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Why don't we build in historical styles?

It might be hard to believe but this isn’t an historic building that’s been saved from the wrecking ball and retro-fitted for a new life. It’s actually a brand-new building (s


New "old" building in Tianjin (Source: Skyscraper City)

It might be hard to believe but this isn’t an historic building that’s been saved from the wrecking ball and retro-fitted for a new life. It’s actually a brand-new building (see exhibit).

If developers proposed something like this in Barangaroo or Docklands I suspect they’d be pilloried by intellectual and aesthetic elites. It’d likely be dismissed as kitsch – an “inferior, tasteless copy of an extant style of art or a worthless imitation of art of recognized value.”

But I reckon their effort would be appreciated by the masses. There’s something about tradition people like. It’s not just history – they’re also drawn to qualities like complexity, intimate scale, detail, richness, elaboration and non-abstract meaning.

This building’s in Tianjin. It’s not a one-off, though. There’re hundreds more proposed and recently constructed buildings around the world that’re designed in historic styles. Not only in China but in many other countries too.

Go here and you’ll find a lengthy catalogue of buildings (24 pages to date) that show fidelity in design and materials to historic styles. They’re not slavish copies of particular buildings in most cases but they’re hard to pick as new construction by anyone who’s not an expert.

Personally, I was brain-washed in modernism and I doubt I’ll ever be fully accepting of historicism at a visceral level. But I can still see the appeal.

I don’t see why some new buildings and streetscapes can’t be in historic styles, even slavishly historic ones. After all, most people really, really like them.

Modernism was the product of a host of profound social, economic and technological changes. It was a reaction to the ideas and turmoil of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

It’s getting on in years now though. The Robie House was designed in 1906. The Schröder House was built in 1924 and the Barcelona Pavilion in 1929. Construction of Villa Savoye started in 1928.

A lot has happened in the course of the last 80-100 years. For example, we’ve seen communism come and (mostly) go, great advances in equality of opportunity, and breathtaking technological advances like mass air travel and ubiquitous computing & communications.

Just why, after such a long period, so many architects refuse to countenance historic styles at all isn’t clear to me. The circumstances of today are so different from early last century that I don’t see the intellectual justification anymore for outright rejection.

I’ve canvassed possible explanations before for why we don’t see new buildings in historic styles, or even highly-ornamented buildings, anymore. The possibilities discussed in that post and, as usual, in the associated well-informed comments, include:

  • The high cost of designing, constructing and maintaining elaborately detailed and ornamented structures;
  • Corporations and governments have other less expensive ways to ‘signal’ to their customers;
  • The demand to look “modern”;
  • Requirement for large glass areas and functional requirements that don’t lend themselves to historic styles;
  • The constraints on architects of designing within the confines of a fixed architectural style.

While these explanations are satisfying up to a point, they don’t tell the whole story. They can’t fully explain why we don’t see at least some buildings in historic or traditional styles, or with rich ornamentation and elaborate detail, or that have multiple literal meanings.

It’s really remarkable that something so many people like doesn’t happen in Australian cities (incidentally, I’m not talking about post-modern “references” here). However the catalogue I linked to at the start suggests there might be change in the wind.

That shouldn’t be surprising because modernism only occupies a relatively short period in the history of architecture. I don’t expect modernism’s going away and I wouldn’t personally want it to, but I think there’s room for historic styles of architectural expression.


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13 thoughts on “Why don’t we build in historical styles?

  1. M Jeffreson

    I fully agree with the comments from Supermundane. The rise of modernism in the interwar period essentially resulted in the dropping of the thread of coherent urban form making that had extended from antiquity up until that point. Modernism introduced a fundamentally different understanding of the relationship between individual buildings and urban form. The building was celebrated primarily as an object to be experienced ‘in the round’, set against a neutral ground, whether this be a plaza or open space. When modern buildings are inserted into an urban environment informed by traditional urban design (most of inner Melbourne), they are designed to treat the urban context as a ‘ground’ against which they are contrasted. At times, there are token gestures to context, but the general intent is to highlight the new building against the setting.

    Traditional buildings were seen as building blocks of the urban environment, and form coherent urban walls framing contained urban spaces, whether these be streets or squares. The only buildings that were viewed in the round were those of civic, religious or in some cases commercial importance. In early suburban forms, freestanding houses were configured to create a dialogue between the building form and the garden setting, so here again the architecture was more a servant of urban form, rather than celebrated as an object in its own right.

