Three pre-21st century buildings offer up lessons on how public opinion can evolve to accept once-novel uses of material and form.
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?
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