In contemporary architecture, much like contemporary poetry, the social disease of “originality” and “individualism” is the current “artistic” trend. Traditional, classical beauty in buildings is viewed as old-fashioned and boring; timeless rules and forms have been thrown out the door in favour of anarchical hogwash. I believe this attitude is perfectly embodied by the following conversation between a man and a rookie architect:
“Only recently, I met an enthusiastic, newly qualified architect, her eyes brimming with excitement at the prospect of turning ideas into buildings.
“What’s your dream building, the one you’d build if you had all the money and all the time in the world?” I asked her.
“A glass box.”
“Erm… any particular glass box? Any features you might add to it? Anything you might want to put inside it?”
“No. Just the perfect glass box.”
Don’t we already have plenty of glass boxes turning our cities into eyesores?
Before I speak on the historical emergence of contemporary trends in architecture, I must first clarify what I mean by traditional, modern, and postmodern. One of my readers noted in my previous post examining poetry that the distinction between modernism and postmodernism is false, stating that a more appropriate distinction between Sattwic, Rajasic, and Tamasic should be made. While I must admit that this in many respects is true, as postmodernism is virtually a popularization dating from the 60’s of earlier aberrations from beauty and form, there is a different in some respects between early 20th century deformism and the current postmodern fad. Considering that many of my readers have learned in the course of their educational careers the academic distinctions between traditional, modern, and postmodern attitudes expressed through art, I am making use of these distinctions here as well while keeping in mind that earlier deformist forms of art were of limited influence in society and did not retain lasting social acceptance, as is best shown by the example given by Mr. Jonathan Meades in his article:
Accept then that the 1960s were a re-run of the 1860s. It’s easy enough – the same experimentation, the same sexual licence, the same exasperation with “tradition”, the same quick end. And, especially, the same subsequent denigration: High Victorian monstrosities; 1960s monstrosities. The difference between the 1860s and the 1960s is that the 1860s were a cul-de-sac. The monstrosities of the 1860s had little effect on the architecture of, say, 1895-1905. They led nowhere. The reaction to them was unequivocal; the judgement of them unforgiving. They were dismissed as aberrant. They didn’t fit with the mood of prim propriety and imperial hauteur that afflicted late-Victorian England…Nineteen-sixties monstrosities, on the other hand, have suffered a kinder fate. They are routinely rubbished by the Prince of Wales, but, for all that, the architectural spirit and sensibility – if not the actual forms – of the 1960s have been stealthily revived over the past 10 or so years.
Traditional architecture as defined by the Marcantonio Architects, is a “way of building which makes serious use of the familiar symbolic forms of a particular culture of a particular people in a particular place.” Traditional architecture is a part of culture, a handing down of cherished art forms from one generation to the next. It communicates the people’s core values and principles through its aesthetics and form to future generations. In contrast to postmodernism’s push to create buildings that ignore human values, traditional architecture asserts the important and dominance of culture over technology. For this reason, while contemporary architecture look dated within a relatively short period of time, traditional buildings have achieved their forms by centuries of refinement and thus have appeal which is timeless.
Not only has the West lost its cultural heritage through its rejection of the timeless and traditional, but with globalization, many traditional societies have eschewed their own traditions in favour of popular Western trends, extending into the realm of architecture by tearing down beautiful old, traditional buildings to be replaced by concrete-and-glass forms without personality or aesthetic style.
Modern architecture came about in the early to mid 20th century. The movement had several different ideologies and philosophies, from Expressionism to Futurism, but the core ideas behind modern architecture include “form follows function” and the extinction of all “unnecessary” ornamentation and details. Practicality in modernism is placed at the forefront, with artistic design slipping behind into second place. This emphasis on functionality is a clear expression of rationalist principles and is a reflection of our industrialized era, which seeks to turn everything, including humanity itself, into a functional machine. The movement stemmed in many ways from the idealism behind technological progress that pervaded society at the time. As stated by Mr. Charles Siegel in his book “An Architecture for Our Time: The New Classicism”:
“This architectural style proclaimed that the modern era was so advanced that it could ignore models from the past and let technocrats redesign society on scientific grounds. It helped spread the faith that technology and planning could heal the sick, replace the slums with hygienic housing projects, and create affluence for all.”
And another statement by Mr. Charles Siegel sums up the reasoning behind the modernist distaste for architectural ornamentation:
“In reality, modernism seemed honest because it did not use a sentimental facade to deny the ideals of its time, as the historical styles of the nineteenth and early twentieth century had. It said frankly that the culture of its time believed in technology and economic growth. For example, in the twentieth century, schooling began to focus on training students in the technical skills needed by the modern economy. But early in the twentieth century, it was fashionable to build high schools with Gothic facades, imitating Oxford and Cambridge, as if the new mass high schools were still ivied towers where students pursued learning for its own sake. It seemed strikingly honest, by contrast, when modernists started building schools out of unadorned steel, glass and concrete, expressing the society’s actual idea that schools were an extension of the technological economy.”
Postmodern architecture further communicates rebellion and an arrogant refusal to respect traditions that have been passed down throughout the generations for centuries. Traditional form is thrown out the window in favour of barbarous absurdity and ensationalistic designs attract an undue amount of attention from the media, reflecting society’s concern for “flashy novelties” over true substance and meaning. The most well known proponents of postmodernism are the avant-gardists, whose main ethos is to undermine every idea of what a building should be and look like, stemming from the postmodern obsession with shock-value. An anecdote given by Mr. Charles Siegel about Mr. Frank Gehry’s building design for the Strata Center at MIT demonstrates a few of the many problems caused by “cutting-edge” postmodern architecture:
“Gehry branched out by designing the Stata Center at MIT, whose walls look like they are collapsing. Because its leaning walls met its roof at odd angles, the Stata Center had so many leaks that that a Boston Globe columnist called it a “$300 million fixer-upper.” The leaning walls also disorient users by making it seem like the floors and ceilings slope, though they actually do not. MIT professor Noam Chomsky said that, when he moved into his office in this building, he got vertigo whenever he looked up at the corner where the wall met the ceiling: he almost fainted the first time he used the office, and he finally made it tolerable by filling it with plants to hide the room’s shape. Chomsky also said that it was hard for him to do his work in this office because he could not hang a blackboard on a leaning wall.”
Not all hope is lost, however. Traditional architect Mr. George Saumarez Smith in one of his lectures at London Business School demonstrates his views on how traditional architecture is still relevant, even in our Tamasic society. An article on the lecture sums up his view points with the following:
“He thinks that the fashion of the moment is for funny shaped buildings made of glass and they have been built in cities all around the world. Result of that fashion causes that a lot of cities are now beginning to look rather the same. Nevertheless, he thinks that things are changing a little bit. For one thing glass buildings are not very sustainable, they involve a lot of energy and cost in the construction maintenance and use, they also do not last very long. For another thing, people are concerned that the cities are beginning to lose their individual identities. In his opinion, for that reason a lot of people are now focusing on local traditions and way of building buildings which are going to last longer. He thinks that is why classical architecture is relevant now.”
The recently constructed Independence Bank in my hometown, with its beautiful appearance and form standing apart from the majority of the boorish, contemporary shacks of metal and box-like concrete in the area, is a testament to the fact that traditional beauty will never go out of style.