As I watch the images from around the world of the still-empty downtown streets, and the few stadiums in operation with forlorn fans properly spaced along curves that normally accommodate thousands, I realize that we are seeing yet the latest version of the International Style.
By this I do not mean the glass and steel boxes by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe or the architecture of corporate followers like Skidmore, Owings & Merrill or, more recently, Norman Foster, Hon. FAIA—all symbols of one particular attempt to house and represent the forces of modernity. Rather, I’m talking about the many waves of standardized forms of organization, materials, and shapes that have circled the globe—an architecture that has been created as much by global flows of finance and culture, as well as by similarities in methods of production and standards, as it has been by the aesthetic preferences of any architects. Whether the buildings are Hadidian blobs or KPF-designed skyscrapers, or assume some other generic shape regardless of site or function, the range of styles, materials used, and forms is remarkably limited. The reason is not necessarily the influence of a small group of "starchitects," but rather the global market, in which steel sizes and concrete specifications, window assemblies and doorknobs, office layouts and stadium sightlines, and exit and access requirements are all the same, no matter where you are.
The new International Style is so much more evident during the pandemic because all these safety precautions mandate so much empty space. It is easier to see the buildings in all their generic grids and materials without all the people who normally occupy them. That is true of the empty sidewalks, which allow us to see the office towers in all their gleaming objecthood, and the vacant interiors, which enable us to admire the logic behind the configurations of cubicles and the elegant swerves of conference rooms without the workers and their photographs and other knickknacks.
Even if we find a vaccine or some other way out of this pandemic, we will surely have to live with even more standardized rules and materials in the form of new regulations that will mandate cleaner surfaces and more space to help prevent the spread of future viruses. That means that our environments will look even more Modernist: standardized, logical, efficient, and soulless. Buildings will look even slicker, surfaces will be more artificial, BIM will intensify in its relentless removal of all corners, idiosyncrasies, and other cost-eating particularities, and the need for safety will trump all design variation.
This is true, of course, only for those who can afford such protective luxuries, which also further underscores the point that architecture—in this case, the thoughtful production of buildings for rational and productive uses—is the province of the elite who can either afford to commission and own such structures, or who may have greater access to them.
There are, of course, variations to this International Style of standardized buildings, including different colors, materials, and sometimes even forms. In much of Asia, apartment buildings must include balconies with each unit. Many of those same Asian countries also have a higher tolerance for tall residential buildings spaced close together. On the other hand, they also have stricter regulations about the amount of light each unit must have access to. In Europe, some architects still cover buildings with brick and stucco in a way that is uncommon in the U.S.
Despite such regional variations, today it is mainly the enduring elements from the past that disrupt the sameness of modernity in the built environment. Local materials that have acquired a patina through age and use give a place and its buildings a distinguishing character. Street patterns may respond to the particular geography of an area. Shotgun houses still survive, as do similar types of climate-specific housing in, say, the Malaysian peninsula or the Mississippi delta. England has its row houses, and here in the U.S. we have the continued prevalence of university campuses of the semi-bucolic sort. How long these building types will survive in a post-pandemic world of relentless value engineering remains an open question.
To the extent that they are resisting the sameness of modernity, those who prefer such “vernacular” structures, or who advocate for specific modes of building (Classicism, critical regionalism, New Urbanism), are conservative in every sense of the word. They are seeking to preserve architecture that does not always make sense from the perspective of economics or even safety, but that seems to protect and harbor what makes us different and connected to a particular place.
The question for me has always been whether there can be a third way: Can we be connected as a human race in all of our differences? In architecture, can we leverage the flow of capital, goods, and knowledge to create spaces that open themselves to all of us, that give shelter and services to those who need them, and that act as both physical and symbolic anchors for communities?
The foundation for such an approach may be found in the theoretical notions of “intersectionality”: the idea that our identities and our common future are not tied to one nationality, race, or gender, but rather that we are hybrids and must acknowledge and value our complexity. Such an approach will also rely on notions of deep sustainability that welcome the role of technology in not just preserving but also repairing and even reinventing the natural world we have inherited. Finally, it will recognize that there is an International Style that is not just the playground of the elite, but that can also welcome those fighting for recognition, access, and justice.
This is a self-organizing, connective, and tactical fight for architecture that appropriates, reuses, reimagines, and makes beautiful the sterile, mass-produced forms where we live and work. Ironically, it is quite often constructed out of the remainder or the leftover in the built environment, which, as I tried to point out in my last column, we need to upcycle.
We can find examples of this kind of work in what has been called tactical urbanism, in the related field of landscape urbanism, and in small-scale community projects around the world, which I have written about often. These projects combine reuse with local traditions while conforming to codes and regulations. Although sometimes, as in the library I wrote about last year in Breda, a city in the Netherlands, the architects also bend them towards more sustainable ends.
Right now, this tactical fight is centered around the calls for social justice and the agitation for including shelter in the list of basic human rights. My hope is that, when we return to our places of work and play after the pandemic, we will do so in ways that work for us, rather than remaining in isolation. I hope that we realize how the office and the factory can be their own versions of a prison, and that work needs to be liberated. I hope that this, combined with calls for social justice, the realization that how we are forced to live can have a direct impact on our health—those crowded together in dense areas without access to healthcare and sanitation suffer disproportionately from any health crisis—will lead to better architecture for all. I hope that we will reuse the architecture of the past rather than continuing to build a wasteful and isolating future.
It is up to architects, who know this new International Style, its rules and regulations, as well as its logic, to take up their role in this movement for a different kind of global architecture of liberation, justice, and sustainability.
Aaron Betsky is a regularly featured columnist whose views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.