Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Issue of Style in Architecture

History of Architecture I

The Evolution of Modern Architecture

By Alex Brown



the shift from the stylistic chaos of 19th century architecture to the pristine uniformity of the Early Modern Movement represents without doubt one of the most revolutionary events in the history of architecture; at least on a par with the emergence of the Renaissance. This development continued with the clarity of the High Modern itself disintegrating over time into a plethora of styles in the Postmodern period strangely reminiscent of the plural state of things in the 19th century. The speed of change in the 20th century has allowed us to watch at least some of these events unfold before our eyes.

This is the story of a complete cycle of architectural history - from stylistic fragmentation to unity to fragmentation again – and is the basis of the history presented here in the form of four papers. These papers: History of Architecture I – IV present a brief and hopefully concise history of architecture of the period from, roughly the middle of the 19th century, through Modernism to the late Postmodern period at the end of the millennium. The intention of the papers is to provide simple but accurate explanations for the events that took place, but also for the sometimes complex systemic forces that made them happen. For the same reason, the format of the paper is organized so that key issues are set out in point form for maximum clarity.

There have, of course been many other such histories usually developed along some fairly simple chronological line of tracing connections and ‘influences’ between the work of one group of architects and another. Other such histories inform the subject with social or technological explanations for change and development in architecture. The approach taken in these papers and which seeks to distinguishes this history from others stems from the use of two key concepts: ‘system’ and ‘style’. The points offered below summarize the use of these concepts in this history of architecture.

a) The Systems Perspective on Architecture

The ‘systems’ point of view explains the radical architectural changes that took place during this time as a systemic effect of collective activities, namely the exchange and communication of ideas and experience between many architects over long periods of time. Essentially a ‘system’ is group of individual agents in close and continuous communication between one another. Each one of these agents adapts his behaviour to match the state of the others. Change and evolution is a product of collective adaptation in response to changes in the environment.

b) The Application of Evolutionary Theory to Architecture

The approach taken here is fundamentally evolutionary and takes the following definition as its source: “Evolution is the process whereby new species emerge from existing species by a selective recombination of the characteristics of the existing species as expressed in changing environments”. Architectural styles in this case providing a metaphor for biological species in the sense that they do not appear spontaneously at random points in history but are continuous developments of existing styles. The motive force for these developments is the system adapting to changing environments. Also as an evolutionary theory, it naturally requires a form of cumulative selection or filtering of failed or successful experiments. In biological terms this is called natural selection. The selection process ultimately defines the kind of adaptations which can take place and the characteristics of future forms. In architecture selection takes place in the normal communication and exchange of experience between architects. Architects select and combine forms from other architects work. Similarly communication and exchange between architects also acts as a mechanism for passing successful adaptations to new generations as a typical set of forms available for combination and recombination. As in all evolutionary systems, architectural forms are subject to cumulative selection by their practitioners producing in some circumstances a convergence of behaviour around a preferred set of forms. – a style.

c) The Significance of the Concept 'Style'

The other key conceptual element in this history is that of the ‘architectural style’. It is at this collective level of architectural organization (as against that of the individual work of architecture ) that one can clearly see the changes taking place from one period to another and from one architecture to another. The style is a set of conventional elements selected out over time from a mass of individual solutions to design problems and which act as the memory of the system and the repertoire from which future designs can be based. The style can be ‘seen’ in the similarity of forms between a large number of buildings. In the same way a style acts as a constraint on new design work by providing the most semantically (and technically) probable solutions derived as they are from collective experience over time. In deviating from the norms provided by a prevailing style, architects take a risk that the resulting building may be unintelligible in architectural terms.

d) Convergence of Behaviour - the Evolution of Styles

Through a collective exchange of experience the preferred set emerges as the prevailing architectural style and constrains future selections. It does not however stay as a fixed set of characteristics. Continuous communication and exchange between architects and the individual selection and combination of forms produces a continuous but gradual change in the characteristics of the style over time. The overall dynamic within the architectural system comes from the continuous activity required in the building of new buildings. So too changes in the socioeconomic environment (other institutions which architecture will represent as buildings) require adaptations in architectural form. The introduction of new building types would be an example of the need for adaptation in architectural form. The key point is this, that the ‘style’ at any given point is simply a ‘snapshot’ of a continuous evolving process in architecture – its history. The corollary to this is the recognition that there is no original set or style from which all others have developed.

e) Stylistic Choice – Between one and Many

During some periods in the history of architecture there seem to be many stylistic answers to the same design problem or, alternately one preferred answer to many different problems. This variation in the degree of stylistic choice available to architects in selecting appropriate forms for their buildings produces considerable semantic problems in design. For instance, if there are many equal possibilities, why choose one or the other? What is the stylistic means of representing the common elements of social experience. If other architects are solving the same problems using different stylistic means, then what is the validity of any one of them? Equally, in conditions where there is only one preferred style, the following question is implied: how is it possible to reflect the whole of human experience with a single formula? In this case the tendency is to try to break out of this singular trap and more freely express the diversity of experience.

