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AR 120: Patrik Schumacher on Style

Nov 1957

Although wary of fads, the AR has certainly had its stylistic allegiances - including those it created

As political economy evolved through the various stages of capitalism, the discipline of architecture co-evolved via a roughly aligned sequence of epochal styles. In order to begin fleshing out this sketch, the first key distinction to be made is between tradition-bound building and architecture as theory-led expert practice. Before the dawn of architecture, the evolution of the built environment progressed slowly and haphazardly via trial and error, like a quasi-biological, material process. The simple early aggregation of shelters in clusters and the proliferation of such settlement clusters across space initially follow the logic of segmentary differentiation, as defined by Niklas Luhmann’s sociological systems theory. As soon as one of those clusters/tribes grows to prominence and assumes overarching functions for society as a whole, centre-periphery differentiation becomes a possible developmental trajectory. In these early stages the social order can be readily read off the spatial order, and its emergence and maintenance depends on this legible spatial order. However, there were no prior conceptions or plans guiding the development process. 

The medieval, so-called Romanesque style is passive, ie it is a style only according to retrospective classification, and is still locked in the pattern of tradition-bound building. The Gothic style can be interpreted as a first major step towards architecture. The built environment of the era of feudalism was characterised by a stratified order, segregated according to the order of the estates: the nobility’s castle, the clergy’s churches, the burgher’s walled city and the farmer’s village. The ideological apparatus operating here is the idea of a fixed God-given order. All aspects of society – political, economical, juridical, educational and architectural – were concentrated  at the apex.

Starting with the Renaissance, stratified order began to evolve into modern, functionally differentiated society. The economy emancipated itself and flourished with its own unique medium of money, enhanced via the new institution  of credit via banks. This was the socio-economic era of ‘early capitalism’, aligned with the first architectural style proper. The Renaissance is the first active style of architecture due  to its conscious pursuit of innovation, fully designed and visualised in drawings and argued for in theoretical writings by architect-authors. This is the discipline we inhabit today.  

‘The built environment of the era of feudalism was characterised by a stratified order, segregated according to the order of the estates: the nobility’s castle, the clergy’s churches’

The next stage in the development of modern society was the emergence of the absolutist nation state, exemplified by France. This was the first state in the modern sense. The economic system of these societies was mercantilism, whereby the state controlled import and export, and allocated trading and production monopolies. This society found its architectural expression in the Baroque style, most paradigmatically in Louis XIV’s Palace of Versailles. 

The architectural order of the ideal city of the Renaissance had stopped at the city walls, beyond which lay the still-amorphous, wild, medieval hinterland. The Baroque style projected architectural order beyond the confines of the city, staking the claim for territorial control by the absolute sovereign all the way to the horizon, brought under the controlling gaze of monumental, panoramic perspectives. Roads and canals were cut through the landscape, state boundaries were precisely defined and maps surveyed the territory. A unified currency was imposed. At the same time, large administrative complexes had to be built. The Palace of Versailles shows off the power of Baroque architecture in line with the power of the absolutist sovereign and his administration. The main device here is to make the parts of a monumental composition asymmetrical, turning them into radicals that demand a resolution in the overall symmetry of the global complex. In contrast, all parts of a Renaissance composition are self-sufficient, resting symmetrically within themselves.

Sept 1975ja2

Sept 1975ja2

The Liverpool Cathedral debate was recounted as the modernist tide began to ebb, AR September 1975

After the Baroque came Neo-Classicism. This is aligned with Classical bourgeois capitalism and the 19th-century nation state, most paradigmatically Napoleon’s post-revolutionary France – an era marked by a challenging variety of societal demands. The architect JNL Durand propagated a new, versatile method of planning. His combinatorial composition of Classical motifs conceived as deployable modules over a grid of axes implies a massive expansion of the repertoire and thus versatility of architecture. Against the Baroque style of the Ancien Régime and the subsidiary Rococo style that was associated with aristocratic frivolity, the austere simplicity of Neo-Classicism expressed bourgeois virtues associated with republican Rome. 

