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Architectural Style Wars at the Royal College of Art

The RCA/AR lecture series Future Frontiers stimulates a heated debate on style, history and power

The French filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard famously said that ‘style is just the outside of content, and content the inside of style; like the outside and the inside of the human body they cannot be separated’. Consequently any dialogue about style is invariably also a conversation about broader issues, to the point that Bruce Mau − almost 40 years after Godard − concluded that style ultimately determines the way we live.

These points were very clear in the minds of two of the finest connoisseurs of architectural styles − Charles Jencks and Patrik Schumacher − who used the platform provided by the Royal College of Art in London as a means to discuss the state of architecture at the turn of the century. According to the predetermined format followed by all the lectures in the series, each speaker outlined his point of view on the subject in a short presentation as a way to instigate a final debate.

Jencks, who took the stage first, immediately turned the audience’s attention to how much power and style are historically tangled up. By recalling how in the mid-19th century Lord Palmerston twisted George Gilbert Scott’s arm to make sure that the new Foreign Office building in London followed the Classical style (and not the Gothic one Scott had pursued throughout his career), Jencks reminded us that when power dictates style it does so to limit choice and control its public image.

He then went on to show how such reduction of stylistic choice eventually led to the birth of the Modern Movement and Le Corbusier’s call for a universal style. Through this excursion in history, he implicitly accused Parametricism − or, as he preferred to call it, digital baroque − of following Modernism’s footsteps in its attempt to seize diversity to become the only legitimate contemporary architectural style.

Abu Dhabi Performing Arts Centre by Patrick Schumacher and Zaha Hadid

A rendering of the Abu Dhabi Performing Arts Centre designed by Patrik Schumacher and Zaha Hadid. Despite being built in the desert, the building’s skin incorporates a large amount of glass which Charles Jencks argues makes it a preposterous example of ecologically expensive Parametricism

Jencks also warned the audience that there are about 150 styles currently present in the global arena and that such pluralism should be seen as a source of richness rather than a formless chaos to be eradicated. This is also because styles are now not only generated by professionals but also by the public; since the post-war rise of the consumer society, it is no longer just architects who decree what is acceptable and what is not in terms of architecural production, but rather a much more complex and varied range of voices, whose diversity Jencks has often celebrated in his works on Postmodernism.

As Schumacher took the floor echoes of stylistic battles of the past pervaded the auditorium. His first slide − unequivocally titled ‘What is wrong with Charles Jencks?’ − immediately opened fire on Postmodernism.

What followed were five points through which Schumacher argued against Jencks’s tolerant theories in favour of dogmatic, universally applicable principles which constitute the basis of his theory of style: Parametricism. Schumacher referred to the Bauhaus as a significant precedent for Parametricism: in line with Godard’s quote, he maintained that the project of style was never a superficial one and that new styles could only be born out of new societal organisations which in turn
required new modes of structuring the built environment.

As with most of Schumacher’s theories, it was very hard to disagree with their starting points or the range of issues he tackled, however it was often the tone of his rhetoric which eventually took over and turned the discussion into some sort of propaganda. Exemplary in this regard was the style of the two presentations: Jencks adopted his usual fluent narrative, punctuated by anecdotes and subtle irony; whereas Schumacher replied with a series of text-only slides in which he systematically enunciated the principles of Parametricism; in the words of Schumacher himself ‘the new hegemonic global style’.

Foreign Office's new project in Greenwich

Foreign Office’s new project in Greenwich

These sorts of statements were not bound to find a great deal of sympathy in the audience; the quasi-scientific, disciplinary claims of Parametricism were naturally at odds in an art institution in which about a dozen artistic disciplines not only coexist but rather continuously cross each other’s boundaries to create new hybrids.

Nevertheless, the theoretical battle continued well into the final debate where Jencks’s pluralism and Schumacher’s dogmas perhaps understandably never came to an agreement. It was a great evening for those who managed to make it to the RCA auditorium as it not only offered the opportunity to listen to two central characters in the architectural debate, but it also reminded of the importance of critical dispute and disagreement within the academic discourse.

Ultimately, Jencks’s gambit proved to be poignant as the evening unfolded: when we talk about style we are always also drawing a map of power. With all the profound differences between the two speakers, they both agreed, though, that debates on style are not only still necessary, but also that they should focus on form as the privileged vehicle for stylistic expression in architecture.

Whether it carries symbolic meaning or is generated by digital tools to achieve complex and fluid configurations, form also represents an increasingly problematic double bind for the theoretical discourse: on the one hand, historically stylistic principles could only be extracted from the formal proprieties of architectural objects; on the other, contemporary modes of communications and media have weakened the relation between form and style as they have managed to alter physical environments without employing any architectural form.

What has been fading is the privileged position that form has held in expressing content and consequently style; once this position is overturned what follows is also the consequent erosion of the definition of architecture as a discreet, static object. Possibly, the next battle of styles in architecture will not be between two or more clearly identifiable factions, as has always happened historically, but rather between the tangible reality of the physical environment and the ephemeral and dynamic elusiveness of virtual spaces. For that, we have not got a style yet.

The Architectural Review Lecture Series

HUMANITY: 19 March 2012
Peter Buchanan + Michael Sorkin

TECHNOLOGY: 26 April 2012
Sir Peter Cook + Carlo Ratti

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