Monday, March 26, 2012


If you were to plot the popularity of an architectural style on a stock-market style chart, you’d first see it take a quick nosedive from near-universal acclaim to near-universal distaste.  After fifty years or so of hugging the bottom, it would start a little upward tick with small-scale rediscovery and “What-were-they-thinking?”-style wonderment.  In another decade, you’d find it rocketing up through rekindled appreciation and into widespread admiration again.  

This is the classic cycle followed by practically every popular building style, from Victorian through Craftsman through Period Revival.  Currently, the California Rancher--for decades ignored, disparaged, or gracelessly remuddled--is beginning the upswing to renewed appreciation.

Alas, while architectural styles invariably return for an encore, individual buildings don’t always survive the trip.  That fifty-year dormancy period is, of course, the most hazardous time for them. Many of our grandest architectural works have succumbed to those five deadly decades, with few people to mourn their passing.  

The great buildings lost to the deadly decades are so numerous, in fact, that they’re easier to describe by type:  The great Victorian, Richardsonian, and Beaux-Arts railroad terminals, of which a relative handful survive; the sumptuous Period Revival mansions of the Roaring Twenties; the movie palaces of the same decade.    

The story of how these buildings are lost is always more or less the same. Waning popularity or obsolescence eventually leads to neglect, initiating a downward spiral that  ends in early destruction.  Even the works of famous architects aren’t immune.  Some of Frank Lloyd Wright’s greatest commissions fell to the wreckers during the deadly decades:  the epoch-making Larkin office building in Buffalo, Chicago’s Midway Gardens, and Tokyo’s Imperial Hotel are three long-lamented examples.  And if Wright’s works were susceptible, imagine the dangers facing buildings with lesser pedigrees, let alone vernacular roadside architecture.    

At the moment, late modernist works of the 1960s and 70s are in the midst of their own deadly decades and in the greatest danger of loss.  These range from prestigious buildings such as banks and civic centers, to some very competently-designed schools, supermarkets and gas stations, all the way to the “Googie” commercial architecture of drive-ins, motels, and car washes.   

Paradoxically, even though we recognize these recurring destructive cycles, we seem powerless to avert them.  Most of us can never seriously believe that any buildings from our our own time are worthy of preservation--they’re usually too familiar and too shopworn to rate that kind of affection.  For example, as a child of the 1970s, I ‘d be loathe to concede that even a handful of the horrible Mansard-roofed gas stations, office buildings, or fast-food joints of that era might merit preservation. Yet the lessons of architectural history assure me that some of them do.  

As silly, premature, or distasteful as this kind of recognition may seem, it’s the only way we’ll manage to save noteworthy buildings from their deadly decades:  We must look past the aesthetic biases of the present.  We must learn to see architecture through posterity’s eyes, and not our own.

Monday, March 12, 2012


For years now, I’ve railed at people who remodel just to keep up with some architectural fad or other.  But the truth is that we architects are as faddish as anyone else.  A few lead, and most follow, whether consciously or not.

Architectural fads are nothing new.  For much of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the English, Germans, Spanish, and most every other European nation were busily ripping off the French, whose architecture was seen as the epitome of elegance and prestige. As buildings such as the Louvre and Versailles still attest, no one could touch the Gallic flourish for theatrically grand compositions.  As a result, no self-respecting palace of the era, whether in Salzburg or St. Petersburg, was complete unless it boasted Versailles-like formal gardens and was crowned by a Mansard roof. 

In the early 19th century, excavations in ancient Athens and Herculaneum touched off a tremendous fashion for archeological copies of Greek and Roman architecture.  The French were again at the head of this new wave (soon to be followed by the Germans), with each nation building rather fevered copies of the Parthenon and other ancient monuments in the stark style we now call Romantic Classicism. 

Even in America, banks and courthouses in the guise of Greek temples sprang up in every jerkwater town, and no less an architect than Thomas Jefferson jumped on the bandwagon by endorsing the Greek Revival as the keynote style for Washington DC.

The arrival of Modern architecture in the twentieth century brought a whole new level of faddishness.  Alas, while having architects cranking out line-perfect copies of Greek temples was merely tiresome, having mediocre talents copying Modernism was an urban disaster.  While the likes of Mies, Gropius, and Le Corbusier put infinite care into their austere compositions, lesser architects simply assumed that building anything with glass walls, a flat roof, and white paint qualified them as geniuses.  It didn’t.  Such dreary, bargain-basement Modernism, which still populates a good many American downtowns, is one of the main reasons why modern architecture fell so hard, so fast.  The firm I interned with, for instance, went in big for a late-Modernist trend called Brutalism, leaving behind a legacy of memorably awful exercises in raw concrete.

It’s easy to spot such bandwagon-hopping in hindsight, but not so easy to recognize it in our own time.  Yet the purportedly rebellious styles of recent years have brought us just as many cases of architectural copyism.  One need only count the mushrooming number of buildings with outward-leaning walls, angled props supporting pointless overhangs, and strident color schemes of ochre, bile, and olive to recognize the faddishness of much of today’s work.  

Such aesthetic recycling stems, I suppose, either from intellectual laziness or from the wish to play it safe.  It takes monumental self-confidence and--dare I say it--arrogance, to put something really different before people and willingly be savaged for it.  Ironically, the moment someone does this kind of heavy lifting and manages to survive, the imitators arrive, their glossy magazines firmly in hand. 

So just imagine how many half-baked Frank Gehry knockoffs are still coming your way.