Rigid dogma about what is and is not ’authentic’ has hamstrung architects. We need to break out of these shackles and recognise that all architecture is drawing from the past, writes Robert Adam
We all want to be the real thing, to be seen to be authentic and not be thought a fake. This is how we describe someone with a good character. It’s also become a way to describe good architecture.
While a fake person is someone who hides their true character, can a building hide its true character? Can a building, quite simply, be inauthentic?
In the conservation world, there’s certainly a belief that it can. There’s a whole charter about it: the 2000 UNESCO Riga Charter on authenticity and historical reconstruction in relationship to cultural heritage [sic].
But this charter isn’t just about keeping old buildings, it includes a chunk of familiar architectural theory: “each historical period has its own particular style which does not replicate previous used formal vocabulary and means of expression.”
So, according to this, whenever you design anything, you have to be sure that it doesn’t replicate any part of anything that belonged to another historical period. This is a bit tricky. Forget long rectangular glass-walled houses; they’re so Barcelona Pavilion, so 1920s (and never mind the fact that the one that’s there now is a straight-up fake).
Likewise, avoid long-slot ribbon windows or being in any way flat-roofed cubic. They replicate previously-used formal vocabulary and really do belong to a previous historical period. We’re definitely not in the age of flappers or silent films.
But all designers and artists look to past heroes and copy smaller or bigger bits of them. Even the queen of mega-priced dysfunctional weirdness, Zaha Hadid, with unintentional irony, kept telling us she was completing the work of the 1920s Leninist, Malevich. Nothing starts from nothing.
But the illogical idea that anything from some past period (however defined) doesn’t really belong in present design has moved from cliquish theorising into planning policy.
Numerous planning policies now declare that they support contemporary architecture and oppose pastiche. ‘Contemporary’ can’t just mean done right now, or it would apply to anything. Everyone knows it’s a code word for ‘of its time’, or our historical period’s own particular style.
‘Pastiche’ is another code word, this time for something that replicates some previous used formal vocabulary and means of expression. In principle, it means a melange, but the term is used indiscriminately to mean anything from a disapproved-of past. (Code words need to be used as planning policies are not supposed to dictate style – wake up Planning Inspectorate!).
Where does this kind of idea take us? If it’s valid in principle, it would apply to any architecture. Let’s look as some other architecture we recognise and admire.
Renaissance architects really wanted to be like ancient Romans, Palladians did their best to design just like their Italian heroes 150 years before. Nineteenth-century advocates for the Gothic revival set out to be as medieval as they could. But do we say that Bramante, Gibbs or Pugin were inauthentically fifteenth-, eighteenth- or nineteenth-century? No, of course we don’t. In fact, we define the architecture of the period by their ambitions.
What about the subject of the Riga Charter? Does it really apply to historical reconstruction? Let’s take two examples that clearly break the ‘no replication’ rule.
American tourists might think that Colonial Williamsburg is the real 18th-century deal and not a rather inaccurate 1930s fantasy. And foreign visitors may get the idea that most of central Warsaw is an old city and not a fairly accurate post-war reconstruction. Does it matter? People like them. And to anyone who is really interested, it’s easy to find out that they are authentic examples of pre-war American patriotic propaganda and the post-war recovery of national identity.
Coming back to today, you might want flag up your admiration for 50s Scarpa, Kahn and Niemeyer with references in your design (a pastiche) for your fellow architects to approve. Or you might want to make a building look a bit like the old vernacular for local people to enjoy.
Whatever you do, you’re doing it because you, your client, your colleagues or your public want it now. And it will be a part of early twenty-first-century architecture, like it or not. If enough people do it, it’ll probably be recognised as a particular characteristic by some architectural historian in a century or so. It is and will be authentic to our historical period.
Buildings built today are in the here-and-now and they just can’t help it. Being authentic to your time is an unavoidable state of affairs. We should stop worrying about it and just get on with designing good buildings that people like now.