“In architecture, Style plays a very peculiar role that it does not have in other arts. In the other arts the style simply depends on the artist, it’s something for themselves in front of themselves, but in architecture this cannot happen, as the architect has a different relationship with their profession from that of the other artists – since architecture is not a ‘ exclusively personal art but a collective art. Architecture is at the service of society. “Caprice” in architecture must not exist.” 1
In our day we often hear topics related to the terms of “style” and “trend”, but what are these if not a tangle of principles that define a common doctrine?!
If we contextualise the word “style” inside architecture, we would promptly start thinking about its history, the various architectural styles that have followed one another since the beginning of time until the last century.
When it comes to defining the style of this century we live in, we venture definitions that are not without uncertainties.
Are we facing a profound identity crisis? Or is talking about styles, rigid paradigms, an obsolete concept now, as they would bend us to a series of formal principles?
Before investigating the question of contemporary style, or “non-style”, I think it is important to make a clarification and separate this definition from the aesthetic theme, as the two realities are not in contrast.
Since we are dealing with distinct entities working on different levels, the failure to define the former does not necessarily coincide with the denial of the latter.
Style in architecture constitutes compositional rules, qualitative and functional standards. A famous example is, without doubts, Le Corbusier’s Five Points of Architecture, defined with the aim of producing a paradigm, a method applicable in series to make good architecture.
Any architectural trend, which would be, over the centuries, labelled with a name that will legitimise its existence, is only an attempt towards a methodological research, addressing all housing problems; whether they are constructive, urban, energetic or simply aesthetic. Therefore Style arises later as a reaction to a need.
Architecture, as Vitruvius called it, is a perfect balance of Firmitas, Utilitas and Venustas2. Principles of solidity (therefore duration), utility and beauty.
The question comes spontaneously: do today’s architectures still respect these criteria or is the previous definition now outdated?
Architecture, before its artistic component, which defines its aesthetic features, has a functional component that must necessarily be preserved and pursued during the entire design process. Just think about the archetype of the house: the Primitive Hut arises from the humans need to protect themselves by building a refuge.
The relationship between typology and function, between image and purpose, was easily understood at one time, the two parts linked by a close correlation, inseparable and joint. Today this relationship is under discussion.
“Composition” has always been a recurring term in Architecture, understood as (as per “putting together” or “union of elements to produce something new”.
Architectural composition, still current and widely debated in university classrooms, seems to have reduced to a mere abstraction in today’s practice, obscured by new design methods.
The advent of three-dimensional modelling as an aid to design has generated a series of a cascade of events leading to a new approach, characterized by greater freedom and the definitive overcoming of architectural orders, already outclassed in the twentieth century.
Today’s architecture is Parametric, based on a series of mathematical rules, algorithms that link the three-dimensional elements together and make the designer free to vent their creativity by bending the construction problems in favour of aesthetics.
Rationalism and organicism merge into an “unicum” without either of the two trends being recognizable.
The phenomenon of the Starchitects and the desire to amaze with spectacular, self-referential, decontextualized and futuristic constructions, that in some cases deny the very concept of beauty, have been supported by the aid of these new technologies and seem to be just some of the reasons behind the crisis in which we find ourselves immersed, whether we like to define it a crisis.
We could interpret this situation as an experiment, without demonizing it, as happens when we face something that is not understood, and realise it is nothing more than an attempt to express the essence of our era.
Architecture is the reflection of the society that generates it, today we live in a period of impetuous transformation, so pressing that we lose the battle and are distanced by it, as this transformation goes beyond us without allowing us to decode what is happening around and within us.
The decline of the “architectural style” has its roots in something deeper, consolidated in the essential investigation of human identity. This consideration only highlights the lack of unity of purpose, on an artistic-architectural level, indicative of a profound crisis inherent in contemporary man. Perhaps we have reached a point where it is difficult to describe ourselves in a univocal and rational way.
By simplifying the problem, we could leave posterity the task of defining the style of the 21st century since being an integral part of this process of change, it is not possible to grasp it in its entirety and complexity.
It might make sense instead, to speak of intents rather than styles, of objectives to be pursued in the design linked to a reflection on the role of architecture in the places of everyday life.
Without dwelling on issues to which we are shyly approaching such as environmental sustainability, energy, reuse, limitation of soil consumption.vThe crux of the matter should be to bring human and social need back to the center of attention regardless of the search for one univocal style linked to a single image. Renewal today cannot be limited to a question of form.
Renewal today cannot be limited to a question of form. In a context of urbanization, of cities already built, saturated, decaying. Finding solutions to problems is in itself a creative act.
The architect has the arduous task of linking past and present with interventions that fit together in history and bring an active transformation, proposing the new while respecting the old. There are exemplary cases of architecture that is grafted into the built by contrast, with a style that we are not always able to define, but which generates a spark of renewal.
Perhaps we will be defined as self-referential cynics, but the problem is not the lack of a recognizable stylistic current but rather the inability to find the right size, the right grace with interventions that do not distort the place by denying any relationship but that generate tension and a dialectical relationship with context, history and man.
Exceeding on a whim only multiplies the problems without solving them, rather by decentralizing them, creating situations of distributive confusion and saturated with futuristic and sterile architectures that do not really improve the place.
The attractive poles are necessary and positive but an entire city constituted by landmarks is not a city, it is a set of dissonant architectures, comparable to a museum exhibition without any logical and relational connection between the works of art, without hierarchies in a denial of overall harmony.
Translated into English by Gabriele Agus.
1 José Ortega y Gasset, La felicità e la tecnica, sullo stile in Architettura, in Mediazioni sulla felicità, Sugarco Edizioni, Gallarate (VA),1994, pp. 166-170.
2 Marco Virtuvio Pollione, De Architettura, 80- 15 a.C.
– Antonio Crobe, Il nuovo e il vecchio. Riflessioni sul dibattito attuale per un possibile dialogo (tutto italiano), inarCASSA Trimestrale della Cassa Nazionale di Previdenza ed Assistenza Ingegneri ed Architetti Liberi Professionisti, Roma, 2011.