Railways administration building, Spencer St

Many Australians admire old buildings like the Windsor and Parliament House, so I’m a little surprised there’re so few new commercial and public buildings with the elaborate decoration and classical references common in nineteenth century buildings. I was schooled in the modernist tradition so I don’t personally regret this absence all that much, but that doesn’t mean I’m not intrigued why there’s so little of it. Here are a couple of conjectures:

The first and probably obvious reason is that high labour costs mean highly wrought decoration simply isn’t affordable anymore. Modernism had to be invented after WW1 because historical styles were simply getting too expensive to emulate. Nowadays, workers with the requisite skills and artistic talent can get better pay and/or status in other areas. Artisans have been crowded out of the building industry by “new” industries like film, theatre, commercial design, media, advertising and, more lately, the web.

But with contemporary technology like CNC machines and the ability to import prefabricated components from low labour cost countries, this isn’t such a convincing explanation anymore. If there’s demand for greater visual complexity, a country like China – which has plenty of flamboyant modernist buildings – could be using its low cost base to construct buildings rich in decoration. These wouldn’t necessarily need to hark back to earlier periods, they might simply celebrate ornamentation and embellishment.

Another reason could be that large organisations are simply not as prepared to invest in the public domain – provide a positive externality – as they were a century ago. Expectations of proper civic behaviour might be much lower now than they were then. As mentioned here by Ajay Shah, companies and governments now have many other ways of signalling their wealth, power and prestige and accordingly don’t have to rely so much on buildings as a key form of communication.

Yet that argument isn’t entirely convincing either. Major buildings are more spectacular in form and scale than they’ve probably ever been (not least in China) – there seem to be an infinite supply of new architectural feats that apparently defy the laws of physics and mechanics (‘feat-urism’?). There still seems to be plenty of demand for buildings that put a lot of effort into how they look to outside observers — it seems like every city in the world wants a gleaming new art musuem designed by Frank Gehry.

Maybe it’s something far more prosaic. With so much demand for daylight and so much low cost glass, perhaps there’s simply not enough surface area to invite decoration or to effectively use the rigid stylistic forms of yore. Or maybe the classical forms are so functionally limiting that the empowered contemporary users of today’s buildings aren’t prepared to tolerate any of the compromises to comfort and utility than nineteenth century users endured as a matter of course.

I can’t of course omit mention of architects. Working within the conventions of a fixed style would be anathema to an ethos that favours the perpetual search for difference and novelty. For a while there Postmodernism picked up some of the forms of historical architecture and combined them with modern elements, but it was still self-consciously modern. Builders provide home owners in the suburbs with houses garnished with period features, but architects don’t do reproductions.

The modernist architectural “style” is a broad and flexible idea that was underpinned by fundamental changes in technology and society – perhaps that explains better than anything else why it has endured for a 100 years.