Article (September 01, 2001)

Perhaps more than any other building types the retail shop and the restaurant are the most susceptible to changing fashion. Not only do stores and night spots use design to appeal to a particular clientele, they often represent some of the shortest-lived examples of architectural intervention; several cutting-edge interiors and storefronts published in this magazine over the last few years no longer exist.

As a result, retail shops and restaurants often serve as bellweathers of the latest stylistic trends in design, a subject that, Witold Rybczynksi reminds us in his most recent book, The Look of Architecture (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), “Architects don’t like to talk about.” For Rybczynski, however, “style is one of the enduring–and endearing–aspects of architecture.” He goes on to draw a parallel between styles of architecture and styles of dress, stating that “a building–no matter how useful or well built or beautiful–that is not sympathetic to the way that people dress risks looking not merely anachronistic, but downright silly. Like it or not, architecture cannot escape fashion.”

While there’s some truth in these statements–architecture certainly does not exist in a rarefied cultural vacuum–they fail to address the reason for which architects often bristle at such discussions of style: the tendency to reduce a complex artefact immersed in a cultural, social, economic and technological milieu to a series of formal operations.

To emphasize the importance of style, Rybczynski invokes The International Style: Architecture Since 1922 (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1932), Henry-Russell Hitchcock’s and Philip Johnson’s accompanying publication to the Museum of Modern Art’s 1932 exhibition of new architecture from Europe. Rybczynski describes how practitioners “bridled at being associated with something so trivial” as style, having their work reduced to a compendium of aesthetic elements such as “flat roofs, white rectilinear faades, and ship-railing balconies.” The author also cites the late 18th century roots of the Gothic Revival, using Horace Walpole’s Strawberry Hill as a seminal example of the emerging “taste for the romantic and picturesque.”

Ironically, both of these examples serve to illustrate the limitations of typical accounts of style. While the treatment of their respective architectures is not inaccurate, it is incomplete. In the case of The International Style, the early Moderns’ charged response to the complex political, economic and social forces in post-World War I Europe is largely missed in favour of an almost exclusively aesthetic discussion. Similarly, Rybczynksi’s reference to the Gothic Revival makes no mention of the larger context that contributed to the emergence of Romanticism: a reaction against Rationalism and its offshoot, industrialization. The evocation of a navely romanticized pre-industrial past, represented by an idealized Medievalism, came in part as a philosophical reaction to the “dark Satanic mills” of industrial Europe, and not simply as an aesthetic preference for ogive arches and rood screens over the cool neo-classicism of Robert and James Adam.

Rybczynski has a point when he says that “Architects are being nave in denying validity to the concept of style.” But contrary to Oscar Wilde’s assertion that “In matters of importance, style is everything,” in and of itself–as the transitory nature of stylish retail and restaurant establishments suggests–style is ephemeral. The real value of style lies not in its specific aesthetic manifestations, but in its role as a point of access, a portal to the philosophical underpinnings and the social and cultural mores that it represents. MP