Architecture has long been a profession in aesthetic apartheid. The profession’s favored aesthetic, Modernism, has relegated all other “styles” to marginalized insignificance in laud, teaching and publication. The last generation has seen those following an aesthetic deemed “traditional” create an entirely separate system of schools, awards and publication.
Within each of them, all of the arts have essential divisions in their fundamental outlooks, precluding the inclusion of different views, making the democratization of each art impossible. In architecture two worlds have been set in mutual exclusion, creating an aesthetic apartheid that prevents democratization.
Architecture has never had cultural consensus. It is a cliché to cite “Style Wars” as a shallow battle between fashions, but the loud universality of the Internet has enflamed division everywhere, in almost every social reality, including architecture.
A few years ago, James Curl wrote Making Dystopia: The Strange Rise and Survival of Architectural Barbarism that inspired critic David Brussat to note: “The book will not just rattle the cage of modern architecture, it will shake modern architecture to its foundation, and speed the collapse of a cult that has the world by the throat.” The rancor of the moment caused starchitect Frank Gehry, a champion of the Modernist aesthetic to say “There is a backlash against me and everyone who has done buildings that have movement and feeling.”
A few architecture schools, like Notre Dame, are fully dedicated to Classical Architecture in its pedagogy, excluding Modernist sensibilities in design. There are now “separate but equal” publications that give voice to a “traditional” minority view. Effectively, two worlds have been set in opposition to each other. Just like MSNBC and Fox News are isolated worlds, Architect Magazine, Traditional Building Magazine, virtually never critique the same building. When seeking recognition, the Palladio Awards show traditional buildings and the Pritzker Prize lauds Modernist work. Local AIA associations are now creating parallel competitions with the style apartheid rigidly imposed upon what is qualified to enter what competition
Architecture never leads, it always follows the culture in reflecting who we are and what we value. At this season, America is fraught with anger and fear about the “end of democracy”, independent of any political belief. Some think the last presidential election was fraudulent, despite all evidence. Others think that new election laws prevent voter participation. I think architecture has devolved to have similar blind allegiances to exclusive prejudices.
The national political anger has found its way into our culture. The results of an October 2020 National Classical Architecture Society (NCAS) sponsored Harris Poll to assess Americans’ preferred architecture for federal buildings shows about 30% of Americans prefer Modern architecture, while 70% favor Traditional architecture. Rather than see architecture as a quilt of complementary varieties, or a stew of spicey contrast, the NCAS saw it as a determining vote, that proved the illegitimacy of Modernism.
It is easy to reject the “other” – and the “other” is anyone who disagrees with you. If democratization was a core value in architecture, the field’s institutions and venues would have every type of aesthetic in every issue, competition, class, and conference, just as there was for a brief decade forty years ago when Post Modernism had a moment of consideration in all the venues that are now editorially, academically and institutionally “pure” in prejudicial exclusion. Legally we have determined that “separate but equal” is inherently immoral in America, but not in our culture.
Thomas Jefferson may have started modern democracy in the U. S. Constitution with the words “We The People…” but a hundred years later Rudyard Kipling wrote “Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet.” Democratization in architecture is impossible unless tolerance and contrast are embraced by the institutions we create.
This article is part of the ArchDaily Topics: Democratization of Design. Every month we explore a topic in-depth through articles, interviews, news, and projects. Learn more about our ArchDaily topics. As always, at ArchDaily we welcome the contributions of our readers; if you want to submit an article or project, contact us.