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Current Canons of Architectural Correctness

May 23, 2012

(for the prequel to this, The Architect’s Traditional Solution: Modernism, click here)


Here are the Canons as I see them:

1.      Modern = Timeless Truth

The evident allusion to any other period of time by detail, affect, craft or anything else weakens any building’s essential power, truth and its essential purpose.

History is a tool to learn what didn’t work and what “should” work.  Non-architectonic Decoration or Ornament (representational or botanical) true architectural expression is abstracted into universal tools that are, in fact, independent of buildings – line, plane, form, color.  All legitimate organizing components are divorced from cultural, historical or decorative intentions. “The rest is vernacular.”

2.      History is unseen. 

 Corollary to Canon 1, it is perfectly appropriate to take the lessons of history – the folly of symmetry, the appropriateness of structural recognition in Classical architecture, the ancient Asian sense of balance, the clarity of urban planning that derived over thousands of years in Europe and elsewhere – all those tools and lessons are there to be abstracted.  So history is present in its universal, timeless lessons, but all of its other affects are viewed as trappings, unfortunate baggage that weakens the ultimate message that Modern is Truth.

3.      Sustainability = Relevance.

In rejecting any allusion to history, and denying popular culture’s influence in architecture, Modernism was temporarily grounded on the rocks of irrelevance in the 1960s.  By definition, people are popular culture and if architecture doesn’t relate to popular culture in any way, then it becomes viewed as an elitist, top-down, 99%/1% paradigm.

The reason why Post-Modernism and solar design were able to rear their (now viewed to be) ugly heads during the 20-year aberration where Modernism had aesthetic competition, was because it had gotten to be viewed as the Establishment’s tone-deaf imposition or the freedoms celebrated in pop culture.

This generation’s diversity of architecture students has relieved the ethical purity of that stank, but the potential for top-down elitism remains unless the forces of Green come to the rescue.  Essentially, “Sustainability makes any building, no matter how abstract, abstruse, denying of context, cultural integration or historical allusion – makes any building” relevant because it deals directly with the essential need of human beings to not rape the landscape and to prove that they have a moral conscience.

Green, therefore, is in fact is the great aesthetic fig leaf, a necessary predicate to justify the willful denial of all other aspects of integration into popular culture (some of you would say of the laws of nature, given that half of flat roofs leak).

4.       Architecture is above the Zeitgeist.

This is a direct corollary to Modern = Timeless Truth.  In the Modernist perspective, there are legitimate buildings and there are illegitimate buildings all throughout history.  There are buildings worth studying and there are buildings worth ignoring.  The ones that are worth ignoring are the ones that essentially have indigenous, untrained aesthetics behind them – virtually everything done by native populations without architecture schools.

In a similar way, before Venturi’s Learning from Las Vegas and after its evaporation from the architectural consciousness, anything that reflects and riffs on popular culture is viewed as essentially garish, insubstantial, and often heinous.

5.      Context is foil. 

Obviously context exists – the vast majority of all buildings built are not “Modern.”  Therefore they are seen as a convenient backdrop, the rough seas upon which a proud sailboat cuts through, leading Truth through the vagaries of uncoordinated, un-visionary and in fact pedestrian, myopic distraction.  The word “eclectic,” the idea of holding many different ideas in hand at once, is heinous – except, when it can be seen as the background noise that allows great Truth to survive.  In the Yin/Yang theory, you have got to have the Yang to let the Yin dance.  It could be said that pedestrian, colloquial buildings are only used as a foil by the Truth in architecture – the Modern.

Dialing down noise to create art has been an ethic in Asian design for millennia, that the virtue in dialing back the noise is obvious and allows nature to be seen in a special light.

It is in this exact context that most Modern architecture views the natural world – as an organic, flowing foil to the crisp, clean, striking Truth of human expression in built form rather than an integrated, soft architecture that uses the laws of nature to create its forms.

6.       More is discouraged. 

When things get “fussy” the Modern perspective is simply to purge out all visual noise.  This often means that buildings that have naturally diverse functions, forms, structures, etc. should be “homogenized.”  The word “hierarchy” is thus worshipped, meaning that the greater the need for use, expression and purpose, the more the inherently subordinate elements can be massaged out of site.  In that way, “form follows function” only works in terms of what are viewed to be “important” functions.  Lesser functions are effectively denied integration into the existing forms.

7.      Size is less important than shape. 

In truth, the most recent evolution of Modern architecture is towards the world of sculpture and, as is often said in all art, the actual size of something is irrelevant to its beauty.  A teeny, tiny Mona Lisa would be just as beautiful as a gigantic one.  A Moore sculpture could be one inch tall or three miles tall and still maintain its beauty.  So it is with buildings.  An award-winning architect-designed house can easily grow to be the size of a concert hall and its essence would still “scan” because it has the integrity of vision that is without size and thus denied scale.

8.      Iconography is of the Devil. 

Essentially anything that involves the direct human history of acknowledging anything other than architecture is viewed as something that cannot be integrated into the world of designed buildings.  Essentially this relegates ornament to applied pieces of art set to contrast as a foil to the clean perfection that is abstraction.

9.      “If you have to ask about the cost, you do not deserve the design.”

This is not limited to Modernism, but actually the cost-blind aspect of design is far harder to see when something is as simple and distilled as a Modern building.  Truth be told, it is much harder to build a perfect Modern building than a messier, clumsier, craftier building where elements are allowed to express themselves by distilling those forms to “perfect” those forms, things get very complicated both in detailing and in the essential construction of the product.

10.  Humor is impertinent.

Post-Modernism used humor in allusion to other times, places, preconceptions and popular culture to create buildings that brought a smile to your face.  There aren’t too many smiles to be found in Modern buildings there are not elements that are brought in from the outside world.  It’s kind of sad, actually.

11.  Urban is good.

An outgrowth of the Sustainability Movement is the fact that there is a growing sense that anything that happens in the context of the City is morally and aesthetically superior to something that happens out in the landscape.  This is less to do with the design and more to do with the essential undergirding of the rationale for the distillation and abstraction that enables buildings to become more thought pieces and culturally integrated.  It’s almost a Puritanical reality where any waste of resources (either for energy or for ornament) is viewed with the same crushing moral superiority.

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