Style in words and buildings

Choragic Monument of Lysicrates, in Athens. It is the symbol of the Driehaus Prize. (athenskey.com)

Choragic Monument of Lysicrates, in Athens. It is the symbol of the Driehaus Prize. (athenskey.com)

Andres Duany in his treatise Heterodoxia Architectonica engages the concept of classicism’s relation to language. Umberto Eco, in his On Literature, engages the concept of language’s relation to style. This blog is about the “style wars” of classicism versus modernism. In that regard, in terms of how the meaning of the concept of style has evolved, a quote from Eco’s essay “On Style” is quite interesting:

[S]peaking of style means discussing how the work of art is made, showing how it gradually emerged (even though sometimes this is only through the purely theoretical progression of a generative process), explaining why it offers itself to a certain type of reception, and how and why it arouses this reception. And, for those who are still interested in pronouncing judgments as to aesthetic value, it is only by identifying, tracking down, and laying bare the supreme workings of style that we are able to say why a given work is beautiful, why it has enjoyed different kinds of reception in the course of time, and why, although it follows models and sometimes even precepts that are scattered far and wide in the sea of intertextuality, it has been able to gather those legacies and make them blossom in such a way as to give life to something original. Only then will we be able to say why, although each of the different works by one artist aspires to an inimitable originality, it is possible to detect the personal style of that artist in each of those works.

What is the difference between originality and novelty? I have often criticized modern architecture for its focus on novelty at the expense of beauty. Originality is the effort to engage creatively within a set of rules, pushing against and even past them, with knowledge aforethought. Novelty is the effort to engage creatively without a set of rules.

Even the most orthodox classicist can barely avoid adopting his own personal approach to designing a building within the rules of classicism. Meanwhile, the modernist architect strives to generate a personal style that will differentiate himself from all other modernist architects. He doesn’t acknowledge the existence of any set of rules that bind him, often not even the laws of nature. In his claim to novelty he may fudge a bit, but his primary goal, unlike the classicist, is to be different rather than to create beauty. The style wars are fated to continue.

Classicism has more style than modernism. Anybody who knows anything about style can understand why. Architects whose sense of how to design includes when to obey the rules and when to disobey them will produce work that can be judged – that is what a stylist wants! The winners of the Pritzker Prize have won an award with little intrinsic value, since modern architecture has no genuine standards by which it may be judged. The winner of the Driehaus Award has demonstrated a tightrope walker’s command of architectural nuance that is worthy of celebration, admiration and emulation. The Pritzker is for celebrities. The Driehaus is for masters.

About David Brussat

For a living, I edit the writing of some of the nation's leading architects, urbanists and design theorists. This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. My freelance writing and editing on that topic and others addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a fellow of the Royal Society of the Arts, and a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to invest your prose with even more style and clarity, please email me at my consultancy, dbrussat@gmail.com, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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