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Chaos, Innovation and Architecture

Innovation happens, but when and how? The answer can be tied to the thinking of the individual architect—think up something new and build it. The answer can also be tied to innovation in other fields—a new material or a new structural theory that makes it possible to build something that has never before been built. These are both what can be called innovation on a tactical level that is unpredictable and often unexpected.
    What if we pull back and take a strategic view of architecture and innovation in our culture? From this wider vantage point, the landscape looks very different. The look and feel of our buildings tend to evolve over time. Styles (which is a dirty word in architecture, but useful at this moment) often develop as an outgrowth of other styles. They evolve and change, becoming more or less popular and, in many cases, never entirely disappearing.
    For example, the popularity of Classical architecture has a specific beginning in America—Thomas Jefferson’s design for the Virginia State Capital, which was based on a small Roman temple that Jefferson admired, the Maison Carrée at Nîmes, France. As a style, Classicism remains in use today.
    When you take a strategic view of this evolution, there are points of inflection where change accelerated, and in a matter of only a few years, everything changed. In architecture, revolutionary change and chaos are invariably tied together. Turmoil in any culture seems to be the mother of invention.
    Looking back to the middle of the 20th century, compare architecture in 1932, when the effect of the Depression truly took hold, to architecture in 1948, when the first post-war buildings were completed. In the ‘20s, the dominant styles were Classical, Gothic and Picturesque. After the war, the nation as a whole searched for new approaches to design, and Modernism became the accepted style for virtually all public buildings and even many houses. Considering the dislocations caused by the economic turmoil of the ’30s, combined with the social dislocations of the war and the passing of 16 years when there was very little construction, the fact that people did not want to return to the look and feel of the buildings of 1932 is not surprising. What is surprising is the swiftness with which this change occurred at two other points in our history.
    The first revolutionary shift in American architecture occurred between 1861 and 1865, during the Civil War. Prior to the war, a wide variety of picturesque styles from Europe were dominant, including Classicism, Georgian and Italianate styles, among others. After the war, the theories of John Ruskin and William Morris became the basis of a more rigorous approach to architectural design. Ruskin advocated a more structural, expressive approach to design, while Morris promoted looking to nature as a source for inspiration. Surprisingly, the major architects before the war did not build after the war, and the important post-war architects, such as H.H. Richardson and Louis Sullivan and the other architects of the Chicago School, did not build before the war. The swiftness of this transformation is perhaps a measure of the chaos of this period.
    Similarly, we have the Vietnam War, roughly the period between 1965 and the major escalation and Kent State in 1970. Prior to 1965, the dominant style was mid-20th century Modernism, the style that had been ushered with the end of WWII. By 1970, however, what has been loosely defined as post-Modernism was dominating the architectural press and would soon dominate in the popular press. Post-Modernism was never really a singular approach to design. It was instead any approach that wasn’t Modern—we had entered the anti-Modern period.
    Individual architects certainly drive innovation and change, but innovation often isn’t accepted until there’s a cultural shift. Rudolf Schindler and Richard Neutra, two modern architects practicing in southern California, struggled in the ’30s and were only recognized as innovators in the ’50s. Innovation can also be driven by technology, but the glass and steel technologies used to construct the modern buildings of the ’50s were widely available much earlier.
    Time brings this strategic view into focus. Architecture and everything else is undergoing a revolutionary change today. The two wars in Iraq are for all but a few invisible, but it’s not the wars that are causing this period of revolutionary change—it’s the chaos, the turmoil and the dislocation of everyone and everything, the separation of the future from the past.
    It can be argued that it is a split decision. Part of the country is trying to hold back the future, rejecting change, rejecting the new architecture. Meanwhile, the other half (and there is no census that can measure this) continues to embrace the future and an architecture that is innovative, making a break from the past. And there is no end in sight. o

Published: October 14, 2007
Issue: November 2007