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In what style shall we build?

A new book by Farshid Moussavi argues that style in architecture needs to focus on individual aesthetic responses rather than shared understandings. And yet, as clients continue to commission ‘icons’, how should architects approach the question of meaning in architecture?

Style-Worry, as Reyner Banham called it, has recurred since the 19th century with its expanded, competing choice of architectural languages. Banham’s phrase responded to his teacher, Nikolaus Pevsner, who had asserted a confrontational idea following the Battle of the Styles. In Pioneers of the Modern Movement (1936) he wrote that Gropius and the Bauhaus had created the one ‘true style of the century’. But, in a second pronouncement in the 1960s, Pevsner lamented that we had lapsed from this single orthodoxy into a cacophony of historicisms: Neo-Expressionism, Neo-Art Nouveau, Neo-This-and-That. As the arbiter of modern taste, Pevsner deplored this hydra-headed pluralism. Yet it was partly motivated by a popular reaction against the reduced International Style, which had to be faced.

Banham, wishing to keep open choice of a kind, responded with a new way of setting limits. He fixed a date in cultural evolution for a new taboo, limiting influences to those after 1918. Such a date would acknowledge the First Machine Age, and the postwar social reality. In effect, any style could be appropriated as long as it derived from recent technology and Early Modernism. Banham’s style-anxiety was of course very real, and had been preceded by countless 19th-century tracts, especially those connecting personal identity and morality with a certain style of life. What is to be Done? was one famous title and question; How Should We Live? its architectural equivalent, and in art Paul Gauguin posed the supreme set of Modernist questions, in his painting of 1897: D’ou Venons Nous/Que Sommes Nous/Où Allons Nous − that is, ‘Where do we come from, who are we, where are we going?’ The existential title asks a cosmic and spiritual question, inspired as it turns out by a religious catechism, but it is also a national and universal question. The choice of a way of living and dying was a choice of style, even for the atheist Gauguin when he was searching for an authentic way of living in Tahiti, and closer to nature. Much later, in the ’70s, Harold Bloom showed that similar questions of style and identity also dominate contemporary literature. The Anxiety of Influence mentions various strategies for Modernists to appropriate the ideas and style of their mentors. One could extend the modern tradition in a way that was new-old by creative misreading and swerving, or by covert borrowing and transformation.

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In later life Pevsner embraced the plural, praising John Nash for ‘having a nice sense of associational propriety’ in practising four styles, including ‘Hindu’ for the Brighton Pavilion

In architecture the tradition of the new could take on a decidedly personal character, as Frank Lloyd Wright and Le Corbusier showed. And then, following the Pioneers, countless celebrity architects after the 1920s revealed the logic of self-branding. What starts as a personal search for identity and authenticity − ‘make it new and original’ − leads by market logic to a signature-style, because architects need a predictable flow of clients. So genuine character, Wright’s romantic belief in being true to himself, morphed into caricature, especially in some late works. Style as stereotype, by the 1960s, became a problem of our time in all the arts.

In architecture the road to success leads inexorably to bigness − bigger offices chasing bigger commissions − then cliché. Large offices are usually powerless to break this syndrome, the tight coupling of late capitalism and huge projects. It is not as if one can drop out of the nasty logic, as bankers and politicians argued in the lead up to the crash of 2007/8. Jean-Claude Juncker, arbiter of EU economic policy, later put it in words that epitomise the impotence of leaders: ‘we all know what to do [economically], we just don’t know how to get elected after we’ve done it’. In other words, like today’s Euro debt of €1.2 trillion, it is a conspiracy between the players in the game. In the mutually hypocritical society the equation reads, cynical politicians + cynical public = mainstream syndrome. Or, as the head of Citibank put it during the 2007 vortex: ‘as long as the music is playing, you’ve got to get up and dance’. Politicians, economists, artists and architects have to keep dancing; to leave the floor is to die. Conformity to the system comes with success, and dominates the architectural office larger than 50 designers, which is why Richard Rogers tried (and failed) in the 1970s to keep below this tipping point. The same logic dominates the art market and leads to the recognisable style that keeps reputations in place and products saleable. An artist is thus pressed to imitate himself, to make ‘self-forgeries’ as Robert Hughes said of Giorgio de Chirico. This Metaphysical painter later copied his early style, making 57 Piazzas d’Italia (like a Heinz Soup Corp on autopilot). Very few artists, such as Picasso, try to outwit their followers and jump from one mode to the next (race ahead of beauty as he put it) but even he, towards the end, kept to his distinctive Late-Style.

