An ancient definition of architecture suggests that three terms best pertain: Commodity (convenient, functional, useful), Firmness (lasting, robust, sturdy, resilient) and Delight (attractive, beautiful, harmonious, graceful). Though this characterization of the art of building has been with us since the 1st century BCE, it has proven to be extraordinarily durable. Its author, Marcus Vitruvius Pollio – recognized by us simply as Vitruvius – was the author of De Architectura, which we now know as his Ten Books of Architecture. His work was rediscovered in the early 15th century, it was translated and discussed widely, and one of the artists touched by his words was Da Vinci, in his “Vitruvian Man.”
Vitruvius had much to say, and much to teach us, about making sound and pleasing constructions. Importantly, he noted that architecture must have harmonious proportions, in concert with the harmonious proportions of nature (thus the Vitruvian Man – the harmonious human body).
I mention all of this because I recently made note (to a local group of urbanists) of the eroding quality of large-scaled mixed-use development in our city, and in many cities across the nation. To illustrate what I see as a vexing trend in designing banal structures of shocking similarity, I showed these (and 12 more – 16 total):
Surprisingly I heard strong and vocal disagreement from local colleagues, like this:
“And I honestly don’t understand people’s revulsion to new buildings. They look fine to me. The state shouldn’t regulate taste.”
Not sure who said anything about regulating taste, but I also got this response:
“….I mean I could line up 16 different early-20th century Neoclassical buildings, 16 different Gothic Revival churches, or for that matter 16 different Frank Lloyd Wright houses from different cities and they wouldn’t look any less similar to each other. There was never a time in history when every building was mind-blowingly distinct from every other building. I get that it’s en vogue nowadays to bash the fast-casual style, but the plain fact is this is what contemporary architecture looks like, and it’s almost a truism at this point that every generation hates their own contemporary architecture.”
Fast-casual style! I could not think of a better way to define this detritus – contemporary architecture – with a term that sounds like a crowded but prosaic, and commonplace franchise restaurant. I did not know the style had a name, but I will stick with it – a perfect descriptor of what is happening to the private and public realms of our physical cities. Bullseye.
Anyway, there is more to parse in this correspondent’s words.
He is incorrect, of course, about the similarities that characterize the historic architecture that he references. Let’s look into this further.
First, I don’t think he meant early 20th century “neoclassical” architecture. If the buildings were neoclassical, then of course they would be derived from the classical language of building and would therefore be similar. You know, like the Parthenon is related to the Pantheon:
I think he meant early 20th century Main Street buildings – retail down and mixed use up. But of course, while these buildings observe certain shared conventions of materials, artisanship that is encouraged – even expected, and uses of retail at the street and residences or commercial above, they are nonetheless substantially varied. Like this:
All Main Streets are certainly not the same.
I won’t offer similar responses to the contentions about Gothic Revival or Wrightian structures, but the differences in examples of these significantly outweigh their similarities. Compared, that is, to the shared banalities of fast-casual.
Finally, let us look at the claim that “every generation hates their own contemporary architecture.” Really, I cannot think of a more strikingly flawed observation. We have lived through at least a century of incessant whining about the critical need to create in the “spirit of the age.” We must honor the zeitgeist, we must innovate, we must be original, we must express the chaos and disorder of our time by making something contemporary and new and up to date. For decades, every generation has claimed that their cities and their buildings are the best of contemporary architecture, truest to the moment.
No, I think my criticism of fast-casual stands. The software that architects use to create today’s architecture, and our now instant electronic communication and illustration of the “latest” have helped to spawn a vastly lowered and deflated set of standards in contemporary architecture. That and the ever-present twin ideas that govern so much that fills our cities: we must express ourselves as architects (but really, in the end, who cares? If you have the pencil in your hand, doesn’t that make this matter moot?) and we must express the sentiments and sensibilities – the zeitgeist – of our time (what makes your time so special? What about her time, or their time, or a time you don’t know anything about but was yesterday?).
It is true that at any moment, the best buildings share certain conventions. These relate to the materials from which they are constructed, the manner in which these materials are handled, the proportions and arrangement of the structures, and the ordering of the buildings’ uses. After those shared traits though, the final expressions of the architecture range widely.
But my sixteen fast-casual examples are flat, planar, and with almost no articulation. The way they are made, or from what, seems to have no role in their final appearance. They all seem to have little regard for their locales – they could be anywhere. They all look low-priced (perhaps their strongest shared characteristic) and of low quality: it is almost as if their designs were never completed before they were rushed into construction.
In the end let us use Vitruvius’s three descriptions of what defines architecture: the commodity of this group of designs is unclear; their firmness is most questionable (will you give them 10 years? The terms of their mortgages?); and they are without delight of any kind. Harmonious and attractive and graceful would never be words used to describe these buildings.
Buildings they are. Architecture they are not. Which brings us to the famous criticism that Truman Capote leveled at the work of Jack Kerouac: “That’s not writing, that’s just typing.”