Rise of The New Radical Pragmatist

Using Australia as her focus, Marissa Looby, in a recent article for the Australian Design Review, argues that the disappearance of architectural styles, combined with the proliferation of various guidelines and building codes, has created a new breed of architect: The New Radical Pragmatist. Her article "The New Radical Pragmatist (On Validation)" is reprinted here.

The Architectural Review (December, 1955) first published Reyner Banham’s epochal and pivotal article, ‘The New Brutalism’, in which the critic pointed to the rise of a new architectural style. He also described an influx of -isms that were becoming increasingly conspicuous to the discipline, stemming from the then contemporary model of an art historian and their influence on the architectural historian-as-observer of the architectural profession. Banham incisively suggested that any proposition of the term ‘new’ has an unequivocal relationship to the past, so much so that in advocating for a new -ism an architectural theoretician must defend their claim with historic fact. Ironically, Banham acknowledged that even ‘The New Brutalism’ title derived from The Architectural Review’s analysis of the International Style in the postwar article, ‘The New Empiricism’. He stated: “[the] ability to deal with such fine shades of historical meaning is in itself a measure of our handiness with the historical method today, and the use of phrases of the form ‘The New X-ism’ – where X equals any adjectival root – became commonplace in the early 1950s in fourth year studios and other places where architecture is discussed, rather than practised.”

The -ism was ostensibly a Modernist construct, with commonplace examples popping up in art and architecture, such as Cubism, Futurism and Surrealism. The construct, since the mid-fifties (taking, for the sake of argument, Banham’s postulation as a starting point) has gradually developed into a cliche, as architecture has continued to observe, construct, postulate, reinstate and evaluate a number of styles and movements, allocating each with its own snappy moniker. The new Brutalist style, deriving from two key protagonists – English architects Peter and Alison Smithson – was a movement that could be genealogically linked to Modernism and as such was locked in an Oedipal complex to free itself from its forebear. Modernism, as a style that defined pre- and postwar periods, requires little introduction. Charles Jencks may have once famously exclaimed the “death of Modernism” and birth of Postmodernism, pinpointing an exact date and time (July 15, 1972 at precisely 3:32pm) when the Minoru Yamasaki-designed Pruitt-Igoe housing project in St Louis, Missouri was demolished, but Modernism’s stronghold may still ruminate in the present in adapted forms. In Japan, the Metabolist style also sprung from Modernism at the Congrès Internationaux d’Architecture Moderne (CIAM) conference, Hoddesdon, 1951, using the megastructure as a technological and formal aesthetic to symbolise the movement. Also worthy of note, was the Deconstructivist movement from the 1980s – a point at which architecture slid down a slippery slope of Post-Structuralist semiotics – with its beginnings established in an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, New York (1988), curated by Philip Johnson and Mark Wigley. The exhibition comprised a haphazardly mixed group of architects, all of whom distanced themselves from the -ism soon after.

Reyner Banham's "New Brutalism" Article in the Architectural Review. Image Courtesy of The Architectural Review

Australia has never fully developed a particular style of its own. This is not to say that Australian architecture has not learned, evolved and built within a range of stylistic regimes. Of course it has had influences from both the Modernist and Postmodernist styles, for example, Harry Seidler’s Modernist stronghold on the Sydney skyline (Australia Square, Horizon Apartments, Blues Point Tower apartments, MLC Centre); Ashton Raggatt McDougall’s Postmodernist examples in Melbourne (RMIT Storey Hall, Shrine of Remembrance, Melbourne Recital Centre, Hamer Hall); and, even Brutalism was de riguer for a short while through the works of Iwan Iwanoff in Western Australia (Schmidt-Lademann House, Marsala House, Northam Public Library, Curtin University). To categorise further, Glenn Murcutt could be catalogued by some theorists as Regionalist in his approach to Modernism – a specifically Australian interpretation of European/North American Modernism, stemming from the theoretical works of Kenneth Frampton’s ‘Critical Regionalism’. However, at the turn of the twenty-first century, even though the anxiety to be labelled as a style may still be common in fourth-year studios, there is no longer an -ism reigning over the architectural profession. No longer are architects under the auspices of Postmodernism, for instance – even though theoreticians like Alan Kirby suggest society remains in a pseudo-Postmodern age – and given the commonplace rejection of Patrik Schumacher’s Parametricism as a validated style – one of few architects with the temerity to dare to pose a ‘new’ contemporary style – architects are currently somewhat undefined. It may be said that architects are no longer working under the constraint of a stylistic -ism. But it is important to ponder what the -ism does for architects. A style or movement can be seen as a cohesive body, where construction methodologies, aesthetic, moral and artistic codes are aligned. A style may be a communal belief as to a way of building – a powerful tool in the validation of the architectural object. If style is undefined in architecture, architects do not work under communal codes. This is not to discount the twenty-first century as being without creative, formal or aesthetic outlet, rather the freedom from style has created a multiplicity of aesthetic and moral responses in architecture. That being said, how do architects validate, justify, analyse and critique their work as a collective if they are no longer acting under a communal banner?

