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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

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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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