One of the functions of the architectural style is to provide a risk-free template for future action which combines both flexibility and a coherent order. That is, a single stylistic formula which can authentically represent many different situations. Failing this ideal condition, the problems of meaning and expectation described above place the validity of the template at risk. Architects must resolve the ensuing ambiguities, uncertainties or stereotyping of architectural form using secondary compositional or decorative techniques. Decyphering these coded messages becomes one of the main functions of architectural criticism.

These various system-evolutionary ideas are more fully developed in other theoretical articles. (See ‘Architecture as System’, ‘Architecture as Evolution’, So too the linguistic and psychological analogies used in the text. For the moment however these ideas merely form a conceptual background to what is intended to be a fairly direct explanation of the history of the period. Note, the intention of this paper is explanatory. That is, it is not just a chronological list of events and characters. The paper seeks out the ‘Why’ of these events. Why certain things happened and others didn’t and the nature of the collective forces that bring about change.

The brief history offered here is, in one sense, an experiment to test the validity of the systems/evolutionary theory developed previously. It is a way of integrating the existing theory into an actual historical situation – the emergence of Modernism and its continuous transformation. It is also an attempt to write a history without heroes. That is, a history of the collective actions of many architects over long periods of time, or, to put it more succinctly – an evolutionary history.


In this paper much use is made of the word ‘style’. The concept of ‘style’ in architecture is usually treated somewhat superficially since it is now regarded as a matter of fashion, trend or the product of some ephemeral event. Before we can look at the historical developments put forward in this paper we must look at this key concept more thoroughly because it forms the analytical tool used for the exploration of this history of architecture.

Generally, at the collective or historical level, conventional analysis of architectures seems to be a matter of finding the ‘influences’ of one architect on many. (Note the undertones of Renaissance magic remain attached to the word, ‘influences’). Equally, the conventional approach to discussing individual works of architecture usually revolves around functional or technological criteria or on the architect’s skill in manipulating architectural elements. Where these elements come from, their origins or their use in many other architects work is seldom a matter of discussion. Presumably for most architectural explanations the answers to these questions lie in the mysterious realms of artistic genius. However, the concept ‘style’ provides us with a useful method of explaining these and many other aspects of architecture. We may note, for instance:

a) The Similarity between A Large Number of Buildings

Why many buildings with very different functions and locations end up looking remarkably similar? This seems to be treated as a coincidence or the product of avant-garde leaders influencing their followers. In fact these similarities show the very visible existence of architectural styles and their constraining effects on the production of a large number of buildings. Namely, that they share the same set of characteristics. This is an entirely measurable effect which easily allows us to identify the common elements, compositional rules and general characteristics which unite the form of so many buildings.

b) The Logical Status of the concept, Style

Architecture itself can only be recognized in the midst of a great number of building forms if those forms show a high degree of similarity to one another. A definition of architecture is that of a (stylistic) similarity between a large number of different buildings. So too, the only thing that allows us to identify, analyse or even discuss large scale events such as Classicism, Modernism, Baroque, Neo-Gothic, Chinese or whatever architecture is to recognize the existence of particular sets of shared characteristics - a style in other words – which united the form of many buildings. Without such a constraint, these buildings would be infinitely diverse in character. These are not abstract issues, but refer to distinct architectural elements used in numerous buildings.

c) Linguistic Analogies

Together with the concepts ‘style’ and’ system’, the other concept used in these papers is architecture as language. Since the functions and the locations of different buildings may be so different, the recognizable similarity between them and therefore our ability to classify them is clearly one of architectural language used. That is, one of a consistent vocabulary and a set of syntactic rules. It is the consistency of the stylistic language in use which allows us to recognize its presence in the midst of an infinite number (a ‘Babel’) of forms. While we may justifiably regard architecture as a means of communication, we may, by extension, regard each different style within architecture as a micro-language with its own vocabulary and grammar. Each of these style-languages is a rule-governed system which provides a not unlimited number of different ways of expressing the same things and events.

