I have come to believe that everyone has their own personal style. For me, I realized long ago that I was a modernist at heart. There is something about the volumetric treatment of a building’s form and its clean, simple detailing that makes me feel content.
When I was young, I did not sketch the prototypical gabled house with smoking chimney. The houses I drew looked nothing like that, nor the brick four-over-four farmhouse that I was raised in. As I grew and progressed in my trade, I readily adopted the modernist dogma in entirety – what was old was bad and what was new and modern was, by its very nature, good. But, like the world before me, I reached a point when I began to question this broad-brushed approach to life and design.
My blind devotion to modernism had turned me into a fanatic, and like most fanatics, I missed the forest for the trees. Now, I realize that crown molding does nothing to lessen the beauty of a simple floor plan, and that a gable is simply an efficient way to shed rain water and structure a roof. Don’t mistake me, nothing beats the beauty of the modernist approach to thinking about design – I use it for all my ‘traditional’ creations!
It was with this affection to modern architecture that I eagerly arrived in Barcelona, Spain – the home of Antoni Gaudi and the 1992 summer Olympics, and a mecca for architects around the world.
As I walked the streets of the city, I absorbed the architectural fabric of its urban streetscape. Slowly, I began to realize a surprising reaction rising within me, a disdain for the modern interloper within the historic canyon face of Barcelona’s octagonal city blocks. The true pleasure to me of being there was walking the streets and observing the infinite variations of the tightly pressed architectural facades, but I noticed that my pace quickened when I found myself in front of a ‘modern’ building.
Surprised by my subconscious reaction, I set out to analyze its cause. It soon became obvious that the main issue was quite simple – their lack of humanity. But what, you may ask, do I mean by that?
I found there was a stark difference between the traditional and modern façades as they stood shoulder-to-shoulder. Comparably speaking, the modern façade lacked ‘detail’, or visual distraction (excitement, if you prefer). Their scale was not one of the human passing by on the street but of the city block as a whole. Quite often there was a lack of materiality, or more specific ‘natural’ materiality. And due to their ‘manufactured’ materials, they seemed to age more poorly than their neighbors, which were well over a hundred years older!
To be clear, not all of the modern building turned me off. I found several examples that I enjoyed. In my inquisitive state, I realized that these building were all set apart so that they felt more like a three-dimensional sculpture instead of a tightly-pulled canvas of a flat façade. These buildings allowed for the play of light and shadow across their face. They mixed material, pattern, and transparency. But, to truly stand out, they had to stand apart.
Now, before you throw modernism under the bus, it should be clearly stated that the earlier examples of modern architecture were not necessarily ‘good’ examples of modern design. But therein lies the real rub, as the traditional buildings were not necessarily what I would call ‘good’ examples of traditional design.
The problem with modern design, and why I feel it has not swayed the world to fully embrace it, is that it is so darn easy to do it badly. To be fair, that is the same with traditional design these days as well – but, historically, it was hard to make a ‘bad’ looking building. The standard structural techniques prevented facades from being out of scale. Before steel came along, you could only build a building so high, or make an opening so big. This forced it to stay within the basic scale of the humans that resided within it. Their material palettes, as well, were controlled by what was available – wood, stone, clay brick, sand and stucco. These are all materials readily visible in the natural world around us, thus making the buildings feel at home in their environment.
Modernity changed everything. It created a clear break from the methodical evolution of the past and opened up a world of infinite possibility to us all. Unfortunately, infinite possibilities is non-specific, i.e. there are just as many bad possibilities as good – probably even more. For this reason we must take care with the choices we make. We should not cower from the new and ‘modern’, but we should be thoughtful on our approach and critical of the results.