Critics soon defined this genre so positively (recent London exhibits are Late Rembrandt and Late Turner) that it generated a new anxiety. I remember Eisenman and Gehry arguing with each other over who had better understood what it really means to be ‘Late’, as if your last style were the last word in authenticity. I have argued, since 1978, for a collective version of this quandary: that Late Modernism is more dominant than Postmodernism, even if it means a late-arrival at the party of abstraction. Such are some time-ironies of stylistic terms (Early, Middle, High, Late, Post). EH Gombrich pointed out, in his important historical study Norm and Form, the origin and adequacy of stylistic labels, a text which deserves attention today when there is more than the usual angst.

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Late Picasso (Chair, 1961) was one of the few artists who tried to jump from one mode to the next, but even he settled into his Late style

Towards an impersonal style - the gravitas of organisation

Inevitably the reaction against the cult of personality has set in among the young, and recent digital designers, epitomised by Farshid Moussavi’s The Function of Style (2015). This − the third in her series, following The Function of Ornament (2006) and The Function of Form (2009) − is a beautifully produced book, much larger than the previous two. It analyses 220 schemes proposed since the 1990s. Like the Koolhaas tome S,M,L,XL, it is a robust reference book which students love − the kind popular since 1995 with Tschumi, Holl and a dozen other iconic architects. Like Rem’s recent Venice Biennale, the book is partly concerned with elements and typologies as an antidote to the personal celebrity style. Significantly though, she concerns herself with many recent iconic buildings and so her polemic has more relevance where it faces this problematic syndrome of our time.

I declare an interest as a friend and sometime client of Farshid, full of admiration for her personal style and steely independence, but it doesn’t follow that I agree with her argument. Rather, I think where it is positive there is much to learn and where it is negative, it is questionable. So, a quick look at the shortcomings, first.

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‘Late Eisenman’: the City of Culture in Santiago de Compostela, Spain

Moussavi considers many august writers since the 18th century, from France, Germany and America, who wrestle with style − Durand, Semper, Riegl, Wölfflin, Giedion, Panofsky, Gombrich, Venturi and Eisenman, among others. From this overview she builds up her negative case that style today is not concerned with the representation of external narratives. Hers is a long list of external subjects that cannot be represented, such as the past, or the present zeitgeist, or nationality, or authorship (the celebrity style). Rather Moussavi is concerned with ‘representation of internal order’, that is, architectural functions and the unique assembly of type-solutions. Buildings, she writes, following Gilles Deleuze, are ‘manifolds and multiplicities’ of particular functions and formal systems. The architect ‘assembles all of these elements into a coherent built form and determines its aesthetic presence’ (p39).

For Moussavi, a building style is a singular assembly, not a shared signifying system because, as she states in previous books, general signification is not possible today. ‘Given the absence of shared understanding in contemporary society, it is not possible for built forms to convey meaning through signification’ (p37). That was the mistake of Postmodernists and semiologists. Rather, ‘each time architects assemble a built form to serve an activity of daily life (working, shopping, etc)’ they create ‘a cluster of affects, or intensities which spread outward from the “thisness” of a form, not communicating anything or signifying a specific meaning’ (p37). Again Deleuze is invoked to justify this nominalism, and in the weak sense that every building in history is a singular assembly of various things, it is true. But unhelpful, especially since architecture is a social art shot through with conventions, stereotypes, words and quotations, especially those from outside architecture. More importantly, architects intend to communicate specific meanings. If you doubt this, read the explanations that usually accompany their buildings.

