Tuesday, May 31, 2011


Check the movie pages lately, and you’re liable to think time is standing still. According to film critic Roger Ebert, 2011 will bring us a record twenty-seven film sequels. Among the franchises represented--or rather, re-represented--are Alvin and the Chipmunks, The Muppets, and Mission: Impossible, themselves derivatives of creaky old television fare. This insistent recycling of worn-out pop culture points up an interesting paradox: While studio execs will nonchalantly blow fifty million dollars on yet another pumped-up remake, they seem utterly mortified by a fresh idea that might entail a particle of risk. Instead, they cling to the safety of familiar old TV pablum, slowly dragging cinema down to the level of the boob tube.

Speaking of creative bankruptcy, there’s also a nasty bit of architectural recycling I’d like to see left back in the twentieth century: It’s the reflexive and uninformed use of classical design elements, in which a grab-bag of historical details are applied without concern for scale, proportion, or even common sense. Since the popularity of traditional architecture began to rebound in the 1980s, such haphazard detailing has become ever more widespread. Worse than simply being inauthentic, such design seems to signal that residential architecture, like cinema, is creatively bankrupt.

Traditionalism is a comforting throwback to the past, and its popularity rises whenever people find the times either too fast moving or too unstable. It happened after the Industrial Revolution and during the Roaring Twenties. Today, it’s the upheavals of the Information Age and the effects of a lingering recession that have people pining for the old and familiar.  
While traditional architecture can have unquestionable majesty, achieving it is not just a matter of plastering on a bunch of ready-made gimcracks. In too much of today’s architecture, elements such as columns, arches, and quoins are applied without any real understanding of their historical purpose; instead, they’re simply stuck on at random, like bits and pieces poked into Mr. Potatohead.  

Since traditional architectural elements are rooted in historic usages with very clear rules, they can’t just be combined willy-nilly. For instance, an arch crowned by a keystone--an assemblage born of masonry construction--will always look phony when carried out in your typical paper-thin wood framed wall. Likewise, a Corinthian column, no matter how authentic its detailing, has no reason to exist unless it’s visually holding something up. Compounding the problem, even well-designed projects seldom have the budget to do real justice to traditional elements, usually resulting in buildings tarted up with clumsy details made of Styrofoam. 

But architects and builders aren’t solely to blame for this dead-end recycling of traditionalism. A good chunk of the blame lies with civic design review boards, who’ve become infatuated with the idea that all architecture should reflect its “context”--the look of the existing surroundings. In too many cases, this simply amounts to a directive requiring architects to design in a traditional style, whether that aesthetic is valid or not.  It’s a concept that’s both retrograde and simple-minded--at its best merely maintaining the status quo, and at its worst yielding a series of increasingly bland, skim-milk derivatives of buildings that are already copies of yet other buildings.  It’s no way to move forward, for cities or for architects.   

Anyway, while all this stuff shakes out in the new millenium, I’ll be waiting for the latest sequel of Francis the Talking Mule.

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