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Heretical thoughts

Heaven forbid architects should have a style

Style. It’s a bit of a dirty word, isn’t it? I’m not sure I’ve ever met an architect who admitted to having a ‘style’. It sounds shallow, suggesting interior design – of the ‘decorator’ variety. Whereas we all know, don’t we, that architecture rises above all that? Architects are not in the fashion business. Their quest is for the authentic, even the timeless. No?

As I’ve said before, there is no such thing as ‘timeless’.  Just because a building by Louis Kahn or Paul Rudolph looks a bit like some of the buildings of today doesn’t mean you can’t locate it in time. Materials, components, siting, assumed patterns of use, weathering – all these allow us to date a building. Just because Eileen Gray used a concertina-opening glazed wall at her brilliant house E1027 on the Côte d’Azur doesn’t mean the house is not a period piece, or that your bifold patio doors put you in some timeless realm.  

There are architects – such as Sir George Gilbert Scott in the 19th century, Oliver Hill in the 20th or Robert Stern today – who have no problem with turning out different styles as they feel moved to, or as ordered to. The sainted Corbu himself shifted style abruptly  more than once, as did Frank Lloyd Wright. Yet certain architects are condemned as apostates for such sudden shifts, as in the great postmodern brouhaha of the 1980s.

Architecture and religion have much in common. There are those who believe in the One True Way, usually orthodox modernism

Sainted, did I say? Apostates? Well yes, because architecture and religion have much in common. There’s an underlying set of values and beliefs – let’s say the commandments of Vitruvius – beyond which it’s a matter of ever diversifying sectarianism. What might seem to the outsider to be microscopic differences between various sects, say, are not microscopic to those involved; they mean everything. So it is with architecture, and here the priesthood is found in the schools and with those ‘master’ practitioners who teach. They have beliefs and inculcate those beliefs in their students. Those students ­never forget, and pass it on to other students.

You would think, after decades of pluralism in architecture, that the various ­denominations would be regarded more or less equally by now. But no, there are still those who believe in the One True Way, which is usually orthodox modernism. (Traditionalists have a similar belief system). The modernist  approach is never presented as a style, but as a logical, rational progression as Pevsner ordered it. But Pevsner was wise enough to recognise and acknowledge, if not approve, postmodernism as early as the 1950s. We’ve had a long time to get used to the idea of different architectures co-existing.

The upshot is that architects of firm faith can have great difficulty in seeing merit in architecture of a different persuasion. Some can understand the beliefs of other architects even if they do not worship at those ­altars themselves. But in my experience this is surprisingly rare. Which is why – again in my experience – the best, most objective judges of architecture happen to be fashion designers. Oh dear, we seem to be back in the realms of style.