A Vision for Architecture as More Than the Sum of Its Parts

Architecture becomes industrial marketing
Another key event in the evolution of geometrical fundamentalism began around the same time, in the office of the German architect Peter Behrens. [See our article How Modernism got square in Metropolis magazine.]

Now known now as “the father of corporate branding”, Behrens touted industrial minimalism as an aesthetic tool to create a streamlined marketing image to help his client AEG (Germany’s version of the U.S. company General Electric) sell its products. To do so, he created striking logos, stationery, advertisements — and buildings, which are, in effect, giant billboards to help to sell companies and their products.

In taking this momentous step, Behrens was masterfully solving a critical problem for environmental designers in a new age of standardization and mass production. If we were no longer going to generate the form of buildings in place, through localized, craft-like processes, and rely instead upon (supposedly superior, and certainly cheaper) combinations of standardized parts, then how were we as designers going to create aesthetically distinctive works? The answer he gave was: by “theming” them with an exciting stylized vision of the future, to be created by industry (and specifically, by the client company and the design firm).

So we would turn buildings and other objects into canvases to “brand” our companies, our firms, and our own talents as visionary designers. More than that, these packaged designs would have the special allure, in the skilled hands of Behrens and his artistically minded protégés, of a great new fine art.

The image that Behrens created, working from the self-imposed limitations of this new aesthetic minimalism, was of power, industrial might, order, and cleanliness. Above all, it was the promise of a wonderful new technological future. Behrens was the first to realize that an intoxicating vision of the future can be used as a powerful marketing tool. It is the selling of a hope, a dream, a desire — even if it is one that is destined to quickly tarnish and be discarded. (Actually, all the better; such planned obsolescence means another “new, improved” product can be sold in its place.)

The seductive power of this futuristic message was not lost on three of Behrens’ young protégés, each of whom went on to have a profound effect on 20th Century design. Their names are certainly familiar to any architect today — in fact, almost all architectural students are required to study and copy them in school. They were Walter Gropius, Charles-Édouard Jeanneret-Gris (later known as Le Corbusier), and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. In the next decades they would announce their “total architecture” (Gropius) that signaled a “great epoch of industrial production” (Le Corbusier) and “the will of an epoch” that “less is more” (Mies).

The need for connective geometry
But as we have seen, that “unavoidable reality” is now looking like a recipe for an avoidable disaster. Moreover, from a contemporary scientific point of view, the whole approach was fundamentally mistaken in key aspects of its understanding of the nature of environmental structure.

The architect and design theorist Christopher Alexander has long made a similar point, from his first book Notes on the Synthesis of Form, through to the more recent The Nature of Order. He argues that there is a profound need to couple structures together into larger wholes — and a need to employ geometries that are able to do so. This “deep interlock” is a characteristic of natural environments, because it is basic to the generative effects of natural processes. But this characteristic is missing from the abstract, minimalist geometries of Modernism — with profound consequences. In the best modernist environments it might be compensated for in other ways — with plants, say, or other external decorative additions. But the structures themselves are greatly impoverished, and therefore likely to contribute to environmental disorder.

One of the ways that humans have provided this connective geometry necessary for life over the centuries is, in fact, through the use of ornament.
In the book A Pattern Language, Alexander and his colleagues give the example, in Pattern 249, of traditional ornamentation. This pattern might seem, to the eyes of a geometrical fundamentalist like Adolf Loos, superfluous and even “primitive” — but in fact, it serves an essential connective function.

Ornamental designs and structures in architecture actually serve to cement together components of different sizes as part of a larger geometric system. There are millions of examples in practice: beautiful traditional stairways, doorways, moldings, trim, window frames, etc. that are richly ornamented — and thereby connected to their environment. We could even stop talking about ornament altogether and instead focus on the essential connective geometry of an adaptive environment. The biologically-evolved human need of achieving connectivity in the environment is what generates ornament.

Geometrical fundamentalists would say that such detailing as is found in traditional ornament is primitive, or inappropriate to our modern tectonics, or that we are incapable of building with such authenticity and skill today, and any such effort will inevitably result in clumsy, inauthentic, insufficiently “creative”, insufficiently avant-garde art. Such sentiments betray an acutely reactionary aesthetic, rigidly fixated on a fundamentalist ideology and rooted in a century-old misunderstanding of modernity, before the discovery of new knowledge of the interlocking geometric patterns by modern complexity science.

The extreme confusion, false understanding, vicious partisanship, and near-religious fanaticism led many modernists to blindly condemn what it is that ornament represents. Otherwise intelligent writers state that ornament is “imitative of nature” — but this is a misleading backhanded compliment. Ornament is nothing less than human creativity expressed in its most direct and immediate manner. Ornament is simply the first step in the generation of innovative structure towards achieving coherently complex forms. Almost every other positive human achievement points in the same direction, and arises from the same creative process.

Anti-ornament sentiments betray a hidebound status quo thinking about art, and — for all the claims to creativity and newness — a surprising lack of imagination. For it was the regime of Modernism that accelerated the destruction of the traditional culture of building, out of a misplaced hostility to the evolutionary power of tradition. Geometrical fundamentalism enabled nearly a century of stripping down, blanking off, and furtively adding back, as a sop to the market, only the cheesiest of token traditions. It very nearly destroyed the vast repository of knowledge of how to build beautiful, adaptable, enduring buildings, and gave us a world of failing junk.

To blame modern builders for being (presently) incapable of using traditional patterns well, in the wake of such an environmental apocalypse, is a self-fulfilling, self-reinforcing prophecy, and a willfully irrelevant conception of art. Helplessly accepting this loss betrays the opposite of imagination, and the opposite of a truly radical avant-garde. Current practice fails to understand that change is possible, and that choice is necessary.

But this is not really an incomprehensible state of affairs. A system of powerful rewards is in place for the indulgence of this profitable status quo, including jobs, commissions, careers, fame, and acceptance. There are the cognitive distortions of an over-specialized, insular profession — seeing every design problem as an opportunity to impose parochial predilections for a modernist aesthetic. An élite privilege of narrow aesthetic pleasures is rooted in an image-based approach to environmental form — and is, in turn, rooted in the marketing of aesthetic veneers, passed off to a gullible public as the miraculous qualities of a grand futurist vision.

Cooler, more sober heads from other disciplines and walks of life are recognizing the naïveté of this subculture, its history as a marketing invention of narrow special interests, and its role as an industrial enabler of a slowly unfolding global industrial disaster. The pressure is increasing on architects to behave more responsibly, and become engaged in the deeper reforms that are needed. It seems long past time for serious people to ask what must come next.