In praise of pastiche

Words by Samuel Hughes
19th October 2020
Issue 2

Building traditionalist architecture today is derided as inauthentic pastiche. But this perspective turns a blind eye to the dramatic and sophisticated ways that design has been applied throughout history.

Culture

One of the most powerful words in modern architectural criticism is that of ‘pastiche’. In one of its senses, a building is a pastiche if it exhibits one or more established styles in a jumbled way, either due to incompetence or to some kind of playfulness. This is a useful concept, which picks out an important feature of many buildings.

I am concerned here with a second sense that pastiche has acquired. In this sense, a modern building is pastiche just if it is built in a traditional style, even if it is very accomplished as such. The buildings of Ben Pentreath are thus pastiches of Georgian architecture, those of Hassan Fathy are pastiches of Egyptian vernacular, and those of Ong-ard Satrabhandhu are pastiches of Thai and Italian traditions. Perhaps the most famous example of pastiche in this sense is Poundbury, an urban extension to Dorchester built with the support of the Prince of Wales.

Poundbury, Dorset. Author’s collection.

Poundbury, Dorset. Author’s collection.

Pastiche in this sense is pejorative, carrying with it the implication that the buildings in question are somehow fake or inauthentic. Most of us feel the force of this idea, even those of us who tend to prefer old buildings to new ones. Many wonderful things were built in traditional styles, we feel, perhaps more than have been built in modernist ones. But those styles are somehow closed to us, and any attempt to revive them must embroil itself in kitsch and fakery. When I began thinking about this area, I accepted this idea as a datum. But I have found that it is surprisingly hard to defend. I now believe it to be false.

When people try to identify what is wrong with pastiche, I think the first idea they tend to strike on is that it is not original. Architects of the past created their own styles, as do the modernists. Only the modern traditionalists do not. Their work is mere copyism, not an original contribution to architecture.

It is easy to see why this reasoning, as stated, will not work as a general argument against pastiche. For it grossly overstates the importance of stylistic originality. It is true, of course, that stylistic originality can be a value in architecture, a great value in the case of a marvellously innovative architect like Guarini or Hawksmoor. But the vast majority of buildings in any period are not stylistically original. It is only a slight overstatement to say that Britain’s hundreds of thousands of Georgian terraced houses are all the same building, developed in the early eighteenth century and happily repeated for more than a hundred years. And in comparative terms, the Georgian terrace is short-lived: many rural building styles in the Mediterranean and the Middle East hardly changed between Antiquity and the twentieth century. Nor is it only vernacular architecture that often lacks stylistic originality: some great architects, like Kent and Chambers, were original at most only in the way they used a received style, not in the way they transformed it. Stylistic originality is an optional virtue possessed by a small minority of good buildings, not a condition of architectural legitimacy. It may be that contemporary traditionalists tend towards stylistic conservatism, but that is no more an argument against them than it is against the Tuscan farmhouse.

Timeless vernacular in Tuscany. Author’s collection.

Timeless vernacular in Tuscany. Author’s collection.

Sophisticated exponents of the pastiche argument are aware of this, and have more complex stories to tell about the problem with contemporary traditional architecture. I can look at only the most influential here, which focuses on the development of building technology. Premodern architects, the story goes, used the best materials and methods that were available to them. They worked with stone, wood and brick, in varying proportions depending on their availability. When they had to span an opening, they used an arch; when they had to build a fireproof ceiling, they used a vault. The basic structure of their buildings was usually that of the load-bearing wall: the floors and roofs rested on the walls, which had to be thick enough to bear their weight. Everywhere we find architects ingeniously using the available technology to its limits to build the strongest, best, most useful buildings possible.

In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, there was a series of revolutions in building technology. Plate glass makes very large glazed surfaces possible, while steel makes it possible to span enormous openings without an arch. Most importantly, engineers develop the steel or reinforced concrete frame, and later the reinforced concrete core. If a building’s floors and roof rest on a frame, the walls lose their load-bearing function: they can be replaced with plates of glass without compromising the building’s structural integrity.

As the story goes, architects respond to this development in two ways. The traditionalists make use of modern technologies for structural purposes, but allow these new technologies little or no expression in their buildings’ appearances. Their steel frames are covered by stone or brick veneers, their windows are spanned by redundant arches, and their halls are covered by useless vaults. Their architecture pretends to be working in the old way, though in fact it is working in the new. The modernists, by contrast, devise a new style that gives expression to the revolution in structures that lies beneath. Brick, stone and wood give way to glass and steel. Useless arches and vaults are dispensed with. The redundant wall is abolished and replaced with a light membrane of glass, which divides interior from exterior space without imitating the powerful load-bearing walls of the past. This conclusion is visible in different ways in the pilotis and strip windows of Le Corbusier, the steel cages of Mies van der Rohe, and the stacked horizontal slabs of Denys Lasdun.

None of these three London buildings has load-bearing walls, but only those on the right express this outwardly. Author’s collection.

None of these three London buildings has load-bearing walls, but only those on the right express this outwardly. Author’s collection.

The brilliant thing about this story, if it is accurate, is that it reveals the modernists as the true successors of the great architects of the past. Superficially, to be sure, a Neo-Georgian building looks more like an eighteenth century building than its modernist counterpart does. But the true Georgian and the modernist have something deeper in common: both of their architectures are ‘structurally honest’ in the sense that there is no divergence between structural appearances and realities. It is in departing from this that modern traditionalism becomes pastiche. This conclusion enables the modernist critic to condemn contemporary traditional work without having to defy our critical judgements by condemning the traditional architecture of the past.