Or better look at her design for the John Lewis Department Store in Leicester (p532). It is based on arabesque ornament, the kind of lacework patterns this company sold in the 19th century. Each whirling tendril is a conventional sign of the past, repeated and flipped ingeniously in several different ways to produce just the kind of decorated shed that Robert Venturi advocated, and to communicate what is happening inside. The building is a more convincing example of this style than previous buildings, more elegant and functionally relevant. For instance, the ornamental pattern recalls clothes; it screens and lightens the space, so that shoppers can try on clothes well lit but without feeling overexposed. It is hard to think of a more semantic ornamental skin, in the recent iconic tradition, done with such aplomb. You would have to be asleep not to understand how it communicates the products and values of the store. Moussavi here overcomes the disease of our time, death-by-shopping.

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FOA, John Lewis Department Store, Leicester: old patterns of textiles sold here become the pretext for the semantics and function of this department store, one of the most inventive uses of ornament on the Postmodern decorated shed

Why the disjunction between theory and practice? Her insistence on the ‘thisness’ of form gives a hint. It recalls the writers who insisted ‘a poem should be, not mean’, or critics like Susan Sontag, who were Against Interpretation, or artists who were dogmatic abstractionists. In other words, we are back at Banham’s point of rupture with the past, that is, the 1918 taboo. Or else further along, with Clement Greenberg’s strictures against representation except for internal representation − a defining aspect of Late Modern, autotelic art. Moussavi’s comparison of Early Modern 1910s with post-1990 digital architecture follows this restriction. It betrays her own taste and values, her norms and forms as Gombrich might say, and loads the dice against those systems of meaning she asserts are impossible today.

In spite of such constant assertions people will go on being incorrigible and understand by style the usual things: primarily, the similarities and rhythms of form, construction and building materials; secondarily, the communication of a strong, convincing character or mood; and third, some spirit and associative metaphor. ‘Style’ is used by the public just as are the words democratic, civilisation and spiritual. They classify holistic properties and attitudes, family resemblances as Wittgenstein put it, overlapping qualities. Often the affirmation of value, and the judgement of a work, is perceived as having great style. One may try to overthrow this usage in a good cause − here for impersonality − but this restriction works for only a small percentage of people. What is lost in such calls to order is the freedom of stylistic choice, and the meaning that emerges through the opposition of styles.

Most curiously, given the historical discussion, Moussavi does not explore the implications of the impersonal style recommended by TS Eliot in literature, by so many writers such as John Summerson, and the classicists and high Modernists in architecture. She does not discuss Auguste Choisy’s drawings of historical architectures. These thin-line axons made different periods look, as Banham often remarked, as if they were produced by that great architect, Anon. Indeed, the thousands of drawings she reproduces − and their grey digital renditions − look as if one architect designed all 220 projects. Like Choisy’s drawings, a representational system has done away with changing history and palpable presence, to bring out the generic, and the ideas behind design.

‘Architects intend to communicate specific meanings. If you doubt this, read the explanations that usually accompany their buildings’

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Metaphorical analysis of 30 St Mary Axe. The Gherkin is only one among several enigmatic signifiers built into the formal properties, some (such as bullets and missiles) which have a paranoid charge, others a friendly, touchable and natural form. (Drawing, Madelon Vriesendorp with the author.)

Architectural ideas, of course, can be a great virtue. And as with the grandest and highest style − gravitas − functional form also makes a work appear inevitable, a force of history, and natural. But actually her renditions are a choice, an editing, an illusion. As Oscar Wilde toyed with the idea, ‘To be natural is such a very difficult pose to keep up.’ Yes, and especially in the age of ecology, when it is a necessity.

Here the impersonal style, and its illusion, serves the analysis of building type, and reveals morphological truths. For instance, the organisation of towers into either a central or asymmetric core; or what she terms as several different ‘co-efficients’ of organisation. Foster’s 30 St Mary Axe (aka the Gherkin) is dissected, in her typical two-page layout, into mechanical thin-line diagrams with seven captions which elucidate the ‘style’. What is the Gherkin’s style noted at the top right page? ‘Working/Tower/Central Core/Peripheral Atrium’. Across on the opposite page are her ‘cluster of affects’, clustering hopefully, telling you the perceptible affect here is ‘Rotundity, Conicality, Latticing, Twisting, Differentiating, Collectivity, Communication, Transparency.’ There are several obvious problems here. No one, except a conscientious student, is going to list these ‘affects’ as stylistic classifiers; or know what a few of them mean in the Gherkin (what is ‘Latticing’ here?). Also, the overlooked strength of the icon is the way it incorporates multiple functions with multiple metaphors: it is not just the usual one-liner.

