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May 7, 2012

Faith in what cannot be factually proven is perhaps the essence of what it means to be human. We fall in love, we rock out to music, we are deeply moved by art, the written word and, yes, architecture.

Some of us believe, deeply or obliquely, in a Higher Power. Although it’s clear that in Western Civilization organized religion is taking a beating, the vast majority of humans do admit to believing in an organizational reality and purpose in the universe (and in our own lives) beyond morality-free scientific fact. Complicating our collective world view recent science has made the complexity of a fact-based life more complicated. The more clearly we can see the subatomic, the farther we can see into the universe the murkier answers seem to become.

Religion solves the problem of an incomplete fact-based mindset with moral assertions. The Ten Commandments are the model most of us are most familiar with, but every faith-based perspective posits value-based conclusions as facts.

Those deductive conclusions are certitudes that span what cannot be proven to what we deeply believe in. This distilling of ambiguity into fact-simulating judgments is not unique to religion (think politics) but it’s an acknowledged structural basis for defining morality. Martin Luther revised over a thousand years of Catholicism with Ninety-five Theses nailed on the church door at Wittenberg in 1517 that spoke his truth in a way that effectively made his perspective The Truth.

Those who attempt to codify what is beauty also distill the subjective into a set of judgments that aspire to objective truth. Whether it’s music, film, fine arts or literature, huge thought and resources are devoted to finding a hard edge in the mushy world of aesthetics.

Unlike other fine and liberal arts, today and for a generation there is one dominant Canon in architecture: Modernism.

In the first half of the 20th century, architecture’s collective rejection of historic stylizations over technology had righteous indignation at its core. In this generation, the too-clever-by-half shallow posing of Post Modernism had an echo rejection by the architectural intelligentsia (schools and journalism). With hindsight the crime of PoMo seems, to me, insufficient to warrant its present state of derisive abandonment. Whether political or aesthetic, “Correctness” tends to throw the babies of experimentation out with the dirty water of indicting implications.

Essentially, most architects are trained to believe that without an overarching sense of aesthetic purpose, buildings will devolve into pedestrian, crude, raw accommodations of activity with no overarching insight or transformative mission. For those who teach and talk architecture Modern “is the Truth, the Light and the Way”.  Obviously, there are any number of splinter groups (as in religion): whether it’s the vestigial cult of Wright or the persistent, invigorated (albeit tiny) countervailing world of Classicism, or simply that ornament and context can have legitimate presence in buildings. But in architecture these sidebars are treated in education and journalism as oddball curiosities, not meaningful alternatives for designers to learn from.

Every “movement” buttresses its world view with “facts” that are in essence, judgments –whether Wrightian geometric idiosyncrasy or the perfected traditional forms and details of Classicism. So it’s not surprising that our dominant architectural paradigm, Modernism, has evolved a set of judgments that are self-reinforcing.

The problem is that parallel truths inherently have conflict. Any human endeavor is a confluence of what everybody feels, and facts – and traditionally education is charged with exposure to multiple realities rather than one prescriptive “take” – unless that reality is scientific, objective and verifiable.

In that way, the Modernist aesthetic has come to simulate a fact necessary to confer legitimacy to a building’s academic credibility, rather than an aesthetic preference. As such its Canons are essential in architectural education and criticism for defining what a building is and should be.

Just as the Emperor Constantine formed the First Council of Nicaea that determined the contents of the Christian Bible, this generation of academic architecture and journalism has ruled “in” and ruled “out” whole ways of designing, interpreting and appreciating all buildings.

Just  like the Gnostic Gospels, such as the Gospels of Mary or Thomas, and any number of other ancient texts that were ignored by the post-Nicaean Bible,  the gospels of any aesthetic sidebars to Modernism have been vaporized from most places where architecture is taught, written about or celebrated. These conclusive exclusions are not Fatwas or laws, because they codify judgments without the force of government behind them. They are merely canons – they simply crystallize beliefs in a form that simulates facts.

It appears to me that in architecture we are in a time of New Puritanism – a generation of Puritanical architectural judgment. Lately countries and laws have had to deal with religious prohibition of unveiled female body parts. To me, the uncodified canons of contemporary architectural judgment have put a veil of silent disdain over all but “aesthetically correct” buildings.

Having said that, I guess it’s up to me to define these largely “understood” Canons – and it may take a heretic to accurately describe what they accept and reject as valid in the design of buildings.


Click here for the sequel: Current Canons of Architectural Correctness

5 Comments leave one →
  1. May 7, 2012 10:59 pm

    Hi Duo,

    You have written another pithy post; I enjoyed your comparison of architectural style preferences to religious beliefs…

    If you’re on LinkedIn, I hope you’ll consider posting this blog post on either (or both) the AIA group and the ARCHITECT (magazine) group.

    Looking forward to reading Part II.


  2. SteveMouzon permalink
    January 5, 2015 1:32 pm

    Excellent piece, Duo, and the religious analogy is particularly apt. I’ve said for years that architecture is a religion to most higher-order Modernists, but I have some Classicist colleagues to whom it is a religion as well, albeit a very different faith. I’m wondering how far back architects have treated their work as others treat the Almighty?

    I visited Jose Plecnik’s home and studio in Slovenia several years ago, and recall a note of his I found inscribed there: “architecture is my wife and art is my mistress.” I’m of the opinion that’s about as far as architecture should be elevated: to the level of mortal love.

    One other thing… you mentioned the “derisive abandonment” of Postmodernism. Duany makes the case quite convincingly that PoMo hasn’t disappeared at all… rather, it decanted to everyday architects working in sprawl on office parks and shopping malls.

  3. January 5, 2015 2:00 pm

    the PoMo bye-bye is only by the Architectural Academic/Journalistic Complex: which grows ever-more distinct from almost any connection to both popular culture and, to this Elite, the bourgeois pride of place…


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