Architecture as a Series of Design Phases
It is human nature to categorize. Food, restaurants, books, movies…even people. Architecture is no exception. History has categorized architecture into styles, each representing a frame of time throughout civilization. Though many structures have physically remained since their erection, most have dwindled in terms of cultural relativity and popularity, while other ideas were even shorter lived. The megastructures craze of the 1960s, described in Reyner Banham’s book Megastructure: Urban Futures of the Recent Past, is one example. These ever changing architectural phases also question the definition of monuments within a culture, as explained in Alois Riegl’s The Modern Cult of Monuments: Its Character and Its Origin. Using these previously mentioned works; this paper aims to assess architecture as a series of design phases defined by time, culture, and history.
To define an architectural phase, time must first be considered. Design phases are ephemeral: what is important in one decade is not always important in the next. The introduction of Megastructures describes this ephemeral phase quite bluntly, “In 1961, [architects saw] the massive support structures, as proper and natural. By the end of the sixties…the support structures were unthinkable,” while a new phase in spontaneous housing grew instead (Banham 10). What seemed like a solution to urban problems in the 1960s, like traffic or environmentally safe transportation, left the decade as merely a conventional idea (41-43). Much of the interest in a design phase thrives on the culture it serves. Culture is the second consideration of defining an architectural phase. Not everyone is an architect, but everyone is entitled to his or her own opinion and simple minds tend to admire the “aesthetically pleasing.” To put it simply, “a megastructure was also a building which looked like a megastructure,” so those not in favor of obvious massive structure or condensed cityscapes were not afraid to turn the other cheek (13). The 60s were a time of industrial prosperity, and megastructures grew out of the plans for ships, space travel, undersea technology, and ocean fortifications. Like Futurism before it, this decade held a compelling interest in the design of machines. Even the Beatles’ “Yellow Submarine” added to this cultural trend (25). These trends are now exactly that, interests of the past contained in our history. The last consideration of defining an architectural phase is recognition of history. “Hardly a…structure was offered in the sixties without being justified by the citation of some historical antecedent,” megastructures included. References include Ponte Vecchio, Old London Bridge, and Königsbau in Stuttgart, a “multifunctional urban structure” (13-15). This recognition of history helps categorize the passage of one design phase to the next.
Again, to define an architectural phase, the effects of the ephemeral must be considered. Monuments are representative of a moment, having both historical value and artistic value. This art-value of a monument, however, is merely a subjective one invented by and entirely dependent on the changing preferences of the modern viewer (Riegl 622). A direct relationship by one to a monument may be lost by the next generation, now indirectly related to the same monument. “The monuments of antiquity themselves had only a relative and therefore historically contingent value, and not an eternal one” (628). In this argument, the validity of a monument is dependent upon its phase in history, and after that phase it depreciates. Culture, again, is an instigator of depreciation of monuments, where societal opinion reins free. Significance of monuments is “not restricted to the educated… but also touches the masses independent of their education,” notes Riegl in regards to age-value, writing further to say that just because a monument is historical, does not mean that the modern cult must care about it (624). Sometimes, unintentional monuments become part of society even more than historical ones (629). Though the modern cult has freedom to disregard a monument, it cannot ignore the history that has taken place. Like the references to medieval architecture in Megastructures, Riegl also looks to medieval precedents as historical monuments (626). “Every historical event is irreplaceable,” he writes, “every work of art is at once and without exception a historical monument because it represents a specific stage of the development of visual arts” (622). The time, culture, and history of monuments are used to mark the passage of design phases.
There will always be design, and human nature dictates that there will always be a need to categorize it. Design will never advance linearly, but instead will morph, inevitably subjected to the scrutiny of the modern cult. It will define our current generation and represent us in cultures to come. Most importantly, these cultures will recognize both the failures and achievements that architecture has taught, providing historical precedent for infinite phases of design. Like the “dinosaurs of the modern movement,” next phase designs will act as monuments. How culture will define these monuments in the future is up to human nature.
Banham, Reyner. Megastructure: Urban Futures of the Recent past. New York: Harper and Row, 1976. Print.
Riegl, Alois. The Modern Cult of Monuments: Its Character and Its Origin. Cambridge (Mass.): MIT, 1982. Web.