Experimentation in architecture has again come under attack. At a Beijing literary symposium in October, Xi Jinping, president of the People's Republic of China, criticized unconventional buildings, calling an end to the construction of unexpected icons such as OMA’s CCTV headquarters. The assault is also being waged in the West. In a December New York Times op-ed piece, “How to Rebuild Architecture,” Steven Bingler, AIA, and journalist Martin Pedersen similarly denounced uncommon buildings. Broadly reviling “signature pieces” and “soulless modernism,” the authors condemn architecture’s “inability to connect with actual humans.”
Acrimonious onslaughts like these are not unfamiliar to the discipline. In the mid-1990s, author Stewart Brand summarily dismissed “magazine architecture” in his book “How Buildings Learn: What Happens After They’re Built” (Penguin, 1994), asserting that “famous new buildings” are “the very worst” kind. Architects doubtless also remember Prince Charles’ vilification of modern architecture, beginning with a 1984 speech that the Royal Institute of British Architects has cited as “a discourtesy to architectural history.”
What is unsettling about these and other critiques is not their disapproval of a particular style or approach, but rather their uniform censure of architectural innovation—the aspiration to solve challenges, to improve upon old models, or to simply evade obsolescence. Architecture must innovate in order to grow and maintain relevance and currency in the wake of technological, cultural, and environmental change. Such innovation pushes the boundaries of building, resulting in unanticipated forms and material applications, yet this outcome should hardly be regarded as an affront.
Every discipline has its aspirational frontier. Electronic devices continually change with better technologies and new user interfaces. New automobile models are released each year, their design and engineering informed by cutting-edge experiments in the concept showroom and on the racetrack. Experimentation is an intimately familiar process in the arts—be it photography, music, poetry, or filmmaking. And the sciences are based entirely on new discoveries. So if the restless search for innovation is widely accepted in other fields, why should architecture stand still?
The reality is that architecture refuses to stagnate, despite the heated appeals for it to do so, and its history reveals an unceasing trajectory of transformation. Changing material technologies, construction methods, environmental conditions, and cultural forces exert profound influences on the art of building. When architects and builders have sought to harness these currents in thoughtful, open-minded ways, they have produced some of our most memorable edifices. Yet these same buildings, like so many that make up the architectural canon, have not been universally appreciated by either the public or the profession. Contrary to Bingler and Pedersen’s suggestion that architecture has only recently taken a controversial turn, enduring architecture is often shocking when first built and remains controversial for decades. This dissension is directly linked to what makes the architecture disruptive in the first place: It harnesses unconventional technologies or aesthetic approaches, or both, often with novel material expression. That the same buildings can become widely beloved over time is one of the most fascinating and least understood of the cultural phenomena concerning architecture.
Three pre-21st century structures demonstrate this process at work. (The next article in this series will discuss later cases.)
The vertiginous Gothic churches of medieval Europe, for example, embody the achievement of new capabilities in the deployment of stone and glass at unprecedented heights—their lacy filigree appearing to defy gravity as well as materiality. Bingler and Pedersen invoke the rose windows at Chartres Cathedral, in Paris, as an exemplary detail of this period and one that they claim transcends style. Yet Gothic architecture was generally reviled during the 1600s—a period in which structures built in the style were seen as unrefined next to their Renaissance counterparts. Over time, however, society came to appreciate these monuments’ fantastical, layered traceries of stone, cavernous volumes, and multicolored glazing as they were safely removed from the superstition and violence of the associated Middle Ages that so appalled their first observers.
In another example, historians associate 19th and early 20th century Barcelona, Spain, closely with the sculptural works of Catalan architect Antoni Gaudí, which represent a novel combination of Gothic and Art Nouveau morphologies in stone and reinforced concrete, occasionally clad with repurposed ceramic tiles, glass, and other discarded materials.
