There’s only one cardinal sin in architecture, and that is not thinking. Though it’s seldom recognized, thoughtful architecture has little to do with style, taste or the sort of inane aesthetic minutiae that small-minded design-review boards like to busy themselves with.
Over the centuries, there have been hundreds of architectural works that offended contemporary eyes, but are now seen as works of brilliance. That’s the point: Thoughtful architecture has nothing to do with the fashions of its time. Rather, what every great work has had in common — what all great architecture has in common, whether familiar or unfamiliar — is that someone has taken the time to think about it.
But it isn’t just “great” architecture that’s worthy of thoughtful design. On the contrary, since dwellings make up the overwhelming share of architecture on earth, it’s all the more important that we think about them as carefully as we would some vast public project. The additive impact, after all, is much greater. And what sets any dwelling apart from mediocrity is one simple quality: Its designer finds it worthy of careful consideration, asking not, “What style should it be?” but rather, “Have I given it the thought that it deserves?”
To see what happens in the absence of such thought, you probably need only walk down your own street. Everywhere apparent is design done according to rote or reflex, blindly informed by what the neighbors down the street did, or by whatever style happened to be in the magazines at that moment. It doesn’t help that architects and city planners often engage in such groupthink as well, zealously advancing points of view that will inevitably fade from the professional canon in a matter of decades, just as all aesthetic ideals eventually run their course. The wholesale destruction of city cores under urban renewal during the 1950s and 60s, for example, was not an idea that came out of nowhere — it was promulgated by modernist architects and planners who sincerely believed they were carrying out the professional mandate of their time.
In contrast to the prepackaged solutions offered by groupthink, thoughtful design takes time. But in relative terms, the extra effort is minuscule. If the tangible result of your efforts will stand for the next 50 or 100 years — perhaps more, who can say? — then a few hours, days or weeks of careful contemplation is nothing in comparison. Nevertheless, I daily come across projects being built — often at vast expense — that have, it seems, benefited from a grand total of two minutes of thought. This window/door/siding/roofing is what everybody’s using now? Great, let’s install it.
The notions of style and taste are the great humbugs of architecture, the beloved preoccupation of architectural nonthinkers. They consume the lion’s share of attention while returning little in the way of human comfort. Yet ultimately, style is nothing more than a guarantee of imminent obsolescence, while the notion of objective good taste is simply a fallacy — what is tasteful in one place or in one era is sure to be reviled in the next.
There’s only one absolute criterion for good design: It’s that any building we put our hands to, whether modest or monumental, this style, that style, or no style we recognize, has gotten the benefit of our utmost human insight.