Sunday, August 8th, 2010

The New International Style

In 1932, Henry-Russell Hitchcock and Philip Johnson published their landmark work The International Style in conjunction with a major exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Their proposition was that modern architecture had evolved into an explicit international style underpinned by a common set of rules and principles. Their three key principles that distinguished the international style from earlier architecture were: a concern with volume instead of mass, the use of regularity and repetition instead of symmetry, and the avoidance of applied decoration. The buildings conceived during this building looked, and to Hitchcock and Johnson, should have looked, as if they had been designed using these stylistic principles.

Fast forward through post-modernism and into today’s world, notably starchitecture, and we see rather than a unity of style, a great diversity of styles. Yet starchitecture and the architecture of today is also a self-consciously international movement, and despite its diversity of approaches, I believe there are also common underlying principles of this work, albeit of a somewhat different nature, that make this a sort of new international style. Those principles are: a return to beauty as an animating aesthetic principle; the primacy of the personal brand of the architect; and the use of novel forms, materials, and techniques for their own sake.

The Return of Beauty

The branches of philosophy are in effect quests for the answers to one of the great Eternal Questions. Metaphysics asks what is real, epistemology what is true, etc. Aesthetics is the search for the answer to the great question of what is beautiful. Or at least it used to be.

While I like many modern things and think that there are many works of modernism that will stand the test of time as among the best works of human creativity, I would have to say that something went very far off the rails aesthetically in the modern movement. This applies not just to architecture, but to virtually any field, including such things as art and music. People ceased attempting to create works of beauty. Indeed, artists often seemed to take a great delight in creating works designed to befuddle or even repel the average person who saw them: dada art, serialist music, etc. Given the characteristics of the age, this can perhaps be understood, but that doesn’t change what it is. Nor does it change that these works have seldom been embraced or become beloved of the public in the way that the works of previous generations did.

If you look at it, it is in the more purely aesthetic fields that things went the most bad. Classical music, with its embrace of atonalism, suffered the worst in my opinion. Those fields in which the product had to serve an actual utilitarian function fared much better. For example, the modern era was a golden age for industrial design, a discipline birthed by and perhaps most characteristic of the industrial age. Graphic and fashion design also did quite well. All of these fields not only had to produce items which carried out their function well, they generally had a commercial purpose, and so had to be popular with the public at some level in order to sell.

Architecture is one of those functional arts, but one that didn’t do so well. (It’s worth pondering why that is). While there are some outstanding modernist works, on balance I cannot consider the period a success. Soulless international style towers are a blight on the American downtown, for example. The gap between the masters and the average practitioner was a chasm indeed. Even at their best, these works were cold and austere, with a certain detached, inhuman quality about them, like the films of Stanley Kubrick. They are works more respected than loved. What’s more, many of them didn’t even function well. Modern buildings were infamous for leaks, for example.

But today’s starchitecture is different. While many of the buildings are outré in form, they are almost always simply gorgeous. They bring a smile to the face of the public. They are embraced and beloved by communities in a way modernist buildings were not. Milwaukee, for example, has even adopted the image of the Calatrava museum wing as a sort of civic brand image. Unlike with a Miesian monolith, no one has to explain to their kids or a bemused visitor why these are great and important buildings. It’s obvious.

This return to beauty as an animating aesthetic principle is breath of fresh air in the world today. The iron grip of modernism seems to be losing its hold on the creative mind generally. Today’s composers, for example, are creating much more accessible works than those of a few decades back. I’m glad I’m alive today to experience this.

Whatever else one can say of starchitecture and its offspring, it has done a lot to beautify our cities without a slavish imitation or patische of previous styles. For that, I’m thoroughly grateful.

Brand Architect

Hitchcock and Johnson wanted to see an international style in which there was a certain broad similarity in all the buildings created, regardless of who the architect was. The international style created a certain anonymity of the structures and architects.

In starchitecture, we instead see a great premium placed on a design style that is recognizably by a particular architect. Clearly, people commissioning these structures want them to be recognized not just a great buildings, but as buildings by a particular famous architect. I’ve criticized these starchitect buildings as often being repetitious extruded product, but to the people commissioning them, that’s not a bug, it’s a feature. The fact that the Milwaukee Art Museum looks a whole lot like Santiago Calatrava’s other work is deliberate. Locally they even call it “the Calatrava” instead of the museum. Similarly, the fact that the Frank Gehry designed Pritzker Pavilion band shell in Chicago’s Millennium Park looks awfully similar to the Bilbao Guggenheim (and many other works) is the whole point.

I don’t think it is any accident that the world’s top starchitects have tended to cultivate personal styles that are very recognizable – Calatrava, Gehry, Piano, Hadid, etc. If they didn’t, people might not be able to tell that a building you commissioned from them was designed by a World Famous Architect. And we can’t have that, can we?

These cities obviously think that having one of these titans of architecture leave their mark locally is worth something from a marketing standpoint. Hiring them is as much about renting the brand as about the building. It’s in effect a celebrity endorsement deal. Thus the buildings themselves needs to reflect that. And to a great extent, they do.

