Monday, August 29, 2011

WHAT GOES AROUND

Channel surfing a while back, I happened across an old Joan Crawford movie called Mildred Pierce.  I won’t summarize the plot here--I couldn’t do it in the length of this blog anyway--but suffice it to say there were adequate histrionics to win Crawford an Oscar for best actress in 1945. What really caught my attention, though, was a scene in which her social-climbing character is about to buy a spectacular though long-empty half-timbered mansion.  As she surveys the ornate interior, she sighs resignedly and declares: “It’s not so bad, really...just tear down some of this gingerbread--”.

I puzzled over this line for a moment before realizing that, from the vantage point of 1945, the home’s design was supposed to be revolting. 

How far we’ve come--or rather, how far we’ve come around. Like everything else in history, architectural styles are cyclical:  every half-century or so, our idea of what constitutes good taste does a flip-flop. In Mildred Pierce’s time,  “gingerbread” was practically an epithet, and people tore it down if they had it. Today, people put up gingerbread if they haven’t got any, and it’s Modernism that’s down for the count.

The lesson is that, in architecture as in art, there are no hard and fast rules, no right answers, and ultimately, no such thing as good taste. I’m always amused at the astonished reactions I get when I make this statement. Some people bristle as if they’ve been personally insulted.  All of us think we know what good taste is, and--surprise surprise--it’s usually pretty close to our own. But like beauty, good taste is in the eye of the beholder. What passes for exquisite refinement in Dallas would draw yawns in Bombay or Manila. Moreover, there’s no reason to assume that our own ideas of good taste are any more valid than those of other cultures--they’re just more familiar, that’s all.  

What’s more, even within a particular culture, good taste is a prisoner of its own time. In 1889, a Swiss engineer constructed an enormous, riveted wrought-iron tower to serve as the centerpiece of the Paris Exhibition. The French considered it an abomination and demanded its prompt demolition after the fair closed. Rather than being destroyed, of course, the Eiffel Tower eventually became the very symbol of Paris.  

Likewise, at the dawn of the twentieth century, residents of the tony Chicago suburb of Oak Park were repeatedly outraged by the construction of a series of new homes which most of them considered monstrous. They were referring to Frank Lloyd Wright’s epoch-making Prairie houses. 

Some might argue that, apart from the temporal biases most of us are constrained by, there are still some absolutes of good taste that remain valid in any era or setting--rules based on classical proportions, color theory, respect for context, and the like.  But even this notion doesn’t hold water. Over the centuries, dozens of architects have changed the course of design history by flouting accepted “rules” of good taste, not the least of them Michaelangelo, Bernini, Richardson, Wright, and Venturi.

All this leads to a rather unsettling question. If there are no absolutes of taste--or, to put it more precisely, if our ideas of good taste are always prisoners of our own zeitgeist--how do we decide what our buildings should look like?  

Why, we rely on the infallible judgement of our local design review board, of course.

Just kidding. 

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