Neo-Classicism was also the first stage of the more general phenomenon of Historicism, ie tapping into the large reservoir of prior historical styles to build up a rich repertoire of stylistic expression to cope with the increasingly extensive task domain of architecture. The diversity of function-types that had to be accommodated had grown significantly. During the era of absolutism, architecture was still confined to palaces and churches; now there was a new set of public institutions to be designed. Alignments emerged between certain function-types and styles: law courts, banks and government buildings were biased towards the Neo-Grecian, churches and town halls towards the Neo-Gothic, and private villas and townhouses towards the Neo-Renaissance. Thus, a loose system emerged that could articulate the institutional variety of society. Historicism was dominant across Western Europe in the 19th century, a time of accelerated innovation and increasing individual freedoms. This correlates with economic liberalism under the political auspices of republics or constitutional monarchies. 



The relation between styles in various media is considered, AR April 1969

The next great transition was from Historicism to Modernism. Compared with all prior styles, Modernism is distinguished by a marked increase in its compositional versatility made possible by its formal openness. This is achieved on the basis of the radical abstraction afforded by the concept of space. It is this that gives Modern architecture its increased innovative prowess and allows it to take on the massively increased scope of its task domain. However, this relative level of innovative openness and versatility of Modernism – when compared with all prior architecture – is at the same time subject to very specific formal constraints that become clear when compared with the later stylistic development beyond Modernism. The Modernist repertoire had unleashed itself from the Classical impositions of symmetry, proportion and completeness, yet it remained committed to orthogonality. Modernist compositions emphasise an articulated organisation on the basis of the principles of separation, specialisation and repetition. These formal constraints and compositional principles are well adapted to the era of Fordist mass production which is, at the same time, the era of social democracy when the masses become the client of architecture. 

The Modernist city – the first full-blown urban expression  of modern, functionally differentiated society – was differentiated according to the following basic functions: production, administration, consumption, recreation, habitation. For each of these function-types, Modernist architects developed functionally specialised urban typologies, instantiated as distinct, specialised, repetitive zones. This is explicit in Le Corbusier’s Ville Radieuse, a generic design for the ideal Modernist city. Fordism and Modernism were historically aligned with the politics of democracy, socialism and fascism (in Italy). 

Ar 12 gatefold 2

Ar 12 gatefold 2

This chart featured in a special issue on industrial design in July 1933. It was a response, 30 years delyaed, to the Anglophilia of Loos and Murthesius. As such it valorised ‘vernacular’ British design. The cellular layout propogated a view of style as a linear evolutionary series

During the 1970s and ’80s this stage of development transmuted into the Post-Fordist, neoliberal era within which architecture works today, however reluctantly. The ideological basis for the neoliberal political adaptation to the new socio-economic forces of Post-Fordism emerged from the rediscovery of Mises and Hayek, who had been marginalised for over  40 years.

The Modernist recipes of strictly planned and zoned suburbanisation had supported a certain level of societal development that they could no longer contain. Worse, these recipes along with the increasingly heavy interventionist political framing of Fordist economic development produced problematic side-effects that induced their increasing rejection. Architectural Modernism was as bankrupt as Communism, the social-democratic welfare state and Keynesian theory. The crisis of Modernism spawned a rapid sequence of styles: Postmodernism, Neo-Historicism, Neo-Rationalism, Deconstructivism, Folding, Minimalism. Of these, only Deconstructivism and Folding were uncompromisingly future-oriented and bore the seeds of Parametricism.