    As noted by Supermundane, modernist philosophy explicitly rejected earlier forms of architecture and urban form making and advocated the concept of succession, where subsequent styles superceded earlier ones, rather than seeing various styles as design traditions with the capacity for ongoing development. However this resulted in the rejection of a rich tradition of urban form making as well. Unfortunately, most contemporary architecture is not compatible with good urban form. If you line up a set of ordinary traditional buildings you can get quite a rich urban environment (think of just about any of Melbourne’s older inner urban areas). If you line up a set of ordinary modernist object buildings, you get Docklands. The public recognizes this, there are good reasons why town planning controls such as Urban Character overlays and Heritage overlays exclusively seek to protect traditional urban forms, comprised of traditional buildings.

  2. Dudley Horscroft

    Michael James wrote “So the huge impediments against change are the public’s lack of stylistic discrimination, developer’s greed and modern building methods.” (5) Don’t knock the developer – he plans for what he thinks will sell. And surely the developer has his main sphere in the new suburb, whereas Alan’s article seems to be more related to the CBD or near-CBD major building. Here the problem is certainly the new building owner’s lack of discrimination, and the architect wanting to make a name for himself.

    I was unlucky enough to work in two buildings in Belconnen, one of which was the “Magenta” building, the other possibly the “Red” building. Part of a group of about 6, diamond in plan, which made for sheer awkwardness in arranging office space. In the first case, someone had decided ‘open plan’ was the only suitable arrangement. This meant bedlam with telephones ringing, people talking and general distraction. OK, this is always a fault of open plan offices, but it was exacerbated by the awkward shape. The second time in an identical floor plan we had a bit of input as the previous tenants had created separate offices, so we could use their general arrangement. We had a spine of enclosed offices down the middle for the higher ranks, the ‘hoi polloi’ were in near open plan offices around the outside. We had our quieter offices, they had the views and since the spine of offices separated the two open plan areas, they also had comparative quiet. But the architect probably got an award for the appalling design.

    You have shown us views of buildings where the architect has had free rein to produce a monstrosity, with sticky out bits and gaps here and there. An architect has to make a name for himself, and the only way to do that is to produce something daring, out of the ordinary, and convince the prospective building owner that this is the absolute peak of modern architecture. Witness the poorly designed Sydney Opera House, a good building to look at but not fit for purpose (it did not comply with the competition specifications). The architect who finds out what the client needs, and ensures that within the financial limitations he designs a building fit for purpose probably has a couple of paras on page 119 of “Architectural Review” – and he is lucky if he gets that.

    And that, Alan, is why you don’t get (many) buildings built in ‘historical’ styles.

  3. supermundane

    To add, I guess we’re in need of, and are by degrees beginning to develop as your post testifies to, a more nuanced view of ‘progressivism’ – one that doesn’t simply regard something as superior by virtue of it’s newness and novelty. One that humbly acknowledges our indebtedness to our collective ‘cultural memory’ and draws upon the wealth of human experience over the ages to understand what which simply works for human beings as they really are. It can be ‘progressive’ to draw on the past for lessons and that the past is in fact, living in us. We are indelibly shaped by what has gone before. This view isn’t a rejection of modernism, which has also defined us but rather an opportunity to see modernism in context, even if it loses some of its ‘purity’ in the process.

  4. supermundane

    Alan. Thanks. Apologies if I sounded too harsh in my comment – it came off harsher than I certainly intended. I very much enjoyed the article and agree with the sentiment. As trite and overused as the expression might be, our cities are in desperate need of finding the ‘human-scale’ (which includes often whimsical hand-made details). I very much enjoy your blog and find it, fantastic food for thought on the build environment.

    Walking around places like Rødeløkka (admittedly once a slum – www. flickr. com/photos/ikoen/6964595696/) in Oslo or Bath in the UK, I realise that our ancestors essentially hit upon the right elements for successful urban planning and design hundreds of years ago. There is something in the DNA of these places, which intuitively works.

    A final point to make. Architectural styles are not hermetically sealed entities. Local vernaculars and a range of cultural, social, technological, design and architectural influences will come into play. For some reason however, it strikes me that often the proponents of modernism wish to barricade the gates against any other architectural influence (and if they’re inspired by say a local vernacular they’re often reluctant to publicly admit it) for risk of being decried as ‘pastische’. The purity of the idea from the genius architect (often more marketing speak than reality after the developer has had his say) is to be celebrated rather than humble journeyman honing their craft.

    Good architecture needn’t consciously avoid say classical or baroque influence but rather should embrace it if it’s fit for purpose and if it’s executed well and it needn’t ditch appropriate modern techniques to achieve a false sense of authenticity. The Greeks built their temples out of solid marble but the Romans happily constructed a lot of their public buildings out of brick and concrete – only cladding them in a venner of marble. Today this would be decried but the theatrics of building is certainly nothing new and shouldn’t be dismissed.

    Personally I’d be delighted if a new Gaudi or Hundertwasser were let loose on Australian cities.

  5. Alan Davies

    Holden Back #3

    Good thing then that I’m not endorsing it as an example of “good” architecture! My youthful mind was also shaped/brainwashed by the likes of Pevsner.