Not unlike the medieval churches, Gaudí’s masterpiece La Sagrada Família has a strongly polarized history. Today, the organically inspired vision of soaring stone-and-concrete pinnacles is one of the most visited monuments in Spain, with more than 3 million visitors each year. Still under construction since its inception in 1882, the highly sculptural edifice has become sufficiently beloved that Pope Benedict XVI formally consecrated the church during a crowded ceremony in 2010. Yet the Sagrada was highly controversial in prior decades. In July 1936, during the Spanish Civil War, revolutionaries destroyed Gaudí’s office inside the church, along with his design drawings and models for the building, while leaving the structure intact.
In his account of the conflict, author George Orwell wrote that the soldiers “showed bad taste in not blowing it up when they had the chance,” calling the Sagrada “one of the most hideous buildings in the world.” Like Orwell, many in early 20th century society viewed the building as startlingly unpalatable, presuming Gaudí’s monument to be a frivolous yet exorbitant stylistic experiment. But Gaudí did not believe in superficial approaches. In Barcelona (Vintage Books, 1993), the late critic Robert Hughes notes that Gaudí’s visionary architecture was steeped in “structural laws, craft traditions, deep experience of nature, piety, and sacrifice.” Subsequent admiration for his work likely concerns this basis of material and form on fundamental principles.
A third example is the Centre Culturel d'Art Georges Pompidou (Centre Pompidou), a head-turning assemblage of multicolored mechanical components in the heart of Paris by the then–unknown pair of Richard Rogers, Hon. FAIA, and Renzo Piano, Hon. FAIA. When constructed in the late 1970s, the large complex of polychromatic steel and glass exhibited an unprecedented permeable, systems-based facade and flexible open plan. And few buildings attracted more impassioned reactions. In 2007, reflecting on the museum’s opening 30 years later, The New York Times claimed that the building “turned the architecture world upside down.” The jury that awarded Rogers with the Pritzker Prize that year declared that the building had “revolutionized museums, transforming what had once been elite monuments into popular places of social and cultural exchange, woven into the heart of the city.”
Rarely does any structure receive such an elevated tribute. Yet the avant-garde building also inspired tremendous antipathy, based on the extreme visual contrast of the explosion of colorful steel and glass against the historical gray stone backdrop of the surrounding Les Halles neighborhood. In a 2002 interview with The Telegraph, Rogers confirmed the emotional intensity with which the building was received. “[The building] was very shocking, but I don't think we meant to shock,” he said. “We thought we were solving functional and aesthetic problems, flexibility, growth and change. … Of course, lots of Parisians simply don't like that.”
Rogers’ account encapsulates both the positive and negative of architectural innovation. As the architect claims, he and Piano aspired to deliver a building that achieved high technological and artistic objectives, such as large column-free galleries and a clear legibility of building systems. The fact that the Centre Pompidou bewildered much of its original audience was an unintended—or at least a secondary—consequence. Moreover, much of this initial surprise has since been replaced by broad public admiration.
Still, the original shock of novel architecture remains the low-hanging fruit of headlines, opinion pieces, and politically motivated diatribes, which summarily and collectively dismiss the likes of “weird architecture,” “signature pieces,” and “famous new buildings.” These critiques imply a universally accepted, static point of view. Yet history teaches us that public sentiment evolves, based in part on how buildings perform and are accepted (or not) over time.
To be sure, architects don’t always get it right. But to pan buildings simply for being different is (at best) naïve or (at worst) downright discriminatory. Architecture is an inherently aspirational discipline, and as long as it satisfies the prerequisites of health, safety, and human welfare, it should be granted the same potential for meaningful experimentation as other fields. Every new building project provides the chance to explore new opportunities for material and form, based on architects’ receptive consideration of client needs in combination with discoveries in the arts and sciences. Departures from conventional practice may not be received favorably by all audiences, but that is a small price to pay for innovation.
Blaine Brownell, AIA, is a regularly featured columnist whose stories appear on this website each week. His views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.