Of Time and Place

A common refrain within the architectural community is that design should be “of our time” or “of today”. This is usually used in justification for a modern aesthetic,[1] particularly if that modern design is placed in juxtaposition with something historic or traditional. It is a phrase that sounds good and positions design in a way that is hard to critique, but is it a valid defense? I would argue that the concept of a design being “of today” is actually meaningless which would make any argument based on that concept moot from the start. I see 3 primary problems with using “of today” as a basis for or defense of a design.

  • Indefensible

  • Aesthetic Bias

  • Misunderstanding of Architectural History

The Problems with “Of Today”


The main problem I have with the “of today” concept is it isn’t based on anything tangible. What does “of today” actually mean? It is such an abstract and subjective idea that it can’t be defined definitively.

The way it is often used suggests a meaning. When someone says a design is “of our time” it usually means that the design is not “historicist” or “traditional”. Oftentimes it is used to preempt possible backlash from a traditional leaning public. Unfortunately, the very lack of expressed definition makes it very difficult to continue a constructive conversation about design once the “of today” argument has been called.

Furthermore, very rarely does anyone actually explain why it even makes sense for a design to be “of today”. It is just accepted that “of our time” is a primary criteria by which a design is judged. It may well be a good idea for a design to express the ideals of its time but that needs to be validated as a basis of design. Zeitgeist, when captured, is a compelling foundation but it is fleeting and very difficult to obtain.

Another problem is that the relentless pursuit of timely design has usurped the pursuit of timeless design. With this cult of the now, design becomes very trend and fad oriented. Fads, by definition, are fleeting and designs that are trendy very quickly look outdated and stale. Architecture is an art rooted in permanence so a philosophy of trendy “today” architecture does not mesh well with the expected lifespan of the resultant building.

Finally, it seems to me that the very fact that a work is created “in our time” regardless of style makes it “of today” unless it is explicitly historicist or preservationist.[2] The work occurs now using current materials and technologies and is influenced by current cultural and professional ideas. What makes one expression more “today” than another? We are told that “everything is a remix” so originality can’t be the aspect that defines how current a design is. All design endeavors, regardless of style, contain some original thoughtfulness in addition to incorporation of various external influences. Perhaps one can argue that a certain degree of consensus might indicate a style of today. That actually brings me to my next point.

Aesthetic Bias

The primary conceit of architecture today is that “of today” means bowing to the whims of a single arbiter of style. Universally, the argument for design “of today” is used to justify design that is modern as opposed to traditional. This aesthetic bias of a term that really is not meaningful is destructive to a design dialogue that could be happening.

When design that is “of today” is so tied up with a specific style, there is a line drawn that artificially creates a right and wrong way of doing things. Traditional becomes automatically wrong because it isn’t of today and modern becomes automatically right. Our design dialogue would be so much richer if we didn’t artificially separate design philosophies but viewed it more as a continuum with discussion about the range on that continuum that constitutes good design.

The bias is rampant in the upper echelons of the profession. Pick up any random magazine, especially ones either aligned with the AIA or closely related, and you will find a mix of published projects that definitively skew towards modern. The bias is even more apparent in the AIA awards system. I once worked on a multi-family project that took on a craftsman aesthetic in deference to the context of single family bungalows. This project ended up quite successful and began collecting awards from various community, transportation, and regional entities. The award it did not get was the AIA award and I think that can be directly tied to a bizarre predilection against anything remotely traditional.

I have been following with some interest the current controversy about Frank Gehry’s design of the Eisenhower Memorial in Washington D.C. There has been a lot written from both sides but one thing that stood out to me in the debate was this quote from Roger K. Lewis who presumptuously spoke for the entire architectural community in his Washington Post editorial defending Gehry’s design:

Today almost all practicing architects in the United States are, in the broadest sense, modernists. Just ask the thousands of architects in town this week attending the 2012 American Institute of Architects national convention. Their talents and aesthetic tastes vary widely, but few design buildings replicating architecture of the past or buildings festooned with historic motifs and ornamentation borrowed from previous centuries.

While there may be some consensus regarding style within the ranks of the profession, I have found the general public is not aligned with that view. Architecture is very much a public art and so it should respond responsibly to the public’s desires. In the absence of wide ranging consensus, another criteria must be used to evaluate the merit of a design.

