Mark Foster Gage Architects Mark Foster Gage's design for a skyscraper on West 57th Street in New York

The article I wrote recently broached a delicate subject in architecture: that of style. To call someone stylish might be OK, but to call their work such is just not done in our culture. What was once a quest for many artists or designers—a style of one’s own—is now something to be avoided at all costs, while the notion that one is working in a certain style has been, well, out of style, with a few exceptions, since the advent of the various styles of Modernism. To say that your work appears in a certain manner, in a mode developed by someone else, or in a fashion that evidences the cycles of taste, means that you have given up creativity and individuality and, what is more important, are not doing “the right thing” or “telling the truth.”

But the dirty secret is that style has not gone away.

What, then, is style? It has been many things at many times to many people, but style currently has at least four meanings in the world art and design.

Korean Presbyterian Church of New York by Greg Lynn Form

First, there is personal style, or a signature. The problem here is that we have learned that such a manner of working is not "true" but operates "just" as a way of creating an appearance. Beauty is, after all, not supposed to be just skin deep. However, you could instead say that style is the designer’s subjective perspective and manner of acting. It is how she or he opens up the physical and social structure in which we all work and alters our perception of what is possible. As such, it is vital to (re)creating a built reality.

Second, style is the mode of appearing to be a certain type of middle-class or upper-middle-class individual, as fueled by the fashion industry. Others can have style as well (the "tribes" that have been documented recently by photographers), but this kind of style denotes a manner of group identity that these days is as much bought as it is made. This is style in its trickiest form, but it too has value as a means of creating exactly that communal identity. Architects have to realize that they are members of a particular culture, that their clients look for both affirmation and challenge in their buildings, and that architecture is one of the ways we create moments of interest and coherence—anchors, even—in our society. We need to figure out how to do so in a flexible and adaptable manner so that, as fashion-derived styles change, so can our buildings.

Jean-Pierre Dalbéra The east facade of the Louvre

Third, there is style as an order or coherent system of appearance—such as Classicism. This is where most architects have theoretical, as opposed to merely emotional, issues with the notion. The “right style” was considered absolutely central to architecture for centuries and was taught at the École des Beaux-Arts and derivative schools, and it became exactly what modernists rebelled against, even as they developed their own style (some, as in the De Stijl group, were conscious of that). We have been indoctrinated to think of this sense of style as essentially evil. Even as the use of certain materials (steel, concrete, glass) or elements (free plan, free façade, pilotis, ribbon windows, roof garden) became a canon, architects claimed they were building according to scientific laws. It is difficult for architects to recognize that such rules might be a style onto themselves instead.

Phillipe Rahm architects Jade Echo Park by Philippe Rahm Architectes

Finally, there is the sense of style as the expression of a cultural and social moment, the infamous zeitgeist of our time. In this sense, style is supposed to be a mirror of our society. This would seem to be a good thing, but to most artists and designers that precludes a measure of critical distance and also takes away from their authority. It means going with the flow and thus, paradoxically, not having your own style. Yet, if there is one thing we learned from Postmodernism, it is that we need to figure out how to make forms that work in and with the cultures in which we build, rather than imposing an Olympian (or Miesian or Corbusian) truth on a bewildered audience.

Nigel Swales Interior of Amalienborg, the palace of the Danish royal family

Beyond these definitions of style there is also the sense in which styles can be independent from either individual expression or social reflection, and seem to be keyed into some deeper rhythm that also responds to profound movements in our culture. We often call those styles classical, mannerism, baroque, rococo, and neo-classical. The first of these establishes an order, a manner of making and appearing for a new or nascent society. The second stretches those rules, while the third develops these forms into more elaborate forms, tending towards monumentality and grandeur as power consolidates itself and expresses itself in art and architecture. The fourth reacts against these grand tendencies, both on a social and an aesthetic level, by creating forms that are lighter, more responsive, and more elusive, attempting to escape from order. Finally, the reaction to all of this sets in, and a call for a new kind of order establishes the cycle anew.

In this space last week, I speculated that we might be nearing the end of this sequence. I would say that responses to the ephemerality of an increasingly virtual and stretched social and aesthetic network already contain echoes of the call for a return to order that you can hear so loudly when you step out of your stylish crystal palace.

I think it is a good thing if architects figure out where they are in relation to these movements, develop a style all their own, and figure out how they want to respond to that call for return, retreat, and repression. Style is freedom. It is poise. It is critical. A good architect should have great style.