The great problem with this argument is that it rests on an almost completely factitious account of the history of architecture. It simply untrue that structural honesty is the historical norm: in fact, virtually the whole history of architecture is a counterexample.

Start with materials. Most prestigious buildings from premodern Europe, as in the Middle East and India, appear to be built of large square-cut blocks of stone (‘ashlar’). But in fact, very few are. In virtually every major building from the Coliseum through the Gothic cathedrals to the Palladian country house, the ashlar facade hides an interior built of less refined (and cheaper) materials, usually brick or rubble mortar. The history of architecture is rife with such imitative surfaces: rustication, stucco facades, facing bricks, mathematical tiles, tuck pointing, wood staining, Coade stone, scagliola and many others. Even the humble brick arches over Georgian windows normally conceal timber lintels that do most of the structural work: the Georgians thought timber lintels were unseemly and revealed them only in occasional cottages and farm buildings. Buildings that are basically honest about their materials have always been the exception, and have tended to occur when their owners could not afford facing materials, or when, as in the limestone Cotswold villages, the finest materials happened to be easily available.

The structurally dishonest character of older architecture goes deeper than this. The mainstream of premodern European architecture, the classical tradition, originated in Greek temple architecture. Greek temple architecture is not wall-based: it is a column-based system, famously distinguishing three ‘orders’ of columns with slightly different details and proportions. Columnar architecture is effectively useless for everything except verandas and porches, for the obvious reason that it does not create enclosed rooms. So in order to apply classicism to other building types, architects merged the columns into the walls as ‘engaged orders’ or ‘pilaster orders’. Engaged and pilaster orders are usually structurally redundant: the wall is quite strong enough to stand up by itself. Their purpose has always been primarily aesthetic: they visually structure the wall, or, as we picturesquely say, they ‘articulate’ it. The mainstream of European architecture has thus been a wall-based system dressed up as a column-based system since the time of the Roman Empire.

Unstructural engaged orders in Prague. Author’s collection.

Unstructural engaged orders in Prague. Author’s collection. 

In fact, even the structural honesty of the original Greek temple is doubtful. If you look at a Greek temple, you will notice that the element that comes above the columns (the ‘architrave’) appears to be one very long horizontal piece of stone. But of course no blocks of stone are that long: the architrave is made up of lots of smaller pieces of stone that have been carved so that they appear to be a long continuous beam. We have become so accustomed to stone classical buildings that we often fail to notice this, but what we are actually seeing here is stone emulating the forms of wood. And sure enough, architectural historians generally accept a ‘petrification theory’ of classical architecture, according to which it developed from wooden structures and intentionally recalled their forms (see this helpful diagram and this reconstruction). For a golden age of structurally honest classical architecture, then, we would have to go back to the age of these conjectural wooden temples – none of which survives! This pattern of evolution is far from unique to Greek architecture. Petrified wooden forms are frequently found in the traditional architectures of India and parts of South-East Asia, and sometimes also of China and Korea.

These deceptions can stack up in spectacular ways. Europe is full of brick buildings that have been carefully stuccoed, painted and scored to emulate stone, this pretend stone then being shaped into unstructural engaged orders to emulate the forms of wood. In America, it was common to build Greek Revival houses from timber painted to resemble marble, creating an even more remarkable double-deception, in which wood emulates stone emulating wood.

Brick imitating stone imitating wood in Brno, Czechia. Author’s collection.

Brick imitating stone imitating wood in Brno, Czechia. Author’s collection.

So: it is perfectly true that contemporary traditional architecture tends to be structurally dishonest. But traditional architecture has always tended to be structurally dishonest. So if this is what makes contemporary traditional architecture pastiche, then most traditional architecture has been pastiche since the faux timbering of the Parthenon. Contemporary traditional architects have most of the great builders of our history as their companions in guilt.

The modernist critic thus has two alternatives: either to concede that neither the modern nor the premodern traditional architect is a pastiche artist, or to claim that both are, and hence that Greek, Roman, Renaissance, Baroque architecture – and potentially many others – should all be condemned as fake. The latter option is consistent, but hard to take seriously. It is difficult to resist the conclusion that, however important an understanding of structure may be in our appreciation of certain buildings, structural honesty is no more necessary to good architecture than originality is.

All this hints at something deeper. We have spoken here of ‘deception’ and ‘dishonesty’, but of course traditional architects were not really trying to deceive anyone when they put an ashlar facade on a brick structure. Deception and dishonesty imply an attempt to mislead, but nobody has ever tried to conceal that ashlar facing was standard practice or that applied orders are not load-bearing. What pastiche architects actually sought, and seek, is not analogous to deception, but rather to tact, courtesy and decorum, to presenting an appearance to the world that everyone knows is not the whole truth, but that is presented nonetheless out of consideration for others. If indeed we have grown uneasy with this, we should ask ourselves why.

Tact, courtesy and decorum in Bangkok: Kiatnakin Bank by Ong-ard Satrabhandhu. Image reproduced by kind permission of Ong-ard Architects.

Tact, courtesy and decorum in Bangkok: Kiatnakin Bank by Ong-ard Satrabhandhu. Image reproduced by kind permission of Ong-ard Architects.