koolhas states, “It is really unbelievable what the Market demands (from architecture) now. It demands recognition, it demands difference and it demands iconographic qualities.” 11  In essence, we are mining iconography, trying to dig up the new, sexy architecture, to grace the skylines of America and the pages of Architectural Record. Substance has devolved into style, and style into fashion. Process has supplanted theory. This devolution of architecture into fashion began with Kant and his concept of “purposiveness without purpose,” where he split art into the categories of Fine Art (Aesthetics) and Utlity. (Purposefulness) 12  For the first time in history, there was a split between beauty and usefulness. 9  These theories are often the subject of extensive treatises on architecture, such as Vitruvius’ “Ten Books of Architecture,” Palladio’s “Four Books of Architecture,” or Colin Rowe’s “Mathematics of the Ideal Villa.” 10  Alexander Tzonis and Liane Lefaivre “Classical Architecture: The Poetics of Order” 11  The Other Tradition in Modern Architecture, Colin St. John Wilson, Revised Edition 2007. 12  Emmanual Kant, “Critique of Aesthetic Judgment”  This directly contradicted the Greek concept of to kalon where beauty and utility were conceived as a single concept. 13  This concept of to kalon was essentially adopted into buildings by Vitruvius in his declaration that architecture exhibited three qualities, firmitas, (firmness or stability) utilitas (utility or purpose) and venustas. (beauty or aesthetics) 14  For two thousand years, Vitruvius’ qualities guided architecture. 15  With Kant, however, there developed a split in architecture, where architecture was divided into Architecture (with a capital “A”) and mere building. Architecture (what today we would classify as Starchitecture) became classified as a “Fine  Art,” which was defined as an art where the artistic is the sum total of its purpose. 16  The other buildings that populate our world became a “Practical Art,” where the artistic existed only to serve a purpose other than itself. Again, this was a concept alien to the Classical thought that permeated all architectural theory until the late 1800’s. With Architecture (capital “A”) becoming separated from architecture, the stage was set for the destruction of both. The world of Architecture (capital “A”) was now free to explore increasingly irrelevant aspects of Formalism, 17  to the point where the buildings’ f unction, and even users, were sacrificed on the altar of how the building looked. 18  The aesthetic concerns of Kant’s “purposiveness without purpose,” the beautiful and the sublime first became apparent in the values of the Beaux Arts movement. This, in Lakoff and Johnson’s terms, is the realm of the “Myth of Subjectivism,” 19  where there are no rules, just absolute srcinality. 20  Uniqueness is an end unto itself, and is pursued as such. 13  Plato, “ Hippias Majo”   14  Vitruvius, “Ten Books of Architecture” 15  Except, obviously, for the time period when he had been forgotten. It should also be noted that Vitruvius was, in his day, quite likely a minor architect. We attribute mythic qualities to him because his treatise on architecture was the only one to survive intact into the Renaissance, where it would be “found.” It is highly likely that his qualities of architecture were not the product of his intellect, but were something he had been taught. They probably were derived from the core of “Roman Architectural Theory.” 16  This concept did exist for the Greeks, but they called it “decorative art” and it only applied to pure artistic endeavors, such as sculpture and adornments. It was never applied to anything that served an actual  purpose beyond being beautiful. 17  Formalism is the concept that all function of the building is subsidiary to the form of the building. In formalistic architecture, when there is a conflict between use and form, the form will always win. 18  As an example of how far this trend has gone, one need only look at the Hamilton Wing of the Denver Art Museum. The angles of the grand stair and balcony are so alien that they induce vertigo in people with  balance problems. (I’m one of them, and I find climbing that staircase to be horribly disorienting.) This  problem was so severe at the grand opening that they had to place strategically located trash bins on the  balconies for visitors to use in a way that needs no further illustration. 19  It should be noted that myth in the authors’ context does not refer to a fable or story, but to a culture’s way of describing the world around them. 20  George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, “Metaphors We Live By.”
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