Novelty for Its Own Sake

I mentioned the outré nature of many of these starchitect buildings. A lot of the strange shapes and such employed today are enabled by the rise of computer aided design. In fact, it’s not infrequent to hear that, “Only a couple years ago, it wouldn’t have even been possible to do this.” Ever more sophisticated modeling tools, along with advances in materials and construction techniques, have enabled an explosion of designs that would have been impossible to build not that long ago.

But just because we can do something, does that mean we should? I think perhaps it’s human nature than when we obtain new capabilities, we want to try them out and see what we can do with them. We want to experiment. We want to play. We’re still in that playful – or, to take a less charitable view, self-indulgent – phase with regards to a lot of these techniques.

Perhaps also this reflects the character of the moment. We live in a era of ever faster technological change. Everyone wants to have the latest cell phone, the latest computer, the coolest game console, etc. I think we’ve applied to buildings as well. We don’t want last year’s model, we want to leapfrog our neighbors and have the coolest, newest, most cutting edge buildings for our town.

Just as modernist buildings were probably too austere, these new buildings are probably too elaborate, and my hunch is that they’ll be judged as such later. The good news is that fashion trends like this tend to be cyclical and self-correcting. As we mature in these new technologies, and gain the ability to do almost anything, simply showing that you can do something will cease to impress. Rather, the question will be, what is it that should be done?

Starchitecture in History

Once, when Western cities chose to build major civic structures and create sacred space, they turned to the time honored methods of gothic or classically inspired architecture – the cathedral and the place. These are timeless, eternal styles. To choose them is to seek a sense of permanence and to anchor oneself in the long history of Western civilization and the values thereof.

Today, cities frequently turn to starchitecture. It serves some of the same functions. But it makes a very different statement. Starchitecture proclaims our lack of cultural anchor. As an international style, it is global and non-civilizational. It’s about ecumenical values, not tribal ones. It’s also a style that is fundamentally “of the now.” Cities seeking starchitecture are often doing so to show that they’re with it, they’re current. It’s an ephemeral, not a permanent choice.

That’s not to say it’s a bad choice. There’s no single set of values, objectives, and choices that is right for all situations. In the rise of a global era, cities are trying to meet the global challenge. Trying to show that they are “in the club” isn’t a bad thing. Nor striving to stay relevant in an era of rapid change.

Yet this means that starchitecture, like the modernist international style before it, is likely fated to become associated with this particular moment in history. Decades from now we’ll look back on this era’s buildings in the way that we look at the modernist utopian visions. Today’s international style, like the one before it, is fundamentally a product of its time, and one that seeks an explicit sense of rupture with the narrative arc of the past.

Topics: Architecture and Design

9 Responses to “The New International Style”

  1. cdc guy says:

    “Architecture is one of those functional arts, but one that didn’t do so well. (It’s worth pondering why that is).”

    At the high end, patrons of architecture are often the same wealthy people who buy art and commission music. Note your own “starchitecture” examples: music and art pavilions.

  2. cdc guy says:

    Sorry…hit send too soon:

    Modern-era examples are (quickly, and off the top of my head) the LA Civic Center performing-arts complex, Lincoln Center, the original Indianapolis Museum of Art structure and others of their era and ilk: hardly beautiful on the outside.

  3. Michael says:

    This past weekend I went on the Chicago Architecture Foundation’s cruise of the Chicago River. What stood out was the level of quality between Mies and his disciples. Whatever your qualms with modernism he got it right. The proportion and grace of his buildings are unmatched. Overall though I’m glad we’ve moved away from modernism.

    Nice piece, you could have a similar critique of modernist planning–wholly off the rails. Modern architecture (and planning) was too easily replicated as cheap, corporate, office boxes and too often the destroyer of historically valuable architecture. You need only look at the Lower Manhattan skyline to see modernism gone array to the detriment of what came before.

    Though I must say despite the critiques, true as they may be, for its austerity, brutalism and alienation the Empire State Plaza is still a fantastic display of modernist planning orthodox.

    P.S. I don’t understand the beef with Lincoln Center (I’ve heard it before). It’s quite beautiful, especially at dusk.

  4. cdc guy says:

    I’d have called the original Dorothy Chandler Pavilion (at the LA Civic Center) many things, but beautiful on the outside was not one of them. Likewise the JFK Center in DC. At best, maybe stately. At worst, pompous.

    I suspect the Post-Modern starchitecture movement in art and music houses may have been a hoped-for return to the days of the Wright Guggenheim. One early example is the I.M. Pei National Gallery East Wing, whose patron was Paul Mellon. (I would consider it Post-Modern because even though it’s example of being about volume and light more than mass, it doesn’t rely upon repetition for interest or beauty. And the central architectural element is the Calder mobile, most definitely ornamentation of the structure and space.) It is a well-loved space and has remained so for more than 30 years.