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The right-hand page from the spread on 30 St Mary Axe in Function of Style, which analyses the built form of the project in relation to other office buildings
Click to enlarge

But the conceptual and semantic problem of The Function of Style is that the two lists become redundant and tautological, especially given the drawings. And they are mere lists, not holistic interpretations of a particular building. Most problematic as far as style is concerned is the fact that they do not reveal the amount of shared formal attributes, the statistical frequency that turns usage into either a common and reigning style, or else the signature-mode of Frank Lloyd Wright and Gehry.

Aesthetic singularity
The impressive aspects of The Function of Style are not really about style per se − except for the impersonal gravitas of the 1,000 drawings. However, a strength of the book is the succinct comparison of many buildings. These illuminate functional assemblies, for instance what she calls ‘continuous balconies in residential slabs’. And this sharpens her practice, for Moussavi is building several versions of this syntagm with great style. They are all minimalist, and take advantage of her functional insights. And her computerised diagrams are superior to those of the famous history of Banister Fletcher, a robust tome that grew fat one hundred years ago, through its 16 editions of comparative architecture.

For Moussavi, as for her mentors Renzo Piano and Rem Koolhaas, the basic approach is functionalist but, like Postmodernists, they vary ‘the style for the job’ − as Eero Saarinen put the goal. How can we explain the seeming contradiction? On close reading, the paradox partly dissolves, since Moussavi advocates the singularity of each building as a particular assembly of different determinants. Also, she advocates the endless appropriation of previous solutions, the imitation for which OMA and others have been vilified − but only as long as the particular assembly ‘breaks from conventions’. For instance, the Yokohama Ferry Terminal ‘generates new encounters … disrupts habits and the sense of monumentality’ by merging with the landscape, and reconfiguring everyday life. Realism becomes magical. As Surrealists advocated, cliché and boredom can be turned on their heads.

’While monuments before the 19th century had a clearer set of meanings and iconography, the iconic building
now depends more on a set of loose associations than on accepted conventions’

At one point Moussavi even advocates a political role for this ‘radical estrangement’, for embracing the everyday − the ordinary − in an altered way. She quotes the philosopher Jacques Rancière and his Dissensus: On Politics and Aesthetics (2010) in support of the way everyday life can be disrupted by ‘dissensus − a redistribution of the sensible’ (p39). This notion was actually the coinage of Adhocists and Postmodernists way back in the 1970s, when they were trying to resist consensus architecture, the domination of the International Style, the midcult building that was eating up every airport and restaurant.

Obviously dissensus is easier said than done since, in 40 years, the environment has become progressively more homogenised. And the 1,000 drawings in the book support the generic, not social pluralism or identity. Besides, aesthetic affects are weak socially, and if they are going to communicate a radical political nature, their dissensus has to be turned into emphatic signs. It is rather like the London skyline campaign today, which invokes protected views and formal norms in order to fight the influx of oligarchs.

So, while I applaud the intentions of Moussavi as much as her minimalist and dramatic buildings, they leave the pressing questions of politics, stereotype and meaning unresolved. She treats the iconic buildings − about 100 in the book − as receptacles for individual aesthetic response. While this has the virtue of supporting pluralism of one type (singularity), it overlooks the collective social meaning of style, the shared way building types signify because they are so stereotyped, especially today. Also her denial of the shared meaning denies the intentions of architects and fails to grip the major architectural problem of the iconic building: its lack of responsibility for iconography and iconology.

It is time to reflect hard on this. For despite many public critics attacking the genre, and Deyan Sudjic and Rowan Moore declaring it dead since the crash of 2007, iconic buildings have only increased in number. Let me repeat the pressing syndrome: if icons are constructed with as much frequency as they have been since the 1990s, and global celebrity society shows an ever-increasing dominance of the media and politics, then the profession better sharpen its theory and practice of this overpowering genre.

