Af Michael Mehaffy
Date: søn. 10. mai 2020 kl. 23:30
Subject: There IS a style “of our time” — and it is in urgent need of critical re-examination

I have previously criticized the sometimes excessive focus on style, including among those of us who practice traditional design. That is because that focus reinforces certain fallacies about what is the “right” style – especially, what is the “right” or exclusive style for a given moment of history, implying that anything else is “wrong,” “will not be tolerated” (as Le Corbusier said *) etc.

But we need to recognize that there IS a style for today, and one that is enforced ruthlessly – mostly through the dynamics of groupthink, but where necessary, through firing professors, failing students, shutting down schools, etc. (We have witnessed all these things firsthand.)

But mostly the enforcement of this style is more subtle.  If you do not comply, you simply do not get published, get awards, get interviews, and so on. Or in most schools, get a degree!

If you do comply, you have a shot at passing the filter – and its remarkably conformist results can be seen in any professional architecture magazine (and some consumer ones too), on the walls of any mainstream school, in any mainstream award, or in the praise of any mainstream critic.  

We can call the style (after Eisenman) “Rococo Modernism.” Here is a list (provisional, suggestions welcome) of its mandatory features:

1.     Minimalism. Features must be stripped down and denuded of motifs, patterns, and ornamental details of any kind. Features must instead consist of smooth monoliths, which may be flat, rectangular or curved.

2.     Anti-historicism. Nothing must look the slightest bit like any building that ever existed in history before about 1920. Recapitulation, that most common of artistic and natural phenomena, is hereafter banned.  If a good solution happens to recapitulate any recognizable feature of the past before 1920, it is by definition not a good solution.

3.     Anti-human scale. Nothing must relate in any identifiable way to the scales or familiar forms of human beings — no human-sized windows, ornamental details, etc.

4.     Anti-natural form. Buildings must not express any of the ordinary grouping or patterning geometries of nature.  Exceptions will be made for weird insect shapes, swoopy splines, etc. (e.g. in Hadid, Calatrava et al.)   But again, such forms must be severely constrained according to #1, #3, etc.

5.     Anti-regionalism. Nothing must express the characteristics of a local place, its climate, terrain, materials, culture,  or of course (following #2) its history.

6.     Abstract art leading life. Unlike the architecture of eons, today’s style must take the hegemonic form of giant sculpture, and life must take its place within – much as one might find one’s way to live within a wrecked industrial hulk. While the architecture of eons generated its art from quotidian life, this architecture forces life into a fit with abstract art – with highly variable degrees of comfort and delight.

7.     Static newness. Buildings must not express their temporal nature by embracing weathering, wear, modification, adaptation, or other major change.  They must remain fixed works of sculptural art, remaining in pristine condition.  

8.    Foreignness. Forms must be contrasting, even jarring. If a building doesn’t provoke “the shock of the new,” it isn’t good architecture. Spectacle and difference are mandatory. This is a fitting approach to an architecture that sustains itself by serving as a marketing device for industry.

What is interesting about this style is that it makes a claim to be rooted in the scientific and industrial realities of our time – indeed, it makes an exclusive and totalizing claim to them. In 1920, that claim might have been sustained.  Today, in an age characterized by revolutionary findings in complexity science, ecology, neuroscience, and many other fields, that claim is unsupportable, and increasingly outmoded.  Troubling new questions are arising — and being suppressed and greenwashed — about the inherent resilience and sustainability of this architecture, e.g. its failure to weather well, to take just one example. Yet this style persists, sustained by fanatical ex cathedra professional and academic dogma on the one hand, and a consumer economy that rewards spectacle and novelty on the other.

So we are left with a world of denuded places – stripped of our humanity, our nature, our history, and our culture, and imprisoned by an outmoded but disastrous industrial regime, locked in a fantasy of “yesterday’s future.”

Do we not see (can we not tolerate) the need for a critical re-assessment?

Cheers, m  

* Le Corbusier, The Athens Charter, Para. 70 (emphasis added, N.B.): The practice of using styles of the past on aesthetic pretexts for new structures erected in historic areas has harmful consequences. Neither the continuation of such practices nor the introduction of such initiatives will be tolerated in any form. Such methods are contrary to the great lesson of history.  Never has a return to the past been recorded, never has man retraced his own steps.  The masterpieces of the past show us that each generation has had its way of thinking, its conceptions, its aesthetic, which called upon the entire range of the technical resources of its epoch to serve as the springboard for its imagination.  To imitate the past slavishly is to condemn ourselves to delusion, to institute the “false” as a principle, since the working conditions of former times can not be recreated and since the application of modern techniques to an outdated ideal can never lead to anything but a simulacrum devoid of all vitality.  The mingling of the “false” with the “genuine,” far from attaining an impression of unity and from giving a sense of purity of style, merely results in artificial reconstruction capable only of discrediting the authentic testimonies that we were most moved to preserve. 

Sorry Maybeck…  sorry Arts and Crafts… sorry Renaissance…sorry London, Paris, Rome… sorry most loved places of history..  sorry us!

Michael Mehaffy, fra USA, er akademiker innen arkitektur og byplanlegging. Han har vært leder for det internasjonale styret i INTBAU (
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