Will Stirling quote Wren?

Burntwood School, 2015 Stirling Prize winner by AHMM. (Rob Parrish)

Burntwood School, 2015 Stirling Prize winner by AHMM. (Rob Parrish)

Take all the nominees for the Carbuncle Cup – a British contest for the year’s worst architecture – and all the nominees for the Pritzker Prize and its British equivalent, the Sterling Prize. Mix thoroughly. Now separate the buildings to be celebrated from the buildings to be pilloried.

Mission: Impossible.

Among the chief features of modern architecture is its absence of standards to judge good from bad. As each modernist architect strives to differentiate his or her work from that of all contemporary rivals, comparing rival designs is difficult. Novelty is raised to an impossible standard. Judging it amounts to a crapshoot based on fashion.

Granting all that, Hank Dittmar, writing in Building Design, raises a good question in “When will Stirling laureates be allowed to quote from Wren?

UMass, Marcel Breuer, 1967-70. (the189.com)

UMass, Marcel Breuer, 1967-70. (the189.com)

Dittmar writes of the latest Stirling winner, a school designed by a firm that openly acknowledges past influences on the design, especially the 1950s and ’60s work of modernist Marcel Breuer. Dittmar found that acknowledgment “notable.” It is certainly quite rare. Traditional architecture celebrates its past but references to previous modernist architects in modernist building design are generally sotto voce, when they exist at all – which they often do, often more by accident than by design. The most frequent such “quotes” of which the designers are aware probably involve the use of Corbusian pilotis (thin posts) or nautical-styled stair or balcony railings.

So yes, it does happen. And so Dittmar wonders:

Perhaps this means it is possible to erase the double standard that seems to exist in architecture, where it is permissible to quote or use modernist precedents, but often forbidden in planning guidance to reference precedents from before the modern era, such as Palladio or Wren or Lutyens. The use of precedent in traditional architecture is derided as “pastiche,” a descriptive term which has been transformed into an epithet, or as “historicist,” taking history and turning it into a pathology by adding “ist” on the end, as in calling something Islamist rather than Islamic.

Dittmar refers to the more common tendency in British planning and design review to forthrightly ban references to past styles, at least those from pre-modern times. In the U.S. such blatant censorship is rare, but no less rigorously implemented by the design apparat, which is marinaded in modernist attitudes, especially the disdain for tradition. Now that many midcentury modern buildings are age 50 and up, hence eligible for historic preservation, Dittmar wonders “when designs which reference Breuer or Mies or the Smithsons will be considered pastiche or historicist rather than contemporary.”

Don’t hold your breath, Hank! Either for that or, as you note in closing, “for a Demetri Porphyrios, John Simpson or Craig Hamilton building to be nominated” for a Stirling.

About David Brussat

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. History Press asked me to write and in August 2017 published my first book, "Lost Providence." I am now writing my second book. My freelance writing on architecture and other topics addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am 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 employ my writing and editing to improve your work, 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.
This entry was posted in Architects, Architecture, Architecture Education, Architecture History, Art and design, Preservation and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Will Stirling quote Wren?

  1. Tony James says:

    Precisely. Well said, both David and Hank Dittmar.


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