Does Architecture Still Inspire?

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Tuesday, September 29th, 2015
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Architecture is losing its ability to inspire people, according to architects Stewart Hicks and Allison Newmeyer.

In a recent article in Metropolis, they claimed that a focus on “the bottom line” is driven by the education system, with the result that, “Buildings are no longer the medium through which people imagine new worlds or cultural movements.”

Their solution is for architects to treat buildings as “more than static objects,” instilling them with character. The authors give examples in their book, Mis-Guided Tactics for Propriety Calibration,  calling their work a “manifesto” that focuses on the US Midwest and buildings such as the “World’s Only Corn Palace” and the Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame & Museum.

These buildings are located in small towns “with no particular identity, surrounded by farmland.” The buildings themselves, however, “write new narratives for their surroundings by reframing and celebrating the everyday. Buildings like these should influence architects everywhere.

CornPalace

Is the “everyday” approach a valid path to inspirational architecture? It’s certainly an interesting exercise to compare, say, the Corn Palace to Zaha Hadid’s Tokyo Olympic Stadium design. The proposed stadium design was inspirational in a sense; it inspired outrage and a robust backlash, resulting in the Japanese government scuttling the design.

The Corn Palace, however, is a one-of-a-kind structure designed to attract attention; how does it celebrate the everyday?

The appreciation for the everyday structure, at least those that are beautiful, well-crafted, and functional, is understandable. Not everything can be grandiose, after all. But more ambitious designs can also inspire, and can draw people out of their entrenched ways of thinking and seeing. Some are even quite functional, in addition to being visually stunning. Sydney’s iconic Opera House comes to mind.

Likewise, Daniel Libeskind’s 2006 expansion of the Denver Art Museum, for example, the Frederic C. Hamilton building, is a smashing success, inspirational as well as functional, and striking in appearance.

Denver_Art_Museum

In contrast, mid-century modern architecture has left its avant-garde status behind and is now the default style in many upscale areas. It’s now de rigeur. Like it or not, it’s better than the dreadful “McMansion” style, and offers a much-needed alternative to vernacular style. What was once avant-garde is now the everyday style. Does it inspire? At the very least, it has raised the bar for design in general, as there seems to be a greater appreciation for the intrinsic value of creative, cohesive design. Just a few years ago, fake dormers were ubiquitous and maximizing square footage took precedence over design considerations .

Remember Frank Gehry’s testy comment when he was asked about practicing “showy architecture?” He responded that,“98 per cent of everything that is built and designed today is pure s***.”

It’s easy to lump Gehry’s work into the showy category, and possibly some of it goes into the “98 per cent” category, but some of it surely does inspire. Perhaps we can find some overlap between “showy architecture” and architecture that maintains the ability to inspire.

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