On style as an agent of change, not of representation
Since the 1990s, there have been four pivotal changes in the way architecture is made. First, the growing demand that buildings respond to a range of complex problems such as convoluted planning regulations, personal security and climate change requires a degree of expertise beyond that of most architects, and therefore the design process involves an increasing number of disciplines. Secondly, digital design tools have transformed the way architects work and the way buildings are fabricated. Thirdly, with the advent of the internet, ideas are now circulated worldwide with astonishing speed, one result of which is a growing similarity between the buildings of different architects. And, finally, advances in communication technology (from Amazon to Wikipedia) mean that many daily activities that were once confined to the real space of buildings now take place in the virtual world.
Some aspects of the design process can be controlled by architects, others cannot. Just as architects no longer possess all the necessary skills, neither is the cult of personality behind the ‘starchitect’ system powerful enough to prevent the interpenetration of ideas in today’s hyper-connected world. Also, contrary to architects’ concerns about their diminished power in the multi-disciplinary design team, as the only members who are capable of assembling all of these elements and parameters into a coherent whole with a singular style, they have become even more essential.
Historically, style has referred to the formal attributes of a building and how these convey meaning: the character of its architect, the time or place it belongs to, the school of thought from which it has emerged. ‘Why’, asked Ludwig Wittgenstein, ‘should philosophy in the age of airplanes and automobiles be the same as in the age when people travelled by coach or on foot?’ So too the function of style in architecture cannot be the same now as it was prior to our hyper- connected age. Consider office buildings. Rather than becoming redundant with the advent of email, conference calls, digital file sharing, etc, they have become more important, because the actual space of an office has the advantage of offering social interaction. This accounts for the growing number of experiments with interstitial spaces − stepped, twisting, or branching atria, ramped circulation, diagonal as well as spiralling split floors, and central and polycentric courtyards − which can foster serendipitous exchanges of knowledge. The singular style of buildings like Gensler’s Shanghai Tower or MVRDV’s Schweizer Fernsehen offices was not conceived to represent external signs or meanings, but to address the changing nature of the activities taking place within.
By assembling elements and parameters in a singular style − a style which is similar to but also deviates from assemblages by other architects in other locations − the architect goes beyond approaching the uniqueness of buildings as stand-alone objects, to interrupt traditional modes of habitation and ground the building in the micro-politics of everyday life. For example, 30 St Mary Axe by Norman Foster rejects the conventions established by FL Wright’s Johnson Wax Research Tower. Both buildings have a central core and peripheral atria but, in the latter, alternating square and circular floors cantilevered from the core and clad with translucent glazing result in repetitive and introverted office spaces, and small, unusable atria. In 30 St Mary Axe the circular plan widens in profile as it rises and then tapers towards the apex creating a conical tower form, increasing street-level public space, and introducing differentiation in the offices. Six triangular shafts that spiral up the tower introduce diagonality and communication between floors, and a full circular floor-plate every six floors introduces collectivity. Together the diagrid structure and the glass curtain wall introduce latticing and transparency to the offices.
Similarly, Herzog and de Meuron’s De Young Museum steers the experience of viewing of art away from that in the Kimbell Art Museum, where the centrally located entrance and uniform galleries in a parallel arrangement create a sense of repetition, symmetry and axiality. At the De Young, rows of galleries bifurcate to expose some of the walls to the exterior, creating a sense of permeability and fluidity. The aesthetic experience of these buildings is surely inseparable from the way they are used.
‘The architect is therefore not the author of meanings − something that is beyond the capabilities of architecture today − but the agent of new interactions between habitation and expression, or practical use and aesthetics, which inspire individuals to think differently about their everyday activities’
To consider style from the ‘outside’ alone is to detach its significance from the context (everyday activities) in which it is encountered. To reduce the experience of buildings to stereotypical responses ignores the agency of style − and the role of the architect. Buildings are too complex to be described by a single image or metaphor, and we should not confuse the business of winning commissions with the way buildings actually perform.
The challenge for architects today, given the tendency towards similarity, is to assemble a coherent whole with a new cluster of affects that encourages people to react creatively. As the experience of buildings is entwined with personal or practical interests, this play of subjectivity can open up a multiplicity of meanings. The architect is therefore not the author of meanings − something that is beyond the capabilities of architecture today − but the agent of new interactions between habitation and expression, or practical use and aesthetics, which inspire individuals to think differently about their everyday activities. The current practice of referring to buildings by nicknames based on their external appearance is a symptom of the idea that the function of style is to signify existing meanings. It dumbs architecture down.