    Supermundane #7

    Excellent and interesting point. That POV warrants further exposure and discussion.

    Melburnite #8

    Thanks for the info, very interesting stuff. I was thinking in terms of large buildings but that stuff’s relevant. And I haven’t spent much time around Toorak at any time.

  6. melburnite

    To answer your initial question Alan, some builders and even architects in Melbourne DO build in historical styles – have you driven around Toorak / Armadale area in the last 10 years ? There’s quite a lot of not bad Classical / Victorian / Georgian style large houses, and even some apartments – by ‘not bad’ I mean good interpretations of historical styles built with fidelity to material and detail – have a look at the work of Nicholas Day (http://www.nicholasday.com.au/base.php). There are also loads of not very good Mock-Georgian and even more ‘French Provincial’ large houses complete with gilded wrought iron balustrades that owe a lot more to US house designs that anything actually French. And then in the suburbs – middle, next ring and even outer – where not so good Georgian / Tuscan and Victorian and Edwardian styles abound. So they do exist.

    But perhaps you are talking about public and commercial buildings, and certainly I cant think of any of this type built in an authentic historic style. But then we luckily have plenty of the originals.

  7. supermundane

    Decent article. I do have a problem with it however, in that it tacitly accepts the assumptions of modernism in arguing for greater architectural diversity. The assumption is that modernism currently rests at the pinnacle of a progressive narrative – a linear and unyielding vector which necessarily brought about modernism, rendering all previous movements and local vernaculars anachronistic.

    However this way of thinking about architecture or indeed about ourselves (the grand progressive narrative that seems to be implicit in so much discourse about society, morals, technology et al) is itself a product of our age (say the last 120 years) and would have been completely alien to the Victorians for instance, who for instance, had no qualms about reviving Medieval Gothic and making it a confident and definitive expression of their age. Take St Pancras Station in London for example; a grand Victorian Gothic edifice, which the intricacies of scale and craftsmanship, which delight us and yet a powerful and wholly contemporary (for the time) expression of confidence in the cutting technology of the age – the steam engine. The building incorporated the latest technologies into it’s grand steel train-shed.

    The Renaissance period saw the revival of Classicism through Palladianism, and the melding of local vernaculars, which themselves were derivations over a thousand years of regional Roman styles with High classical symmetries, forms and language as defining their age – of doing God’s work of brining order and symmetry to the human domain and thereby helping to bring about a moral ordering.

    The arguments for ornamentation, human-scale, human craftsmanship etc can really only be made poorly if one tacitly accepts the progressive narrative of Modernism -that the act of say building in a local vernacular or a Palladian style is a consciously and defiantly anachronistic act and that Modernism by implication is the default. To ensure greater diversity in our build-environment, we need to first discard the progressive narrative – the notion that history is a largely linear narrative – a vector charting it’s way through epochs where what comes after is by virtue of being sequential, better than what came before it.

    As to the cost issue – Modernism is both a reflection of and has lent itself to mechanisation, a fact that will be with us (at least until the oil runs out perhaps).This in turn has lent itself to empowering developers at the expense of all other interested parties, not least the public and the architects themselves. Most developers are motivated primarily by cost – the maximum return for a minimum effort and this culture of ‘short-termism’ is evident elsewhere in our culture, not least in the financial markets, and it is perhaps a partially a reflection of how compressed time has become for us with modern communication technologies. This short-termism invariably leads to building that are built to last 20 years rather than 200 years – it places the cost of replacement and renewal on a subsequent generation and upon the environment.

    Taking my example of St Pancras station in London once more, we need to find the capacity to build not only to last but to build as an expression of higher values than purely monetary ones. Even the great capitalists (and I’m no capitalist) of a cventury ago saw the buildings they commisioned as a gift to society and civilisation, and an expression of what they deemed higher values. They regarded architecture as a something more than ‘profit-maximisers’ and Le Corbusier’s ‘machines’. The buildings we build say a lot about it. If we can bring ourselves as a culture to value something more than the bottom-line and if we choose to ‘build-to-last’ then the cost of human craftsmanship becomes less onerous. A building that potentially stands for 200 years is in the long-run, more cost-effective than the one that stands for 20. Moreover, the more buildings that engage craftsman, the lower the cost overall.

    For my mind, the Arts and Crafts and Art Nouveau movements, have a lot of merit – the conscious breaking of symmetries and the intimacy of details, sometimes complex but often not, yet which still delight. Currently I live in Oslo. Not far from where I live is an area called Torshov, which was a planned development dating from 1910 to 1920, and employing a local interpretation of the Arts and Crafts movement. Details are largely confined to ornamental brickwork, however there is something about the spatial relationships, the moments of folly and broken symmetry as well and the overall plans of internal communal gardens given over to people rather than cars, which makes this area highly sought after:

    www. skyscrapercity. com/ showpost. php?p=4216656&postcount=152

  8. Jon Wardle

    I think one of the big benefits of building in historical styles is that they were often built when luxuries of lighting and air-conditioning were non-existent. Being in a modern building when the air-conditioning or heating fails is unbearable, for old buildings it was the norm and was compensated for by design.

