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.