Architecture - Is Originality Always Feasible Or Desirable? (Notes on the Avant-Garde)

By | 5:36 PM
 By Michael A. Vidalis  
Shizuoka Press and Broadcasting Center  Kenzo Tange. Photograph by Jonathan Savoie
Shizuoka Press & Broadcasting Center by Kenzo Tange.
Photograph by Jonathan Savoie

Architecture as an art is required to be original, or at least it should strive to be. In the pragmatics of architectural practice though, one realizes that a host of conditions or determinants often interfere or intervene, so the resulting project is a far cry from it. Let alone that so called signature projects are equally unattainable for most designers.

It is rather uncontested, that a work of architecture in order to stand apart requires the simultaneous existence of two conditions: a gifted designer, as well as, a receptive or visionary client. It is very rare for excellence to be achieved otherwise. One of course can analyze this ad nauseam, thinking of all possible variations or sub conditions, but of no avail.

On occasion an architect has been successful in steering a client towards his philosophy, or convincing him of the merits of his ideas, but this is an entirely different subject, opening Pandora's Box. It is the debate having to do with the role of the architect, or his "obligation" to steer the uncultured masses... See Adolf Loos' "The Poor Little Man" and the notion of Gesamtkunstwerk. 

Interpersonal relationships are indeed rather complex. The architect-client relationship is deemed pivotal to the success of a project. Historically, patrons of the arts and architecture such as the Medici family in the Renaissance were instrumental in the creation of great works of art. To a lesser extent, men of great vision are still found today, providing the much needed impetus to grand or original works. 

It is often expressed by architects that a limited budget presents an impediment to creativity or their uninhibited artistic expression. To see how erroneous this view is, we need only bring to mind acknowledged architectural marvels that were accomplished with limited means, such as the little Schullin Jewelry store in Vienna, a project that was identified with the post-modern movement (Hans Hollein, architect, 1982). Or plenty of contemporary projects in the L.A. area, by architects employing humble materials in the elevations of the structure (For instance, see the Container House by Peter Demaria - 2006, the M House by Xten architects - 2004, or the Schmalix residence by Fung + Blatt architects - 2000). 

Schullin jewelery storeAnother objection raised has to do with the limited time allowed to design or construct the project. What about though fast-track design or fast-track construction? Lastly, an additional objection by architects has to do with the limitations presented by building codes. Again, being forced by limitations or constraints one has to reshape, reinterpret, reinvent or rethink the problem or its parameters at hand, thus presenting an opportunity for the new to surface. 

The list of architects that have achieved excellence in original artistic expression is long: Sant' Elia, Frank Lloyd Wright, Le Corbusier, Mies van der Rohe, Philip Johnson, Robert Venturi, Tadao Ando, Zaha Hadid, Saana... 

Analyzing the work of the above, or that of other architects - acknowledged leaders of a fresh approach in the 'arts' - pioneers in their own right (not only in the mind of critics but by general acclaim), we may try to analyze the underlying common factors, if any. How did these men develop, why did they stand out, and how did they contribute to a valid architectural discourse? How did they leave their indelible mark? How did the avant-garde come about? 

Some support that uniqueness is the reward, the eventual fruition of many years of plain hard work and insistence, questionable though as far as architecture is concerned, or for the arts as a whole as we shall later see (isn't the invalidity of this reasoning apparent when we attempt to justify the artistic success of many young or 'inexperienced' creators? As an example, one of the most monumental edifices ever built, La Grande Arche de la Defense (1982- 1989), in Paris, was the result of an international architectural competition with 400 entries from 40 countries. Winner, an unknown Danish architect, Otto von Spreckelsen, whose only experience was limited to designing his own home and two churches in his country! Or, the enigmatic house Venturi designed for his mother, Chestnut Hill, Pennsylvania (1962), his second built work). 

