Against Style: Architecture and Process

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Style in architecture is useless as a design tool. It is a formula usually derived from a kit of parts which are applied (like make-up, or cake icing) to any problem regardless of context or external content. On the other hand, process is methodological. It is something integral and less surface oriented both physically and intellectually. Often, particularly in residential design, a style consists of elements that are added to the front face of the exterior of a box (and sometimes added to interior surfaces). When comparing styles, you might in fact find the same box with different stuff stuck on it. Think Victorian style, Craftsman style, Spanish style. There are other styles as well, those that may deal with spaces and forms as opposed to appliqué. They are more commonly referred to as isms. Think modernism, deconstructivism, postmodernism. These forms are still frequently derived from a formula (or worse, a kit of ‘parts’), and that formula is frequently disengaged from any inputs (program, infrastructure, solar access, etc.) and is more often defined by a catalog of formal choices (flat roofs, angled walls, arches) making them equally superficial but less two dimensional.

Styles often begin as a method, but once a method becomes a style it’s no longer useful. In between these, there is often an interim ‘signature’ phase. This occurs when an architect, or group of architects’ ideas that originally appeared to be unique to a given context or problem begin to repeat. In this repetition, it becomes clear that the work is no longer about invention, or a process of discovery. A great example of this effect is in the work of Daniel Liebeskind. In his Jewish Museum in Berlin, the forms were said to be generated from fragments of a Jewish star, and the slashed openings represented the scars of the Jews in their suffering (at least as I understood it). This was a unique solution to a unique problem. But when these same forms and openings begin to show up on art museums in places like Denver, one begins to question their initial validity. Maybe it’s just stuff Dan liked. Eventually his work, along with others came to be associated with a style. Deconstructivism in architecture is often characterized by sharp angles, juxtaposed forms, and generally irregular geometry, even though it began as a parallel to a linguistic theory that questioned the meaning of language, it became stylized form making.

On the other hand, process extends from a project beginning to its end. It has meaning that runs through a project in multiple dimensions including space and time. Process is not an answer, but an exploration in part. In the best case, a design outcome is not predetermined, but instead the result of study, exploration, and iteration. Further, the study need not be pulled from esoteric external disciplines, as countless architecture students have been taught. I’ve been revisiting a volume I remember from teaching my first class at UC Berkeley, called ‘Studies in Tectonic Culture’. It’s pretty dense, but the fundamental idea (again, as I see it) is that architecture can be read on the level of constructed moments (as opposed to spatial ones) and that this is enough justification for design – it doesn’t need to look to other disciplines for legitimacy. Further, architecture can, and should, look to the site, the program, and the construction technique in its conception. Since the book was written 20 years ago, firms such as OMA, REX, and BIG have come to even greater prominence, and they all rely on concepts firmly rooted in architecture itself. It is also interesting to note that these firms don’t typically have a signature ‘style’ of the type so many starchitects do, but are known for their process.

When I’ve been told that our projects have a ‘style’, it’s usually meant in one of two ways. Either as a style of architecture, typically labeled as ‘modern’, or as an artistic style, that there is a hand evident in the design and hence a signature. And while it may be disingenuous for me or anyone else to suggest otherwise, I believe each project should be uniquely derived from the specifics if the project through a process, at least to the degree that the hand becomes invisible. If the projects do have commonalities, it should be because they were created using a similar method. For me, that method includes an analysis of the ‘pressures’ being placed on a project, and allowing the material of the architecture to respond to those pressures. Parts of the project will shift around one another to optimize solar access, views, sound, privacy, access, circulation. These interact with the vehicles, children, adults, pets, and others that will use the building. The function of the internal space engages with the external environment based on a set of principals, or rules. Ultimately, this creates architecture that takes into account varying and complex conditions. It does not simply take a surface based on principals that are typically outdated and irrelevant, and wrap it around an armature. Therefore, such a project will be more integrated into its surroundings, not by copying an image of neighboring ‘styles’ but by responding to all of the complex and conflicting surrounding conditions.

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