It would be shameful if Blaine Brownell’s essay “The Disruptive Nature of Architectural Innovation” in Architect, the voice of the AIA, were the last word on disruption as a strategy of innovation in architecture. He complains that “experimentation in architecture has again come under attack.” Not so. Disruption has come under attack, not experimentation. They are different.
Architecture is a practical art. Experimentation has characterized architectural development for centuries even if it is not always noticed. Different materials and techniques, even different aesthetic forms, details and approaches, are tried and tried to determine their usefulness or their influence on appearance. Disruption is certainly not required by innovation, and to the extent that disruption impedes either the practical or aesthetic progress of architecture, it is inimical to its development. That includes disruption of affection for architecture, for it is love that pays for such utilitarian necessities as continued maintenance over time.
So what is disruption? Almost no experimental deviation from common practice is considered disruptive – at least not by most modern architects, insofar as they consider it to be their purpose to challenge convention in design. But what is conventional in design today is the use of the unconventional to stir emotion – often negative emotion, and purposely so.
Experimentation to bring new material and technology to bear in the construction of increasingly esoteric building forms with efficiency and safety is hardly objectionable. But most building users – residents, workers, passersby – sure do object to how modern architecture has applied a bogus innovation to change how cities work. For centuries, architects sought to design buildings to fit into their contexts – not hard, given that classical and traditional forms share a common aesthetic DNA. Architects sought to improve streets and squares as civilized places that ennobled life by infusing the built environment with charm, humor, elegance, grace, sentiment and beauty. Whether most people realize it or not, the change in the goals of architecure in the second half of the 20th century, de-emphasizing its focus on collections of buildings in favor of a focus on single (and regrettably singular) buildings, brought disruption to our experience of city life. That is not innovation.
Brownell uses several predictable formulations to bamboozle readers into buying his argument. He purposely misconstrues decades of criticism from Prince Charles’s carbuncle to Stewart Brand’s How Buildings Learn to the recent New York Times oped “How to Rebuild Architecture” by Steven Bingler and Martin Pedersen as objections to innovation.
“[I]f the restless search for innovation is widely accepted in other fields, why should architecture stand still? The reality is that architecture refuses to stagnate, despite the heated appeals for it to do so, and its history reveals an unceasing trajectory of transformation.”
There are no such appeals coming from anywhere, and none of the experimentations that Brownell lists is required to advance the utility of buildings, only to make it possible to use ever more wacky, unconventional forms. None of the critiques that dismay Brownell object to the use of innovation to make architecture more useful to its users.
Brownell even distorts or misconstrues the controversies involving his pre-21st century examples of innovative buildings. Gothic architecture was controversial, both in the 17th century and the revivalist 19th century, only because it reflected the ongoing battle between Protestantism and Roman Catholicism. I don’t accept the proposition that Gaudi’s cathedral was controversial outside the cognoscenti. And the Centre Pompidou was controversial not because it was innovative but because it screwed the City of Light and was ugly, with its innards outside. That was disruption without the blessing of purposeful innovation. Brownell quotes Rogers as saying that the building was “very shocking, but I don’t think we meant to shock.”
“[T]o pan buildings simply for being different is (at best) naïve or (at worst) downright discriminatory,” writes Brownell. “Architecture … should be granted the same potential for meaningful experimentation as other fields.” But nobody objects to their being different, just to their being different for no interesting or useful purpose. Modern architecture today engages in very little experimentation worthy of the term meaningful. Brownell’s critique is, at base, identical to the more heated arm-flapping of Aaron Betsky. Except nowadays a wider audience examines these abusive effusions of modernist defensiveness with more skeptical eyes. They are nothing but the tribe crouching down low in defense of the tribe.
In 1972, Nora Ephron wrote a brilliant essay called “A Few Words about Breasts.” Faced with absurdities as mountainous as those debunked by Ephron, I quote her conclusion in its entirety: “I have thought about their remarks, tried to put myself in their place, considered their point of view. I think they are full of shit.”