It is deemed necessary to refer to Professor Pavlos Mylonas. During his reception at the Academy of Athens and awarding of Membership, Mylonas said: " the most creative 20th Century, the Greek architectural family has treaded a path just parallel to the Modern Movement, as happens with most other not large [small] countries. Worth mentioning not because remarkable Greek designs have not entered the International Pantheon, but because - the subject tonight being Theory - since the days of the late Greek architectural aesthetician Panayotis Mihelis, basically no noteworthy Greek contribution has been made to contemporary international architectural thinking. And this, perhaps due to the fact that in our country the presuppositions were not in place timely, that could lead to the realization of an innovation ["modernism"]". (1.) 

What are perhaps the presuppositions stated, irrelevant perhaps of a country's size? Akin perhaps to a 'greenhouse', that may foster the growth, development and export of ideas? Indisputably, rarely the avant-garde just happens, as lightning on a clear day, the presuppositions not being there, or the conditions not being ripe for change, not having the proper climate so to say (lets attempt to define the 'avant-garde' as essentially the questioning and rejecting or denouncing of the status quo. In its meekest manifestation though the avant-garde is simply a reformation). At a personal or artistic level, it is the result of a journey or a stance, and a process affected by external conditions. The artistic stagnation or stalemate, affected both by internal and external conditions, doesn't really lend itself to change. The 'climate' is not right to foster growth. 

Therefore, attempting to understand how the "avant-garde" was born, we observe that its manifestation requires certain conditions; conditions, that when these occur concurrently, enhance the possibility of its happening. These are: 

   A. The social and political infrastructure (Including the 'economy'). 
   B. The picture in the art world at large. 
   C. The educational system, with an emphasis on technology and the arts. 

Collectively, the above determinants synthesize and define the factor 'environment'. Although 'technology' as a determinant played a major role in earlier developments, its almost universal accessibility today, in the age of information, especially in the developed world, weakens its influence relative to the other determinants (Bearing in mind though that technology in Modernism, served as the very instrument by which the avant- garde was achieved). 

Specifically, Modernism, the influential 20th Century movement in architecture and the arts, appears unavoidable in that light, when one realizes that all three of the above conditions were in place: the industrial revolution that had preceded it, the 'fertile' artistic climate in Old Europe, especially in Germany and Vienna, and naturally the Bauhaus, that came to house the whole undertaking. 

Antokolsky Bauhaus boutique style
Antokolsky Bauhaus boutique style - a fusion of elegant minimalist Bauhaus architecture celebrating intimacy and individuality.

Attempting to comprehend the "seminal" and "problematic" work of Erik Gunnar Asplund, a work that defies easy classification that has puzzled critics and historians alike, the contribution of "environment" is often overlooked. Kenneth Frampton states it eloquently: "Most commentators have missed the point that Asplund's whole achievement was set in a particular cultural context of which he was the primary but by no means the sole representative". (2.) 

Often the avant-garde attempts to peer through or establish itself through the writing of a manifesto, while at times, the manifesto itself becomes a 'crutch', a substitute of built work, as in the case of futurist Antonio Sant' Elia (His dream like sketches constitute a de facto manifesto). In Italy, futurism emerges through Sant' Elia's vision, Citta Futurista (1914). While at times, a single sketch becomes the springboard for an entire movement, as in the case of Vladimir Tatlin. His sketch, a proposal for a large steel building-monument to the 3rd International in Moscow (1920), effectively defined Constructivism. While Robert Venturi's landmark book, 'Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture' (1966), became a manifesto for a critical look at modernism that evolved into historic eclecticism. 

Art "converses" with architecture as we saw, offering its critical input. Although art today is in a protracted period of flux, with the coexisting of many trends (often contradictory), it does have a lot to contribute to architectural thought, as it historically did on occasion (The collectivity or interdependence of Gesamtkunstwerk).

According to Jacques Paul Grillo "... art is often the result of a masterly flouting of the rules". Were we to adopt this statement, in effect a definition isn't then all art considered avant-garde, as dynamically changing within a framework of continuous questioning and rejection? In its most extreme version, does the adoption of an avant-garde become utopian? 