It may seem somewhat superfluous to draw on the lack of collective style impacting upon the profession in the contemporary, but it becomes increasingly intriguing when comparatively linked to the rise of other forms of control in the postwar period: statutory regulations and building code. It is not posited that the loss of style is especially positive or negative, but rather more presciently, that the loss of style has coincided with the increase of often disciplinary-devised regulation, demanding codes, controls and various factual validation methods to ‘get the project over the line’. This article makes no claims as to a new style, but to a new breed of architect: the New Radical Pragmatist.

The Building Code of Australia has undergone successive reform since 1996. Beginning in 1965 as the Australian Model Uniform Building Code (AMUBC) under the control of the Interstate Standing Committee on Uniform Building Regulations (ISCUBR), the agency “contained proposals for both technical and administrative building matters”– as posited in the ‘Reform of Building Regulation’, Productivity Commission Research Report (November 17, 2004, Australian Government Productivity Commission). In 1979 the Interstate Committee was restructured to the Australian Uniform Building Regulations Coordinating Council (AUBRCC), further renaming the AMUBC to its present incarnation, Building Code of Australia (BCA). Varying editions of the BCA were released between 1988 and 1990, with an increasing use of performance regulations. The current form of the BCA was first developed in 1996 and, since 2002, the agency successively appended a new name to reflect its continual revisions. The BCA is described as a “living document” and a nationally consistent source of technical regulation. The constant updates are endorsed in part due to the proliferating number of new technologies in building construction and also the need to keep abreast of performance-based, as opposed to prescriptive, code. The endlessly iterative alterations to code is one thing, but perhaps more concerning is the sheer number of additional modes of disciplinary control. Planning parameters in each state vary in form, but are a confluence of local and state legislation. The influx of environmental code in architecture has been increasing steadily since the 1990s, notably, the NSW Energy Code for residential houses and housing was established in 1996 (BASIX) and the National Australian Built Environment Rating System (NABERS) has been in existence for more than a decade.

The demolition of the Pruitt-Igoe complex was branded by Charles Jencks as the end of Modernism. Image Courtesy of US Department of Housing and Urban Development

The Green Star system began in 2003 by the Green Building Council of Australia and, similar to LEED accreditation in the US, architects are using the system as a tool for validation for their buildings, not just as a merit-based checklist for client approval. A 5-Star Green Star recognition signifies that the building has achieved “Australian Excellence”, and a 6-Star accolade achieves “World Leadership” in terms of sustainability measures. Architects, as well as the Green Building Council of Australia, subliminally promote the system as a method of validation as to their role in the construction process. The regulation set up by this independent subset exists in a reciprocal process: architecture, as a discipline, sets the target in order to chase it. In effect, the architect is slave to the objectifiable measures inherent within the system. Are we using these values to justify design and is this not simply a self-perpetuating bubble?

The observation is again not to discuss whether the increasing sustainability, planning and building controls are positive or negative – nor is it to justify the exclusion of style – but to understand the contradiction in these two systems and to underscore how architects now validate their work. Are objectifiable measures such as “Green Star-rated” and maximising “Net Lettable Area” overtaking the stylistic values of Mies’ “less is more”, Le Corbusier’s “machines for living”, or Venturi’s “less is a bore”? The New Radical Pragmatist is the identification of a strand of the conflicted architect in the contemporary discipline. As outlined, where more radical formal approaches are possible through advanced technology, and with a lack of style whereby ‘anything goes’, does it not follow that ever-increasing regulation and specialised subsets provides the constraint of pragmatism – and is this scenario actually oxymoronic?

The New Radical Pragmatist is meticulous in the appropriation of systems and factual data, so as to allow for outcomes to architectural problems. They embrace all forms of technological codification, planning and design-based policies, stratagem, regulations and economic constraints as the justification for design. They project manage and tick boxes. They play into the hand of the client by using buzzwords such as “Green Star”. A radically pragmatic architect will refrain from discussing the visual impact without fact; for example, the facade is “structurally efficient in its radical form as it only uses four different panel types made from recycled material”. Theory, conceptualisation and preconceived notions or retroactive research is not necessary to the radical pragmatist. What is important is the validation of fact. But this fact is commonly deriving from outside the discipline: from planning, from sustainability councils and from regulatory governing bodies. Which begs the question: are architects giving away too much in this new form of validation?

The Australian Design Review is an online design magazine representing two print magazines: Architectural Review Asia Pacific, and the interior design magazine Inside.

About this author
Cite: Marissa Looby. "Rise of The New Radical Pragmatist" 12 Dec 2013. ArchDaily. Accessed . <https://www.archdaily.com/454645/new-radical-pragmatism-the-21st-century-s-emerging-style> ISSN 0719-8884

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