Architecture’s single greatest misconception is the idea that we build in three dimensions, when in fact we build in four. And any architect who deems to neglect that fourth dimension — time — does so at his or her own peril.
The modernists of the 20th century are already infamous for this oversight, to the detriment of their legacies. Many of our most celebrated modernist works — Mies’ Scharoun residence, Corbusier’s Villa Savoye, Gropius’ Bauhaus buildings — would be in a sorry state indeed if not for the constant and fastidious curation they now receive.
Even so, they remain most impressive when seen in the handful of historical photographs that first wowed the world 80-odd years ago. It’s these old images, not the pampered works themselves, that remain the most compelling argument for modernism’s perfectionist aesthetic.
Move away from acknowledged masterpieces to the second and third tier of modernist works, however, and the story is different. Here, the high-finish industrial materials beloved by the modernists show the same confounding inability to patinate over time, but without benefit of landmark-caliber maintenance.
Under these less rarefied conditions, the modernist’s beloved snow-white marble is soon stained and dirty; his flawlessly smooth stucco riddled with cracks, his sparkling glass canopy littered with leaves and rubbish. Check out a few modernist buildings in your own town and see if they still exude Corbusian purity.
Alas, the International Style modernists weren’t the only architects oblivious to the fourth dimension. In their consuming search for irony, the postmodernists used intentionally diagrammatic design, chintzy materials and pointedly tawdry detailing.
The greater irony is that in doing so, most managed to seal their own dooms as far as timeless building was concerned. A glance at the numerous moldering postmodernist works in cities large and small will quickly confirm this fact.
Architects of the last two decades have made many of the same errors, though by a different route: they built substantially and expensively, but used a palette of demanding finishes — highly polished metals and stone, complex paint schemes, acres of plate glass — that make their works both costly to maintain and highly susceptible to the indignities of daily use.
If anything promises to improve the architect’s cognizance of time and nature, and their inevitable impact on our best efforts, it may be the growing prominence of the green movement.
With its refreshingly broad insights into how much energy we invest in creating building materials, putting them together, maintaining them, and then tearing them apart again, green architecture has the potential to change our entire architectural aesthetic.
For many architects, the ideal of beauty has meant using precisely those materials and design details that evoke the greatest possible separation between man and nature. This school of design routinely demands costly, highly finished and technically complex materials assembled in as flawless a manner possible.
The green architect, by contrast, may well include materials that have already lived one lifetime, making this usual standard of perfection quite moot. After all, time — that most exacting of judges — has already proven them worthy.