  5. I would say that the move away from the International Style and its associated planning methodologies was definitely a good thing, as it was way too often used to make cheap buildings and inhospitable neighborhoods. The mantra of “form follows function” is too often corrupted into a focus entirely on function with no accounting for aesthetics at all. Yes form should be subservient to function, but it shouldn’t be eliminated altogether. Unfortunately that message was lost on many Modernists, and we’re still fighting that mindset today where much of the aesthetics of a bridge or park or even building gets “value engineered” out because it’s perceived as worthless.

    While I agree that the current starchitecture situation is certainly better than post-war Modernism or the horror of Brutalist architecture, I still would not say it is good. These buildings have many of the same problems as earlier Modernist high rises. They still leak, are hard to heat and cool, expensive to build, and are also very expensive to maintain. While I decry the quantity above quality preference of our culture, starchitecture seems to take the design so far that it yields the same problem. The convoluted forms that are difficult to design and construct, the exotic cladding materials, and the other heroic efforts needed to build these structures leaves little money for good usable space or nice finishes that aren’t part of the overall look. It’s the epitome of function follows form, where the building wants to be a sculpture, a statement, the work of the signature architect, function be damned.

    The whole notion of the signature building, the statement, etc., is anathema to being a good player in the urban landscape. These are almost never good urban buildings, because by their very nature they are trying to stand out, to elevate themselves above everything else. I would also say that today’s starchitecture intends to confound the general public more than any other architecture movement in history. Beautiful or not, these buildings are generally not human scaled, and many even project an air of hostility towards people both outside and inside. Of course, these are the buildings that win design awards, in part because of the idea that true art (and by extension architecture) is incomprehensible by the uninitiated. It’s a rather unfortunate state of affairs, but it’s still better than boring glass boxes or vast expanses of blank concrete.

  6. Carl Wohlt says:

    The International Style’s most enduring legacy may be the hundreds (if not thousands) of historic preservation movements it helped to spawn. As the song says, you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone. The work of International Style architects helped to goose along the historic preservation movement in countless ways.

    That said, when a modernist architect not a slave to the International Style got it right, it’s almost always a revelation – as per Harry Weese’s First Baptist Church in Columbus, shown in a post last month. It just stops you dead in your tracks with wonder…

  7. Eric O says:

    Good point. While architecture is a “functional art”, it just doesn’t serve a fleeting, ephemeral purpose. Fashion cycles, but a contemporary building…not so much. It just kind of parks its butt inconveniently on the tarmac for a few good decades.

    The modernist masters that stood out still stand out today because they were designing for a lifestyle. Of course those lifestyles went quickly out of fashion. To live in that austerity is quite maddening for one season, much less a few decades.

    But I wouldn’t lump the modernist masters easily their imitators. Their imitators were not designing for “lifestyles” such much as client pro-formas. They kind of missed the point. When architecture becomes an art though, seeking “beauty”, as you put it, it has a bad habit of turning its back not only to lifestyle but to the user. The bad performers on today’s starchitecture stage simply could not care less how their buildings serve their users, much less how they will serve them long term.

  8. cdc guy says:

    Carl brings up an interesting point. I spent a good chunk of my childhood in Columbus, looking at and spending time in the Modernist marvels there. Somehow, perhaps because the tallest building in town is the 1800’s county courthouse, the town never had to suffer the Modernist glass boxes or too much Brutalist horror. (Columbus East HS, L. Frances Smith Elementary, and the 1972 Post Office might be the closest things there are to Brutalist structures in Columbus.) There, Modernists created things worth preserving, instead of destroying them.

    The scale of all of those great buildings is still relatively human; First Baptist and North Christian are slight exceptions, but ones I’m willing to grant because sometimes Christian church architecture can be intended to reinforce the small-ness of any single person in the religious context, and (particularly in the modern day) to strip away everything distracting. Even so, the entry to North Christian is compressed and very human in scale.

    All in all, there is very little austere in the Modernism in Columbus, at least in the public and semi-public places. The Miller House, though, probably fits Eric’s “Modern Lifestyle” category.

  9. John says:

    The people who value starchitecture today are the same who valued modernism in its day. I’ve never heard of anyone outside of the intelligentsia (and, in particular, its fashionable and uncritical wing) speak well of any Hadid or Nouvel building. If your standard of beauty is how much popular accessibility an aesthetic object has (and this is the standard you propose in your critique of modernist music), do you honestly believe starchitecture would be any different than modernist architecture? We decry the modernists for being megalomanically committed to utopian ideas that were clearly at odds with reality. I am the first one to join in. But we celebrate the starchitects’ blasé attitude toward human beings, the users of the building they actively forget in favor of their own personal branding? Aaron, you write: “Clearly, people commissioning these structures want them to be recognized not just a great buildings, but as buildings by a particular famous architect.” You are wrong. Take out the ‘just’ and there you go.

    Putting the politics & ethics of people vs. architect away, let’s just think about this pragmatically. I don’t know how much money city governments really spend on getting starchitects to design buildings for their cities, but from the way you talk about all this, I expect there’s at least a courtship process. What actually is the ROI for getting a piece of starchitecture? How many people does that attract / how many does it irritate? Will a Gehry building make anyone believe that Cincinnati is ‘with it,’ if so, with what and should Cincinnati actually want that?

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