In the 21st Century, architecture seems to have forgotten the contribution of the social sciences, contribution that effectively shaped the architectural morphology during the 1960s. The computer generated 'distortions', and, the 'artsy' or 'nebulous' presentations, apparently leave no room for the social dimension of architecture...The freeing from the 'sirens' though requires the input of information unknown to the architect, specifically, information that stems from the method of short-term psychotherapy (Method of Watzlawick, Weakland και Fisch.). This multidisciplinary approach is very relevant here. Considering the changing of the status quo as Second Degree Change, since external forces realize it, First Degree Change appears more familiar as it is realized from forces within the system. Subsequently, the prescribed changing of the status quo leads to the avant-garde. This theory of change differentiates between "difficulty" and "problem", and stresses that, not addressing appropriately the first leads to the second (The difficulty of the artistic stagnation or stalemate if not addressed appropriately leads to the problem of status quo...). Second Order Change is 'the change of change', a phenomenon that Aristotle so vehemently denied to accept... Bearing in mind the above it is apparent why we so often resist Second Order Change, perceiving it as odd or absurd. This explains why we resist any substantive change: its external framework is unfamiliar to us. The changing of the system, the elevation from one level to the next, are understood with the aid of this Theory of Change, and through associated techniques such as reframing, etc. At the same time, we must warn against the Utopia Syndrome, that is, when change is sought or accomplished even though it is not needed (Change for change's sake...). In this light it is apparent how difficult it is for the artist to create something entirely unique and substantive ("strange"), and for the public to understand or accept it. 

As Professor George Sarigiannis, remarks, today we are often "...basically caught in an agonizing chase of originality, originality though without meaning and internal structure, the work produced being far-out, impressive, 'original', but not having any organic relation to the function, the construction or the structure of the building" (In Renaissance, the older the better, in antithesis with the avant-garde where, the newer the better. An evaluation where the criterion of time is a measure of artistic worthiness). (3.) 

Originality often stems from theory, assuming the role of a beacon. Originality has to do with the desire as well as the ability to bring about change. It is uniquely tied to a spirit of experimentation. It is the desire to envision and produce a truly creative piece of work, a statement of avant-garde. Ironically, with the passage of time, the avant-garde becomes the status quo, which will in time itself be questioned and replaced by the new avant-garde. This transformation, these dynamics in the arts and in architecture, is part of their substance, and quite interesting, especially if we understand the underlying mechanisms. 

The "shipping and transport college" in Rotterdam, The Netherlands, designed by Neutelings Riedijk, architects in Rotterdam. by Rick Ligthelm  (CC BY 2.0)

Granted, we touched upon a few of the issues involved, and those even laconically. Hoping these snippets of ideas is just a stimulus for further thought... Is originality or the avant-garde always feasible or desirable? The architect should ask himself, then, his client.

In order for art to develop it necessarily needs Prometheus' restless trackers. Leaders of the paths, and not followers on the boulevard treaded by the masses. Beware though of the AVANT-GARDE. The difficulty doesn't lie in doing something new not done by others. The difficulty lies in qualifying it as art, lending it feeling; elevating the observer. The observer, who unless I capture, I will never succeed in elevating... (4.) 


1. " 'About Architecture' Then and Now": Speech of Professor Pavlos Mylonas during his installation as 'Member' at the Academy of Athens, Greece, at its meeting of January 21st, 1977. From the Proceedings of the Academy of Athens, Athens, Volume 72, Issue B (1997), p. 44. 

2. Stuart Wrede, The Architecture of Erik Gunnar Asplund, (Cambridge Massachusetts: The M.I.T. Press, 1983), p. xi (Foreword). 

3. Journal "Architects", Society of Greek Architects, issue 41, period Β, September / October 2003, Editorial, p. 18. 

4. (Stavrianos V. Katsireas, painter. From a catalog commemorating the 30 year effort of the artist (1962-1992), Athens, 1992). 

Michael A. Vidalis
Michael A. Vidalis - Registered Architect, MArch. Athens, Greece. 

Michael A. Vidalis was born in Cleveland, Ohio, U.S.A. and holds a Master of Architecture degree from the Ohio State University. He has been a student of Peter Eisenman.

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