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High art architects and their critics have become so fixated on making art out of architecture that they have forgotten how complex a discipline architecture really is.  Their discussion places a high value on the innovation of new vocabularies and on abstract formal qualities. Architectural congoscenti focus their attention narrowly on high art work. Other segments of building production that employ more populist and commonly misunderstood vocabularies, such as period revival architecture, are ignored.

But such a focus begs the primary existential questions we have to ask ourselves. How do those of us inculcated in architectural culture coexist with a world which largely ignores the values and rules of high art architecture?  What is the relationship of most people to the actual built environment? How do the buildings that we see from the freeway, the developer housing, the blank-faced speculative office building and the shopping malls get designed? How do they affect the quality of our lives? These are the issues that architects and the medial alike should put their minds to.

Architecture, by its very nature, is a witch’s brew, an intersection of many different disciplines ranging from sociology to art to city planning to engineering.  Given such a broad range of influences and concerns, it is only natural to assume that the bulk of building production could belong to some classification of architecture based on serving a smaller subset of one or more of these needs.

Similarly, not all works of architecture address the full range of architectural concerns.  Some buildings may indeed by about revealing the means of their construction and others about the masterly handling of light and space. Some may be about the beautiful ornamentation of a simple series of spaces, others may be about ingenious methods of prefabrication. Just as both the essay and the detective novel are legitimate literary forms, how does architecture allow for both the high art building and more populist work with a wider audience.

In a modern consumerist society many buildings have a primary or secondary function as consumerist architecture.  Their relationship to consumers becomes one of the primary determinants of form. In secondary buildings the aesthetic appeal of the building is part of the overall image that the building is offering for the tenant, such as corporate office buildings.  In primary consumer buildings, the building itself is part of the advertisement of the product inside and a key part of the experience of patronizing the business inside. When you by a teddy bear at the Bear Tree in Orange Country, for instance, you also buy the whimsy of walking inside a conical roofed building shaped and finished like a giant tree trunk. Because of the specificity of its imagery and forms, first order consumer architecture has the capacity to represent, share and communicate common cultural values.

Just as a principal function of a western novel could be to create a romantic sense of escape, the principal function of a consumer-oriented building such as a shopping center could also be emotive or nostalgic in its appeal. If entertainment is a legitimate function of architecture, then the use of forms, details or patterns of composition evoking another time or place is quite appropriate.  If such recall is an essential part of both fine and populist works of literature, then it also has  a place in works of architecture intended to be similarly evocative. The success of a project in hitting this particular target, the coherency and appropriateness of its three-dimensional material realization, ought to be the principal criteria by which it is valued, and not by its conformance to currently accepted rules of contemporary high art architecture.

Local architects have become so confused about who their audience is that the prime whipping boy at a recent Southern California architectural symposium was none other than Prince Charles. Panelists selected the Prince as a villain because of his advocacy of traditional architectural vocabularies.  The invocation of the name of a member of Europe’s titled aristocracy allowed them to characterize (and condemn) anyone questioning the social relevancy of esoteric architectural conventions generated by an internalized architectural culture.  If anything, Aunt Martha or the man on the street is probably more likely to sympathize with Prince Charles than the architects on the panel who were the real elitists. (see article, “Them vs Us” in this issue.)

The imagery of the American home in the twentieth century has usually had some traditional features, even when these were mingled with modern forms, such as the wagon wheel and split rail fence in front of a mobile home. Beaver Cleaver’s life and times would not have played well against a backdrop of corner windows and open web-steel trusses.

For most modernist architects, however, it has not been enough to master a set of forms or a system of composition. If any system of familiar references is apparent in their architecture, there are only two permissible explanations. One is that the references are not intentional and are a byproduct of satisfying some other consideration, such as a heavy snow load necessitating pitched roofs. The other permissible explanations is that they have invented a new architectural vocabulary themselves in the manner of a master such as Wright or Gehry and therefore are not indebted to previous precedent. While this premise is theoretically liberating to the artist in his role as unfettered creator, it does have the practical disadvantage of creating environmental chaos and putting many architects in over their heads. Not only do they have to learn to speak a language, but they have to invent the rules by which it is spoken.

Post modernist architects have encountered similar difficulties. Their task is different. They must find a way of distorting, parodying or otherwise ironically distancing themselves from the genre they have selected.  The parody often has the effect of making their work brittle, silly and lacking in commitment.

Thus it was inevitable that period revival architecture, with its clearly defined initial premises, has begun to appear more like a viable option and less like a cop-out.

And after all, period revival architecture has never completely died.  It merely retreated from the front lines of architectural culture proper but lived on in the worlds of popular architecture and interior design. There were even architects such as Kaspar Ehmcke and James Dolena who continued to practice it during the 50s, 60s and 70s in Southern California. Therefore, it doesn’t completely qualify for a miraculous comeback from the dead, despite the new surge of interest in the subject. The situation brings to mind the musical question that Dan Hicks and his Hot Licks asked in the 1970—“How Can I Miss You When You Won’t Go Away?”

Far from being the copyists that conventional wisdom often assumes them to be, period revival architects often brought an informed sensibility to their source material, transforming it and making it their own. Each designer left an individual stamp on his work, just as each era revives the language of the past in its own way. As David Gebhard wrote in his book L.A. in the 30s, the typical depression era Southern California period revival houses had highly workable floor plans that allowed for easy access to the outdoors, convenient accommodation for the automobile and a logical circulation pattern. In this sense, the modernist house of the 1930s was not necessarily more functional than the period revival house of the same age. Rather, it expressed the functions it was programmed with through different imagery. To the degree that both the period revival and the modernist house were framed the same way, or warmed by the same heating system, they are equally modern.

Period revival architects were able to make the past their own without sacrificing the functional integrity of their buildings. Nearly all the forms and the symbolism that they employed were no less appropriate or anachronistic today than they were 50 years ago.

In his monograph on the Southern California revivalist Wallace Neff, Alson Clark quotes Aymar Embury II, a distinguished East coast architect and author writing in the 1920s. Embury praised architects of the time because he believed they were becoming more adept at adapting traditional elements to modern uses.  Another well-known East Coast period revival architect, William Adams Delano, preferred to think of all of his work, however flavored by this or that style, as modern, because it was designed to suit contemporary needs and taste. Similary, Neff chose to call his work “Californian” to emphasize the primacy of the time and place of his buildings’ construction over the time and place of their stylistic origins. In fact, Neff was unhappiest when forced to copy, as was the case with the Villa Sol D’Oro in Sierra Madre. The client required Neff to model the house in part after a building attributed to Michelangelo, the Villa Collazi near Florence.

As the archness and brittleness of post-modern irony and the anti-social abstraction for abstraction’s sake of decon wear thin, revivalism continues to offer opportunities to work within an agreed upon architectural vocabulary by extending and reinterpreting that tradition rather than by mocking it. Most importantly, it can create buildings whose design intent can be clearly understood and appreciated by the public. The time has come for a thorough evaluation of regionalist period revival work.

John Chase

 

Rendering Roy Eaton House, Santa Barbara 1962, Wallace Neff

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