‘A generalised Parametricism could reconcile the need for urban order, and do so, counterintuitively, by harnessing the seemingly uncontrollable, market-driven processes of contemporary urbanisation’

For me, there is no doubt that Parametricism is architecture’s only valid answer to contemporary, computationally empowered civilisation, in terms of technical and (more importantly) social functionality. Current market-driven urbanisation delivers desired programmatic mixity  and synergy. However, under current stylistic plurality this programmatic order remains largely invisible and confronts  us as ugly visual chaos that prevents the emergence of legible urban identities. A generalised Parametricism could reconcile the need for urban order, identity and legibility, and do so, counterintuitively, by harnessing the seemingly uncontrollable, market-driven processes of contemporary urbanisation. Freedom and order beyond the bounds of counterproductive planning can emerge only via the discursive convergence of the discipline towards Parametricism as new epochal style. The new ordering capacities of Parametricism would be used in every project to articulate the programmatic synergies and affiliations that emerge from unhampered entrepreneurial land use and synergy maximisation. 

Architecture’s unique and enduring societal function is the communicative spatial framing of social interaction. It is only now that this most profound contribution and societal function of architecture has been distilled from the profession’s traditionally more-encompassing responsibilities as its core competency. This conception and the prospect of a market-based urban order clearly indicates the conceptual congeniality of Parametricism with a market-based socio-economic order that relies on bottom-up processes of self-organisation and self-regulation rather than on top-down command and control. 

Patrick Schumacher

This is an edited extract of the complete text which will appear at in the New Year 

From eclecticism to faction (and back)

In its early years the AR featured more historical than current architecture, with instances of the latter legitimised by appearing among canonical buildings. This reinforced tradition, since only homogeneity could ensure publication. At this time most styles were thought ripe for revival, with the AR sometimes contributing to the exhumation of idioms hitherto considered beyond the pale, as in Beresford Pite’s re-evaluation of Michelangelo’s architecture in 1897, when the latter was blamed for the Baroque – still the object of odium at the time.

This reappraisal helped form the so-called Edwardian Baroque that dominated early 20th-century British architecture. However, any radical breaks were condemned as whimsical perversions. (An early bugbear was Art Nouveau, which the editors refused even to illustrate.) At the all-you-can-eat buffet of styles, the question is: how to choose? In general, a peaceful eclecticism reigned at the turn of the century, but factionalism flared in debates over New Delhi and Liverpool Cathedral, with proponents of Gothic, Classical and Vernacular styles battling for supremacy. Regarding New Delhi, in 1912 Robert Weir Schultz cries: ‘Surely there has been enough lifeless repetition of past styles, and it is high time to get to the root of things again.’ This call grew louder over the years, albeit largely ignored by the AR until it ‘went modern’ in 1927.



A whimsical culinary approach to style. AR September 1947

Postmodernism and beyond

Recently the subject of a stylistic resurgence (at least among the architecturally inclined if not architects themselves), the AR’s preference for late Modernism and High-Tech  did not prevent it from publishing the greats – here something of an olive branch in the form of The Farrell Partnership’s TV-AM Studios, which ‘considerably extended the vocabulary and polished the diction of the language of Post-Modernism’, writes Jonathan Glancey in 1983.

However fad-like it may have been considered, its reverberations cannot be ignored, in the recent work of FAT and the development of more unique, local styles in Bolivia. The visual clout of such works, as well as Postmodernism’s very nature and outlook, still presents something of a challenge to those seeking what’s next.



TV-AM Studios in London by The Farrell Partnership, AR June 1983

HRH the Prince of Wales

Prince Charles’ ‘carbuncle’ speech in 1984 infuriated architects with its attack on modern architecture, launching a populist subset of mealy Postmodern and pseudo-Georgian architecture. The AR rebutted with a ‘Primer for the Prince’ in December 1990, aiming to show that the Prince of Wales’ pleas for humanity in architecture can all be fulfilled within aspects of Modernism and that a reformed Modernism, being about how to live effectively in the contemporary world, can offer much more than the pastiche that the Prince’s arguments have too often created.

HRH would insist 25 years on that he never intended to ‘kick-start some kind of “style war” between Classicists and Modernists’. In 2015, Prince Charles was given a platform by the AR to promote his own primer – 10 principles for sustainable urban growth that values tradition.



A light take on Prince Charles as proponent of good architecture by Frances Anderton, assistant editor at the time