Copyright your building!

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Illegally rectangular? New Barnes Foundation Museum in Philadelphia. (Almy)

A piece by Amelia Stein in the Guardian, “Does architecture need to be original,” raises some fascinating questions. She covered a symposium in New York that considered how the Architectural Works Copyright Protection Act – a 1990 amendment to U.S. copyright law – should influence architecture.

Must new buildings be sufficiently novel to avoid the tentacles of the law? If so, what does that mean?

I don’t think the symposium really got very close to a definitive answer. There was a lot of wallowing in various definitions of authenticity and imitation. Are traditional architects who base their designs on precedent more exposed than modern architects who seek novelty above all in their designs? Obviously (or so you would think) an architect is not exposed by using an I-beam or a vertical double-hung window. What if a postmodernist “references” a celebrated arch from a traditional building in his glass box festooned with cartoon classicism? I’d hate to be the jury in that trial!

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Barnes interior. (yeow.com)

Some of the presentations at the symposium, called Law x Copy at the Center for Architecture, were kind of odd. For example, Williams & Tsien’s replication of the exhibition rooms of the old Barnes Foundation at its new building in Philadelphia was discussed:

Amanda Reeser Lawrence, an assistant professor of architecture at Northeastern University, asked how sameness could be thought of not as fearful, but as ambitious. Lawrence argued that the “non-verisimilitude” of rooms paradoxically preserved the intention of the original architecture at the level of aura.

She lost me, I’m afraid, at “at the level of aura.”

For me, I like the idea of copyrighting architectural novelty. Modernist architects would have to really be sure their designs were novel in order to avoid culpability under the law. No copying the recent past! No sham originality! No hiding behind the eight-ball of authenticity!

So while at first glance the law might seem more dangerous to the trads, the mods would find that their search for a new novelty was becoming more and more hectic. The result would be designs that would be more and more ridiculous, hence increasingly exposed to public criticism.

The fly in that ointment, of course, is that the public has become increasingly inured to ugliness and stupidity in architecture, and thus unlikely to raise a fuss at getting even more of it. Still, consider the coils within coils that would jump out if the law were ever taken seriously:

Below is a Chinese building said to have copied a building by Zaha Hadid. Just below that is a building that, if the charge were true, Zaha would seem to have copied herself. It is London City Hall, by Norman Foster. Go figure.

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Building in China said to be a copy of building by Zaha Hadid. (STR/AFP/Getty)

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London City Hall, by Norman Foster. (The Guardian)

[This post goes onto my blog but not out to my blog send list recipients until my email server quits intercepting my bulk posts under the suspicion that they are spam. I am sorry to say that for the time being those who want to read my posts will have to visit my blog, or get them on social media, or hit “follow” at the top left of this blog, or be members of the TradArch or Pro-Urb listservs. Meanwhile, I am trying to solve this vexing problem. – David Brussat]

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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One Response to Copyright your building!

  1. Interesting thing to think about! I for one do agree with your thought that copywriting could increase the number of “far out” buildings that get designed which isn’t an outcome I would enjoy.

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