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OMA won the competition for the Casa da Música in Porto with a proposal that the press saw as resembling a ‘diamond that fell from the sky’

The iconic building and enigmatic signifiers

The present situation has come about for global reasons, which I have tried to pick apart in several books, including The Iconic Building, The Power of Enigma (2005). The first and strongest reason for the rise of the icon is the decline of the consensual monument: the decline of religious and social narratives that sustained the public realm and its discourse. After the ruptures of Modernism and modernisation, architects as much as global clients lost their conviction as to what they should signify and build. Metanarratives became doubted, societies fragmented into pluralist taste-cultures, glob cult took over from national cultures, commerce began to dominate other values, the super-rich set the agenda, politicians failed to lead − these causes acted together and became a well-known syndrome.

However, the shift from monument to icon is not fully appreciated. While monuments before the 19th century had a clearer set of meanings and iconography, the iconic building now depends more on a set of loose associations than on accepted conventions, more on connotations than denotations. Hence the set of enigmatic signifiers that characterise this reigning approach. The suggested metaphors of the iconic building may point several ways, but − in the best cases − they head in appropriate and related directions. They converge in perspective, if never finally meet as a closed meaning. These directions include the function of the building task, its use, but also the many open meanings of a fast-changing global culture.

What I have found in analysing iconic buildings since the 1990s is that, positively, the common themes exist but are sometimes veiled. Providing coherence are the suggested cosmic and natural codes. Such patterns allude to the body, or to growing nature; or to things such as minerals, or universal processes that underlie the laws of nature (such as the spiral of the vortex, hurricane and galaxy). These shared organisational metaphors emerge from projects as designers work through the possibilities in each building task. However, fearful of one-liners, architects may be loath to mention the metaphors and values. Hidden or explicit, I believe it is these common codes that make this dominant style so recognisable.

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Daniel Libeskind’s addition to the Royal Ontario Museum is called the Crystal

Sometimes, as with Zaha Hadid and Daniel Libeskind, architects will call their building The Crystal, and allude to the fractured planes and self-similar angles of quartz, or a shimmering diamond. Rem Koolhaas won the Porto competition with his ‘diamond that fell from the sky’ (as the press saw it). But mineral metaphors arise quite naturally from many building materials and organisational geometries, the way matter self-organises. Following this common morphological logic, Libeskind has collaged his crystal addition to the classical museum in Ontario. Like Gehry’s Aerospace Museum in Los Angeles, the icon slams into the past with a debatable collision of cultures, and ruptures. Moussavi comes near to the crystal metaphor herself, when she refers to her Cleveland Museum as transmitting ‘affects of crystallinity’, but then she goes on to multiply other affects and morphologies, not to be guided by related metaphors.

Driven by the usual forces of global capitalism, Renzo Piano adopted the ‘shard’ metaphor to break up the volume of his skyscraper in London, especially at the top. The scaling motive was positive, but the metaphor found no deeper resonance or transformation. More convincingly, Libeskind used the shard idea as an explicit theme of the Imperial War Museum North, because it had plausible meanings symbolising warfare, and the fracturing of global cultures (dissensus as political reality).

Herzog and de Meuron, working with Ai Weiwei, came up with the ‘vase and bird’s nest’ for the Beijing Olympic stadium. This mix was an explicit justification for their iconography, in many ways referring to Chinese traditions of enclosure, gathering, weaving, the cracked-ice pattern, bird’s nest soup and so on. One can argue with its cost and politics, but as for turning the stadium into the national campfire for two weeks, the mixed metaphors, morphology and functions worked very well together.

Museums inevitably are described as the ‘cathedrals of our time’, a common metaphor since the 1970s, and the building task invites many shared stylistic attributes, including an inward-looking and sculptural treatment. Just like many emergent functional types, the museum grows its characteristic signs that become well-known to the public, that communicate clearly in just the way that Moussavi denies is possible. Today the ‘museum as church’ has become the stereotype because of repeated social use. As semiology reveals, use plus economic pressures always churns out new architectural signs, shared through feedback. The architectural language may not be as continuous and fixed as the classical one of the past, and it may now communicate more through associations and metaphors, but it still conveys signification.