In this paper, the concepts of ‘style’ and ‘language’ are synonymous. Both involve a set of characteristic forms constrained by rules and subject to evolutionary pressures which require it to change over time.

Apart from observing the similarities mentioned above, it is also quite natural to ask how such a similarity could possibly arise given the fact that architecture is a collection of individual architects each seeking to solve unique problems. The emergence of a visible order, in this case a distinctive style - out of a very large number of events is convincingly explained by evolutionary theory applied to architecture. In looking into how and why these sets of forms come to exist and how they change over time is to describe the systemic, historical and, ultimately evolutionary forces which govern architecture.

d) Style as Physical Characteristics

Periodization and classification of architectural form are not therefore simply a matter of chronology nor ideology but of the identification of sets of shared physical and organizational traits. These provide what we might call the quantifiable ‘species characteristics’ of different architectures.

f) Style as a Design Template

The issue of style is more than just a matter of classification. While in one sense buildings are unique events in terms of the specific environmental, financial and technological conditions within which they are designed and the particular characteristics which they materialize, they are in no sense spontaneous creations utterly rooted in their particular circumstances. The architect quite deliberately selects and combines elements and arrangements from an available vocabulary of forms – a style - established by historical precedent and which, to a large extent or other determines the resulting design. Therefore the physical character of a work of architecture is derived from outside its circumstances – from a historically-defined language which represents it. So, while the building is indeed a product of particular events, its final form is not. It is impossible therefore to be completely original in the process of design any more than it is in written or spoken language. For a work to be completely original in this sense would also make it unintelligible. One is always limited by what has been done before and by the available languages. From this one can say that:

Style is the name for this collective design constraint which at the same time provides a repertoire of design possibilities.

Architects select from available stylistic repertoires in order to create new buildings. These buildings represent the form of various social institutions in particular locations. How well a building represents an institution both symbolically and functionally, depends to some extent on the prevailing stylistic choice available to the architect for that task, (and of course his skill in manipulating these forms to suit).

g) Summary of the Concept of Style

we can summarize the issue of style in the following manner:

a) A style is a set of typical forms and arrangements shared by a group of buildings within a distinct geographical area and time span.

b) Style provides the repertoire from which architects select and combine forms into particular buildings which represent certain building programs/institutions.

c) The design process (selection and combination of forms) is constrained by the available number and relative importance of the various styles which exist During a particular period.

d) There are periods when there are lots of styles to choose from and there are times when such choices are limited to a single dominant style.

e) If architects are limited in their ability choose forms adequate to the task of representing some building program, or other, what do they do? How do they compensate when stylistic resources are limited. Or, on what basis can they select appropriate forms for buildings from a range of equally-valid styles.

f) For architects, the key issue in the design process is to achieve an appropriate 3-dimensional representation/expression of an institution/building program at a particular time and place. That is, a building which in spatial/formal terms is a physical metaphor of the group of activities which form the institution. Clearly the stylistic resources available to the architect are of major importance in this respect. It acts as a preset vocabulary for the selection/combination process of design.

g) If styles act as both templates and constraints on architectures, how do they change and adapt to new circumstances? How do styles emerge or become extinct?

h) Styles emerge over time through the communication and exchange of experience between a large number of architects. The selection and combination process used by many architects acts as cumulative selection filter on architectural forms.

i) Of course one can say that there is always more than one style available to architects of any period. There can never literally be just a single style in existence at any one time. This is true of course, but equally one can say that in certain periods while there may be several styles in existence at any time, one style might be the dominant or preferred mode for designing buildings during that period.

j) It is in such periods of increasing uniformity that we get the great canonical styles: Modernism, Classicism in its various forms, High Gothic or Islamic. During these times most buildings will be designed according to the canons of that style and will use typical elements drawn from that style. In other, more diverse times, architects will select architectural elements from a number of different and equally valid styles.

This very visible change between diversity or uniformity of expression and between quite distinct sets of traits which we call styles, provides a more useful and concrete way of analyzing the history of architecture and of more succinctly and accurately identifying its various periods and the rise and fall of different styles.

Ultimately of course, looking at it this way also provides a way of looking at the mechanisms which bring about these change.

Using the concepts outlined above as guidelines we can now look at the historical events of the 19th and 20th century architectures.



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