    If we are to move towards more sustainable design I would think we will be taking more from the past than from the present, particularly as new buildings have a lifespan of maybe 25 years, whilst historical buildings have more permanence and save resources and energy that way too. Even the ‘greenest’ building compares poorly on environmental footprint to a 150 year-old sandstone one if it has to re-built 6 times more.

  9. michael r james

    I’m with Russ at 12.34pm.

    Certainly I don’t think architects have much to do with it as they are slaves to developers or city building regs or master plans etc. Of course starchitects must strive for something distinctive which leads to form-over-function for most of them (Foster being an exemption; Gehry and his imitators being the worst).

    My argument for using successful older styles as templates for new construction is based on proven function. All the glass boxes being built as so-called luxury apartments are mostly shocking in function–poor in both environmental parameters (obligatory all-year round air-con heating/cooling), poor in privacy and poor in internal layout (glass walls on three or even two sides is a real bitch). And even the most expensive have a tacky feel often when brand new, so I reckon they will also be poor from an investment sense. (Last week I spent a few hours looking thru realestate.com.au at the surprisingly large number of apartments for sale in Melbourne Docklands and I am not sure I found a single one I liked: most with $1M+ price tags but relentlessly tacky with low ceilings (for a million bucks!) and that 70s look despite being about 5 years old or younger.)

    So the huge impediments against change are the public’s lack of stylistic discrimination, developer’s greed and modern building methods. It is cheaper to whack in some framed glass walls than anything else.
    Incidentally I am surprised no mention of all those German cities reconstructed post-war–most recent example is Dresden in former East Germany. I am not familiar enough with Germany but I would claim Munich as a great success (most visitors would not even be aware how much of the old city is reconstructed) especially compared to say Frankfurt (which is “modern”) and see which you prefer.

  10. Russ

    Alan, it is worth making a distinction between “built in historic style” and “built with historic materials”. Historic materials are typically labour intensive, which isn’t a problem in China, but would explain why few architects use them here – and obviously in many big projects use of those materials is severely limiting. Historic style implies copying – even if it needn’t have to – which goes against the principles of most architects.

    I suspect the main reason that people like brick and stone is that they age a lot better than concrete and metal frames. Very few commercial or residential buildings are built beyond a 20-30 year lifepsan, even if they survive 50+, mostly because you can’t derive that future value from the future tenants, whoever that might be.

    It might be a very small sweet spot for a project to have: small enough scale to be viable in historic style, an owner willing to pay over the odds to get a traditional look, and an architect with the ability to incorporate historic materials into a modern structure. Most of the examples in that thread you posted are churches or small-scale government buildings, and a lot of those that aren’t are actually pretty awful.

  11. Holden Back

    It’s a bit hard to tell from that image if your imagined ‘elite’ critics for a similar building in Australia wouldn’t be right. It’s all finials and folderols, with some faily modern plans behind, the equivalent of a cabbage rose chintz on a (not-quite) Barcelona chair. But then I read Pevsner at an early age, and was marked for life. It’s also someone else’s past in this instance – an attempt at Gilded Age New York in Tianjin.

    I have had the experience of being taken around a recreation of a Chinese temple complex in Hubei Province, which memorialised a mythic culture figure, Yandi, who allegedly invented medicine. While I’m used to an oriental approach to historic timber buildings in which guides will happily tell you a building is 500 years old and was re-built last year, this temple complex was bizzare for being traditional timber detailing realised in reinforced concrete.

    (It was complete with a cave, his alleged birthplace: thank goodness one of the Chinese female students I was with had the good sense to suggest that it might have been his mother who invented medicine.)

  12. Dylan Nicholson

    Well if Ludwig II could build Neuschwanstein in a style 300+ years before its time and it still be considered a landmark building almost 150 years later (it’s still almost impossible to take a bad photo of it), then I guess we should still be able to do the same today…

  13. Krammer56

    Interstingly, given the age of early modernism work, most of what we see today could be classed as recreation/reinterpretation of an historic building – just one only 60 years old instead of 160.

    My biggest complaint about historic recreations/interpretations is usually that they are built to a price, with plastic or sytrofoam features glued to the building and rendered. They look OK from a distance, but often quickly show that they won’t actually last the distance.

    I’m a fan of the “horses for courses” school of achitecture – a great building that conflicts with it’s surrounds may be a great building, but it is in the wrong spot! Historic recreations, or at least sympathetic buildings, have their place.


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