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Frank Gehry, Fondation Louis Vuitton, Paris 2005-14. Exterior sails leap towards the head of the fragmented body

In one way Moussavi makes a similar point, especially about the aesthetic architectural sign. This sign partly refers to itself on the level of expression, sometimes it is autotelic in a work and redundantly present. Take Frank Gehry’s Fondation Vuitton with its redundant ‘sails’ referring to each other, a recent icon that has elicited so much positive and negative comment. It is clearly a museum, an inward-turning sculptural body with supra-expressive ‘sails as spinnakers’ or ‘clouds’ − placed over the gallery spaces, the ‘icebergs’ and ‘hill routes’. Gehry has explicitly used these metaphors, and iconography, to justify the non-standard shapes and many will recognise them without being told because, as usual, his language is both popular and esoteric. The beauty of the building − why Parisians love it in spite of the overbearing volume that breaks all the planning rules − is the way the ‘sails’ leap about and crash forward up towards the ‘head’, making the building strange and allusive, challenging and suggestive. Just as the crashing Late-Beethoven symphonies changed modern music towards an expression of individual identity, and angst, so one feels Late-Gehry is epitomising his own personal style in one cataclysmic symphonic celebration: an Ode to Architectural Joy.

As communicative metaphor, however, it is both a ‘struggling reptile’ and ‘an old-time Futurist spectacle’. The second metaphor is how the Paris public and media perceive it. After all, ‘the explosion in a shingle factory’ that Duchamp and the Cubists detonated in France is now an expected convention, a ritual Shock of the New/Old, especially for a new museum. As taxi-drivers point out, a version of Gehry’s explosion even appeared on the Champs-Elysées right next to the Etoile, before his was finished!

The 12 spinnakers, folded for structural and visual reasons, taper to points as vesica-shapes. Collectively they gesture towards the head of the armadillo in a friendly if clunky way. Probably people empathise with this animalistic grammar, typical of Late-Gehry, and prefer it to the dumb box, another stereotype of the museum. In any case, one reason Gehry is successful with iconic buildings is that he knows how to manipulate the enigmatic signifiers as mixed metaphors, lead them towards a confluence of meaning, and tie them to various functional morphologies. At Fondation Vuitton the signifiers also hint successfully at natural and cultural signs appropriate to the task, but a functional problem remains. The hill routes are so tight, and busy with steel and wood members flying about, that the space between the ‘iceberg and sails’ is not used for displaying sculpture. Apart from the marvellous Adrian Villar Rojas collage not much is possible.

Gehry takes responsibility for some of the iconography, the meaning and metaphors are named by him, but in itself that does not assure success. Intentional symbolism is the sine qua non that guarantees nothing. Without it you cannot explore the public nature of architecture, but conscious intentions are only the precondition of the successful icon, which still takes skill, luck and hard work.

A recent building of Norman Foster brings out the difficulty, the National Museum of Abu Dhabi, designed as a memorial to the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan. It is one of many icons on Saadiyat Island, the collection designed by the largest concentration of Wiki-List Starchitects in the world. It will make this artificial island a good measure of the problems I have mentioned − stereotype, large-scale production, lack of iconographic sophistication − and may include some astonishing breakthroughs.

Foster’s symbolism is explicit in the press release: the ‘National Museum is intended as a symbol of a progressive nation, showcasing the history, culture and recent social and economic transformation of the Emirates. Architecturally, the aim has been to combine a highly efficient, contemporary form with elements of traditional Arabic design and hospitality …’ In this mixture of function and meaning five steel volumes channel air through the museum just as the landscaped garden serves another ecological function, to shelter the building in a thermal blanket that will protect it from the intense sunlight of the Gulf. The five wind-scoops are also based on traditional solutions common to the area, and since the late Sheikh loved falconry (there is a gallery devoted to it), falcon wing-tips and their feathers become the iconography. So far so logical and contextual, and it underlines the point that the best iconic buildings address cosmic and natural themes. As usual the metaphor may backfire − is it an ostrich hiding its head in the ground, or has the falcon been shot? But, let us assume it works at many functional levels and multiple readings since Foster has produced several convincing icons in the Postmodern tradition and this may be one more; besides, it hasn’t opened yet.

