“It does not matter how badly you paint,” said the English writer George Moore, “so long as you don’t paint badly like other people.”
The same might be said for architects, whose professional success hinges on novelty just as surely as it does for artists. In order to garner even a small measure of recognition, an architect must manage to stand out from a whole sea of colleagues equally starved for attention.
Some architects seem to achieve this kind of notoriety by nature. Frank Lloyd Wright scandalized early 20th-century tastes with his dismissal of historical precedent in favor of what he called “organic architecture.” From the perspective of the time, this idea alone would have been shocking enough. But Wright, whose ego was as vast as his talent, also delighted in tweaking his rebel image.
“Early in life I had to choose between honest arrogance and hypocritical humility,” he once said. “I chose the former and have seen no reason to change.”
It took Americans decades, if not a full half-century, to appreciate Wright’s hovering, solids-and-voids compositions. It may take us just as long to understand the colliding sculptural forms of Frank Gehry. Still, we can be reasonably assured that there’s a method to this kind of madness.
Yet in the absence of true genius such as Wright’s — or perhaps more arguably Gehry’s — meaningful novelty isn’t always easy to come by. Instead, more often than not we get the ersatz variety: novelty for its own sake.
In the postwar era, this usually yielded a peculiar brand of half-baked Modernism consisting of little more than barren walls, yards of plate glass, and a flat roof — an aesthetic lacking any underlying rationale other than the need to seem of-the-moment. It’s left us a nationwide legacy of dismal, people-unfriendly buildings.
In our own time, on the other hand, the same quest for gratuitous novelty now brings us harlequin buildings sprouting all manner of nonfunctional sunshades, brackets, outriggers, and other superficial bric-a-brac.
Granted, today’s architects employ a strategy opposite to that of the third-tier Modernists: Instead of subtracting detail, they call attention to otherwise mundane work by hanging a lot of gimcracks on it. Like Liberace at his mirrored piano, they’ve learned that if the props are outrageous enough, they themselves become the art.
Still, it’s tempting to ask the architect who came up with that convoluted five-color paint scheme, or that awning sprouting from the north side of a building, or that exquisitely machined metal bracket holding up nothing — is it the product of intelligent thought on behalf of the design, or is its sole purpose to scream for attention?
Happily, time has an uncanny way of sorting out the architects with something meaningful to say from those who are just doing carnival barking. The problem is that buildings with nothing to say are just as permanent as the ones that speak volumes. Perhaps this is what the English author Oscar Wilde meant when he said, “Bad art is a great deal worse than no art at all.”