This article in yesterday’s Chronicle of Higher Education on “old” and “new” architectural styles on college campuses got me thinking. Or rather, it touched on something I’ve already been thinking about quite a lot: why are older styles appealing? It’s a huge question, but one I am currently boiling down to domestic decoration in the Roman world, especially in terms of sculpture collections, in my research.
Lawrence Biemiller’s article on university architecture gets at the issues of stylistic eclecticism and of integrity in period style, questioning why campuses like the University of Virginia really need their basketball arena to look like Monticello. He wonders whether it is possible to do “good Gothic” architecture in the 21st century and if honesty matters. This second query he ties to design plagiarism and lack of originality. Yikes.
But retrospective styles are everywhere in our culture. And are everywhere in many other periods from antiquity on. We’ve got to go beyond acknowledging the existence of old-looking buildings and attempt to suss out the why, beyond such issues of venerating a great architect–e.g. Thomas Jefferson.
The patina system and Susan Stewart’s “heirloom” model certainly fit the bill when attempting to understand why we continue to go back to older styles. It really might be as simple as a desire to evoke distant golden ages. The psychological, chronological, and geographic distance between 21st-century America and, say, Elizabethan England glosses over the negative aspects of the older period. We forget how cold & smelly a Gothic castle might have been, preferring to highlight the positive associations.
The positive associations of older styles in architecture can also extend to the nuances of “old money” or venerable ancestry. In this respect, it might be even more apparent why a university might choose a retrospective style over a modern one for a new building. Red-brick walls with classical design features (with or without ivy) recall elite campuses. Glass-and-steel buildings evoke…what, exactly? Maybe I’m too much in antiquity, but it is difficult to associate Machado & Silvetti’s work at Bowdoin with clear concepts or allusions. Is that the point? Choose your own adventure (in architecture)?
As to why campuses should have concinnity in their buildings… I’m not really a fan of it. Although the Modernist houses at my alma mater were widely reviled when I was a student there, I felt that the stylistic eclecticism on campus also showed the history of the school. (Or at least I recognize that now.) The amalgamation of all these styles can also demonstrate venerable ancestry, in a way that I can’t imagine a ready-made and consistent Gothic-style campus can (with all due respect to my new employer). Stylistic heterogeneity can give us a sense of place, of the passing of time as well.
And speaking of historic architectural gloss, get a load of this home in the Philippines:
How would Machado & Silvetti enjoy being referred to as “epic portico fail”?