The question here is not the right intentions or the skill of Foster, but the much harder ones of creativity, how the metaphors work together and the paranoid charge of the iconic building. In order to be taken over by the public, for instance as was the Eiffel Tower, they must convey risk and challenge prevailing assumptions. This can mean going through a period of vilification and rejection. The iconic building, as opposed to the monument in a traditional culture, sends a complexly coded message. It is conveyed through the style of the architect in addressing stereotype, and this connection of style to personal character returns us to the 19th century.

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Norman Foster, Zayed National Museum, Abu Dhabi, computer rendering 2011, showing Falcon Wings of tapering steel above a landscaped museum sheltered from the blistering sun

In which style should we build?

Isaiah Berlin, lecturing on German culture at the Architectural Association in the early 1970s, advanced a provocative idea. Contrasting styles, he argued that after 1800 the Germans, deciding they could never be as beautiful and civilised as the French, instead invented the superiorities of Romanticism. Colin Rowe followed the idea citing many examples of honest character in architecture trumping facile beauty. John Summerson had lectured at the AA on Butterfield and The Glory of Ugliness, but ‘character’ had many more virtues. And the 20th century was, in large part, the end of prettiness and elegance in favour of sincerity, then The New Empiricism, The New Brutalism, Adhocism, Romantic Pragmatism or whatever successive -ism The Architectural Review (and cognate journals) happened to find relevant.

During the 1970s when Style-Worry (and choice) had returned in periodic fever-form, I started analysing the Battle of the Styles from 1800 and found that in America and Britain, at any one time, there were more than the usual two at war − more than Gothic versus Classicism (capitalised as in the war of religions). Usually the number was more like 15 (as I argued in ‘Isozaki and Radical Eclecticism’). But such plurality was reduced in consciousness and expression, just as the two-party system always drives out smaller ones. My diagrams and evolutionary trees of Late, Neo and Postmodernism have never featured less than six streams to each of these large composite rivers, making 12 to 18 competitors at any one time. The agitated blobs of these diagrams show the turbulence of mini-movements vying as fish in a river.

One reason I stressed this plurality of styles was philosophical and personal: like Isaiah Berlin I have seen much suffering under the yoke of the hegemon and orthodoxy, and been aware of what he well described as value pluralism. Now that this philosophy is known and defended in the USA and UK (and both countries are a little less ‘united’ than they were before), now that John Gray and The New York Review of Books (among others) have taken up its cause, I only have to cite such sources not defend them here. But the second reason for accenting pluralism is that it corresponds well to architectural history − not the two-party system, or the tiresome Battle of Two, but the reality of actual building modes. Just take the Postmodern evolutionary tree from 1990 (not the dominant trends), and one can see the dissensus of different approaches, the Adhocism of Shigeru Ban and David Chipperfield (at the Neues Museum). See this as opposed to the ‘seamless integration’ of Foster and FOA; the Critical Modernism of Koolhaas, Eisenman and Herzog and de Meuron versus the swooping baroque of Hadid, Calatrava and NOX. Very different politics underlie the Heteropolis and Fractal Architecture; difference is real.

‘Sometimes, as with Zaha Hadid and Daniel Libeskind, architects will call their building The Crystal. Mineral metaphors arise quite naturally from many building materials and organisational geometries, the way matter self-organises’


As Isaiah Berlin would say, the values are different at some levels that are not reconcilable. There is no liberal equation that can adjudicate fairly, no politics that will determine through reason which is better or more worthwhile. The fate of value pluralism, and its beauty, is to admit that values are incommensurable, yet positive. One should try to resolve differences and avoid conflict as Berlin insists, but in societies and in architecture values are brought into being by action and desire not sweet reasonableness. And many compensating virtues of diversity do exist. One is that, as with food, a varied diet is more enjoyable and healthy in itself. Another is that meaning depends on difference, emerges through the play and succession of styles. The strongest reason to support pluralism is that great architecture like great art deals with a myriad of opposite values which it attempts to confront and present if not always reconcile; multivalent or deep art is always a measure of this quality.

