January 2, 2009

Pastiche Ban a Stealth Ban on Classicism

Over at Greater Greater Washington a debate has been raging about an editorial penned by the English architect Robert Adam about the use of the term "pastiche." Adam makes the argument that the term pastiche, at least in the British dominions, has become a sort of buzzword used by contemporary critics to lambaste the New Classical architecture as some sort of schlock. Adam is justifiably incensed. Even the most elementary student of rhetoric would know the use of the "P word" is the worst sort of straw man argument.

Pastiche, which Adam defines as “a composition made up of bits of other works or imitations of another’s style,” is indeed a ignominious thing. Certainly the term is properly applied to a lot of bad architecture, as a commenter on GGW noted:

"Essentially, the clearest embodiment of pastiche is the McMansion. Where builders use "traditional" materials and forms, picking a little bit of this and a little bit of that, layer them all on top of each other without rhyme or reason, put them all together and in their marketing materials call it the King George Plantation model 5-bedroom, 3-car garage "traditional architecture." That is pastiche."

McMansion showing typical lack of harmonious composition.

Clearly, there is a lot of this sort of architecture out there, especially in the US. Such a thing rightfully should be avoided, but when this sort of bad non-architecture is connected with all New Classical architecture, the straw man pops his head out of the cornfield. This crow however is not fooled such scarecrows.

The distinction missed in the connection is the "rhyme or reason" of a properly educated architect. The trained eye of a Classical architect knows the difference between good and bad architecture and knows how to compose a beautiful building. The untrained eye sees no difference between the "McMansion" and a historic Alexandria Georgian manor house.

Kingfishers House by Robert Adam Architects (1998)

So too the critic blurs the distinction between the untrained cacophony of most suburban tracts and a harmonious composition made by one trained in the principles of architecture. However, unlike the merely ignorant, the critic blurs this distinction mendaciously.

This is what raises the hackles of the New Classicist Adam, that the critic knows better, but lumps the good in with the bad, so the critic's own ideology remains triumphant. But this triumph rests on shaky rhetorical grounds, and one wonders what other assumptions of the current architectural status-quo have equally shaky foundations? It remains to reform education about art and architecture, as well as understanding of rhetoric to counter such mendacity, that however is another discussion.


Polybius, the Cosmopolitan said...

What is mistakenly seen as pastiche in the Kingfishers house? The smaller adjacent part of the building? Please explain more specifically how the Georgian Manor House avoids the term pastiche.

Boots said...

The modernist critic would see the whole thing as pastiche. Despite the house being composed well and all the parts working well together in a consistent mode. I'm not sure there ever was a particular criticism of the house but it's the sort of broad brush that is used these days.

The Georgian Manor house, one built in the Georgian Era, wouldn't be pastiche either because it isn't the pasting together in an UNEDUCATED manner parts from diverse places.

I think Adam makes a good point that all architecture melds together motifs from different times and places, but the critical distinction is the existence or lack of cohesion in the parts. This is due to a presence or lack of an informed use of composition.

Knowing what sort of mouldings can work with other mouldings, columns, windows etc, because of the proportions is the key. Certainly Wright used Japanese elements in his Prairie style, but this wasn't called pastiche because he composed them well.

Things That Inspire said...

I thoroughly enjoyed this post. I am not an architect, but have a strong interest in classical architecture and enjoy reading posts like this that help educate my mind and my eye.

We have a lot of horrific McMansions around Atlanta, and even more in the suburbs. Alas, even the untrained eye can see the poor design of these homes, and many of them are languishing on the market right now, white elephants in every way.

Anonymous said...

The internet's funny. I got sucked over here because of today's Gehry post. I wandered down and saw your old article about Pastiche. You pulled a quote from GGW's article and comments. That was my quote! Hooray, I'm quotable. I matter! I remember the comment but had to go back to GGW to remember the whole thing.

Yes I'm an ND grad like you; the first classical class back in '93. I can tell the difference between pastiche McMansions that makes me wretch and well done new classical that I can appreciate. I can also tell the difference between a well done modern building and a pastiche of modernist tropes that makes me wretch.

I'm looking for design, not dogma.

Boots said...

Well drop me a line erikbootsma (at) yahoo.com let me know who you are! Always happy to meet another domer!

Indeed your quote was good.

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