The Bold and the Traditional

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It’s a joy to discover something that turns conventional wisdom on its head. I made such a discovery this week.

Architecture critics normally apply breathless adjectives such as “bold," "innovative" and "forward-looking” only to creations by their favorite Modernist "starchitects." Likewise, when confronted by traditional architecture, these same critics automatically reach into their bag of negativity and yank out tired put-downs like “insipid," "stale," "Disney-esque” and the ultimate insult: “historical pastiche.” Such knee-jerk assessments lie at the heart of mainstream conventional wisdom.

Having grown weary of these ideologically driven judgments, I was delighted by a small compendium of traditionally based architecture that recently came to hand. Thumbing through its pages, I realized that any objective observer would also call the historically influenced work therein “bold, innovative and forward-looking.” And the work presented is also entitled to additional adjectives like “rational," "harmonious" and "context sensitive.” The buildings display novel variations on traditional patterns, imparting not only a contemporary feel, but also a consistent attitude toward form, so the viewer never finds them alien or disorienting.

The compendium I’ve been looking at is a book titled Evidence, which is a survey of work from Robert A.M. Stern Architects. I normally don’t pay much attention to architectural monographs because although they are pretty to look at, most don’t have much to teach. This book is different because the focus is on specific elements of buildings, rather than sweeping panoramas. The work incorporates the basic principle that underlies all successful traditional architecture: precedent plus invention. From the Greco-Roman era through the Renaissance and into our present time this transformative concept has guided traditional design. The architecture illustrated in this new volume refutes beyond question the Modernist assertion that historically influenced design is merely feeble imitation.

The book’s sections on entryways, windows, stairways, porches, façade articulation and passive energy conservation provide a post-graduate course on how imagination can integrate the past with the present. (Several photos of Stern’s work from the book are shown at left.) Robert Stern describes his firm’s design process as “a dialogue with the past carried on in the present with the future in mind.” The work proves that traditionalism is infinitely flexible and can readily adapt to different needs and locales – without resorting to tortured geometry that creates dissonant, dehumanizing spaces.

One thing that Stern’s innovative architecture lacks is shock value. To me, that is high praise. But the sad truth is that many civic and cultural institutions are still seduced by the allure of the ludicrous – and are awarding commissions only to designers who generate controversy and notoriety. Recent example: For creation of a new Holocaust Memorial in Columbus, OH, the finalists are Daniel Libeskind, Ann Hamilton and Jaume Plensa. When the finalists are a radical Modernist, a multi-media performance artist, and an avant-garde sculptor, it’s obvious that the capacity to provoke is the main selection criterion. And when the American Institute of Architects (AIA) proudly describes its selection for the 2013 AIA Gold Medal as “the bad boy of Los Angeles architecture,” it’s clear the establishment is still determined to reward bombast rather than civility.