In this issue, the editors are showcasing winners of the 2018 Palladio Awards. Normally this would be an occasion for unalloyed celebration. But by coincidence this event has also called attention to the absurd hostility that Modernist architects and critics have towards traditionalism. More on this later on.
It was no accident that we named our award program for traditional design after a 16-century architect. Andrea Palladio (1508-1580) is arguably the most famous architect in history. Although fewer than 50 of his buildings survive—and these are confined to a relatively small area of northeastern Italy—his influence is still felt throughout the Western world. (For example, in 2008, the U.S. Congress declared Palladio the “Father of American Architecture.”) Palladio’s legacy is literally timeless.
Palladio’s genius lies in the way he used humanist principles to create new architecture for his time. There really isn’t a particular Palladian style; rather there is a Palladian design philosophy based on combining scholarship with creativity. Although well acquainted with the text of Vitruvius, Palladio dug deeper by making measured drawings of surviving building remnants of ancient Rome. These on-the-ground investigations showed that the ancients were continually adapting the “rules” of architecture to solve new problems—while still employing the basic grammar of the Classical language.
With that knowledge to draw upon, Palladio did not copy the ancient buildings in his own work. Rather, he took the best ideas of the past and adapted them to create comfortable, functional and beautiful buildings for his own time. Palladio was a thoroughly forward-looking architect.
Winners of the 2018 Palladio Awards all follow Palladio’s example. Viewing tradition as the accumulated wisdom of previous generations, they combine the best concepts from the past with liberal doses of their own creativity . . . creating buildings that satisfy both physical and psychic needs.
The Greco-Roman architectural tradition Palladio drew upon is based on the complexity of forms in the natural world. Architecture thus grounded is coherent and legible to all and provides the emotional reassurance of a known safe environment. By contrast, Modernist architecture builds upon abstract forms flowing from industrial technology—“geometrical fundamentalism” to use the term coined by polymath Nikos Salingaros. Little wonder that most people find much of Modernist design cold, chaotic, alienating.
The All-Purpose Insult: PASTICHE!
Paradoxically, many of today’s architects and critics who swoon over the brilliance of Palladio’s reimagining of Roman antiquity nevertheless dismiss the relevance of his design philosophy for our time. I got a jarring reminder of the knee-jerk antipathy that Modernist critics hold toward tradition when I ran across a couple of mainstream reviews of one of 2018’s Palladio Award-winning projects. While grudgingly admitting that the building fits in nicely with its surroundings and seems to function well, both critics could not resist tossing in the automatic insult for traditional design: “pastiche.” The implication is that no creativity was involved; the work is merely copying.
Pastiche is defined as “a literary, artistic, musical, or architectural work that imitates the style of previous work.” The key word is “imitates.” Most artistic endeavor is influenced by—but does not directly copy—what has gone before. The issue is when does adaptation, reinterpretation, variation, reworking or modification cross over into the mortal sin of “copying”?
Certainly, Modernist glass boxes that clutter our built environment bear an aching sameness. After all, there are just so many ways to handle the geometry of straight lines, flat planes and sharp corners. Any objective observer would concede there certainly is a lot of adaptation and reinterpretation of the Modernist style going on. But do critics ever use the word “pastiche” in reviewing Modernist constructions? Never!
According to Modernist orthodoxy, the charge of “pastiche” could even be hurled at Palladio himself. He cheerfully used stylistic elements and proportional systems borrowed from a previous era. Even though he made no direct copies, his stylistic precedents are plain to see. That’s enough to qualify Palladio as a practitioner of “pastiche” to today’s critics of traditionalism.
But Palladio’s work and that of most architects, whether Modernist or Classical, is “allusion” i.e., an implied or indirect reference. But allusion is not copying. To hang the tired insult “pastiche” on traditionalism—and to ignore similar imitative practices in Modernism—is hypocritical and short-circuits rational analysis.
So as we celebrate the 14 winners of the 2018 Palladio Awards, I hope we can also banish “pastiche” to the Dumpster of Misused Words. The sloppy logic associated with its current usage should be replaced with more precise and nuanced examination of allusion’s influence on design of all types. In the meantime, let us all salute this year’s Palladio Award winners who use historical allusions to make architecture that is legible, functional, beautiful—and very much of our own time.
Clem Labine is the founder of Old House Journal, Traditional Building and Period Homes magazines. He launched the Palladio Awards program in 2002.