Sunday, August 8th, 2010
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.
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.