Thus the conclusion might be, why not build in many different styles? Why limit them to post-1918 or post-1990 as Banham and then Moussavi imply? All periods and influences are open to reuse and, more crucially, all global cultures including the 5,000 unrepresented nations. These should be open to support, especially those losing their language and identity. Such existential questions, and their attendant style-worry, will not go away, so architects might as well learn to deal with the anxiety.

For monists, however, there is another solution to choice and pluralism. It comes inadvertently from the man who insisted on the one true International Style of the 20th century, every time he thought about it. Nikolaus Pevsner tells the story of Modernism in his Pioneers as a morality tale. This starts in the 1850s with the fiasco of corrupt politicians forcing Sir George Gilbert Scott, a confirmed Goth, to give in and compromise to the reigning taste-culture. Because the architect wanted the big job more than following his Gothic conviction, he shifted mode to Italianate Classicism. Pevsner’s moral fable culminates happily, after 50 years of such compromise, in the Bauhaus, Walter Gropius and orthodox Modernism on top.

jencks636_11

The author’s diagrams of Late, Neo and Postmodernism have never featured less than six streams to each of these large composite rivers, making 12 to 18 competitors at any one time
Click to enlarge

Yet later, every time Pevsner did not think polemically, and became a sensitive historian noting differences, he celebrated them. He wrote positively on John Nash having ‘a nice sense of associational propriety’ in practising four styles − Gothic, Italianate Villa, Old-English Cottage and ‘Hindu’ (for the Brighton Pavilion). Such writing shows Pevsner in his role as defender of the plural, not the true faith, and learning a new role in 1957 as a founder of  The Victorian Society, not the Bauhaus proselytiser. It shows that Eero Saarinen’s ‘style for the job’ was current reality for a successful architect in 1820, and thereafter. It suggests why some successful architects today − HdeM, Rem Koolhaas, occasionally Norman Foster and Frank Gehry − are led into plural practice because this reflects social reality. A lot of good pluralism comes without thinking too much, and feeling more. The sine qua non is to think just enough to tune up your ears and listen to the society, and its problems; to have the skill and means to practise in several modes.

All this may be granted but the hard question, a phrase used about consciousness, comes from this point. It is to know which modes you can use well, where they are relevant, and how to mix them in a mega-building that is used by a complex society. Clearly the architect has to break down bigness, acknowledge social complexity, but still have an obligation towards putting humpty-dumpty together again with more skill than we have managed − the real challenge for the styles of our time.

 

A note on sources

Farshid Moussavi, The Function of Style, Acta/Harvard GSD (2014) classifies style as a mixture of functions (residing, working etc); a cluster of aesthetic and social affects (asymmetry, communality etc), and morphology (corrugated office floor etc). Nikolaus Pevsner’s Pioneers of the Modern Movement (1936) was republished and reprinted many times as Pioneers of Modern Design, Penguin (1960). EH Gombrich, Norm and Form − Studies in the Art of the Renaissance, Phaidon (1966), discusses the origin and limitation of stylistic labels. Charles Jencks, The Story of Post-Modernism, Wiley (2011), and The Iconic Building, The Power of Enigma, Frances Lincoln (2005), and ‘Isozaki and Radical Eclecticism’, Architectural Design, 1/1977 discuss the value of plural styles and the necessity for iconography. Harold Bloom, The Anxiety of Influence, Oxford (1973), shows how new poems emerge from old and discusses how creative misreading of exemplars, plus swerving, is the usual tactic. The Wiki-List of Starchitects is on Wikipedia, 2013. The basis for judgement is statistical mention in the media, and by informed critics whose work creates implicit canons, as discussed by Juan Pablo Bonta, Architecture and Its Interpretation (1979).


Event

On 7 May Deyan Sudjic will discuss the subject of style with Farshid Moussavi and Charles Jencks at the Design Museum.
For information and tickets visit designmuseum.org/talks

 

 


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