I don’t believe the notion that architecture “of today” is necessarily modern or not traditional. I believe that a design can be “of today” and take on many different expressions and that rich variety should be celebrated. I think that the narrow aesthetic bias expressed in the current understanding of what “of today” means is based on weak assumptions and faulty logic. One of the biggest faults is a fundamental misunderstanding of architectural tradition and history.

Misunderstanding of Architectural History

Architecture for thousands of years shared a common language - a respect for gravity, a philosophy of repose, principles of balance, poetic expression of structure, and a truthfulness in materiality. This is a language that is both intuitively understood and commonly ingrained in the general public. The modern notion of architecture that denies the public it’s thousands of years of collective understanding of the language of building is elitist at best and downright spiteful at worst. It is particularly bad when a fundamental misunderstanding of architectural history is used to defend such design.

I have seen slide shows created using pictures of historic buildings to try and defend modern designs. The argument goes that the old buildings were “of their time” and were probably “shocking”, “alien”, and “looked like spaceships had landed” to the people of that time. This belies a fundamental rewrite or misunderstanding of architectural history. In the early to mid 20th century there was a concerted effort by the architectural elite to make a clean break with tradition and do something new. Previously, all architectural movements shared commonality in their treatment of gravity, composition, structure, and material. Architectural expression could vary tremendously but the underlying principles were quite similar. The modern movement subverted the old principles with entirely new principles. The problem is that the architectural elite has yet to convince society that their way is better.

If everything is a remix, then the primary difference between the traditionalist and the modernist is that the traditionalist recognizes, celebrates, and builds upon the precedent while the modernist naively believes they are unique and original. That’s not to say that ideas can’t be novel and groundbreaking - sometimes the confluence of original design with the disparate external influences creates something magical and unique. It is important, though, to recognize that there are many influences on design and the legacy of the past is rich in meaning and learning if we only allow ourselves to use it.

A Better Criteria: “Of Place”

What then, can we use as a metric for evaluating design. I propose that we stop focusing on Time and start focusing on Place. To be “of today” is less important than to be grounded in “Place”. Place includes culture, climate, environment, and yes tradition. These are measurable, debatable, and tangible ideas that will enable a rich dialogue of what appropriate design looks like. The arbitrary nature of “today” is replaced with the still subjective but also rooted in reality notion of “place”. We can learn these things. We can quantify local climate and environment. We can qualify local culture. We can document the rich legacy in the built environment. We can learn to know a place. This is a fitting basis of design. How this is combined with current movements to create an expression that is “of our time and place” is the exciting challenge.

  1. This article might seem like a critique of modernism but it isn’t intended to be. The reason modernism is mentioned critically in this post is that it is modern architects who most frequently use the “of our time” rationale for design. My criticisms of modernism in this piece are purely reactionary to my disdain for the term “of today”. I do have a traditional leaning but I find value in many other disciplines as well. I dislike intensely the marginalization of traditional architecture through the current usage of the notion “of today”.  ↩
  2. Unless one is explicitly trying to replicate the past, any current building endeavor regardless of style will be “of today” strictly because building techniques and materials have changed so much. It is very difficult to create a truly historicist architecture simply because the craftsmen and skills have changed.  ↩

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Reader Comments (2)

Excellent post... Thanks! Two thoughts: it's actually worse than meaningless because insisting that design be "of our time" means that we must continually throw things away. As you've noted, that which is most intensely "of our time" is most quickly "outtadate" tomorrow. That has meaning... serious meaning. Also, to expand on points you've raised in this post, I'd say that building things that are "of us" and "of here" trends toward timeless design because the essence of being human changes very slowly, as do regional climate and conditions. We still live on earth, after all. Or at least eaarth. Judging from some recent design, you'd think we might be on Mars. Or Uranus.

June 21, 2012 at 12:48 PM | Unregistered CommenterSteve Mouzon

@Steve Mouzon - I responded via twitter but thought I'd expand a little here as well. An interesting angle on sustainability emerged from your comment. If a building isn't valued and loved, it will ultimately be discarded (probably prematurely) which will greatly diminish the "greenness" of the original endeavor. All of that embodied energy is lost and must be replaced by more embodied energy in a new building. In that view, a timeless building that lasts for generations is greener than the LEED Certified "green" first building that is discarded in 20 years. That's not to say that a timeless building shouldn't strive for responsible sustainability. It should, and if truly contextual, will respond in a honest sustainable manner.

June 22, 2012 at 3:35 PM | Registered CommenterGregory Jones

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