If I could permanently ban a word from general usage, which one would it be? Since I write about architecture, the word that first came to mind is style.
I’ve been clear all along I don’t like this word. It’s not that I don’t “like” style or that I can’t understand why people use the term. Admittedly it is difficult to describe the visual qualities of architecture without a simple term that endeavors to encompass the overall look into a single word or a means to liken works of architecture with others.
However, that’s part of the problem.
Trying to boil down a work of architecture into a single word is trying to describe your wife/husband, child, Mom or your faith or something else very important to you into one single word. I find it difficult or unfair to liken a work of architecture with another. How can you qualify one building against another, especially if it is only through a photograph or simple visual cues?
The other reason I dislike the word is people (innocently) see the visual characteristics of architecture as merely that, a style. It is as if the designer merely adds make-up or a cloak over top of a functional box and dares call it architecture. One could take the “jacket” of one style off and replace it with another. Do you think I’m kidding; look around people? It happens all of the time. One of the frustrating questions I’ve gotten is from someone looking at a (suburban) house from the late 20th century and asking me “what style is this house?” I think they’re expecting a term like Colonial, French Chateauesque or Greek Revival. I’m sorry, but your house is none of those and I really don’t have a term for it.
Where is the experience, the mood, or other measures for how architecture works and makes one feel or behave in their setting? How do the visual elements work in concert with the functional elements? Are all objects just pasted on in the mind of the public? Don’t we as architects have the responsibility to include elements not just for mere looks but to serve a purpose or achieve another goal?
Don’t misunderstand me now. I don’t find a conflict in good looking architecture for the sake of it looking good. People hire us for that sometimes. I do believe in branding and that architecture can give a business an image, serve to lend identity and that in turn can make the business or institution more successful. Colors and other visual qualities do impact our moods and behavior. However, that is part of the functional aspects of visual elements. But is that all the visual characteristics do?
I think the word style gets in the way of people understanding what architects really do. Perhaps its innocent perhaps it’s amoral, but people want choices. They like what they like and when they choose a building, a car, their hairdo or even lunch they want a certain quality to it that is typically described as style.
Frankly, I find it limiting. As soon as we state a “style”, then aren’t we constrained by the definition of that style, the rules of that style and the materials of that style? It shuts off the opportunity of knowing where the architecture could go based on more important criteria. On the other hand, our historic styles have been mutated and stretched beyond their rules by so many 20th and now 21st century designers decision makers to where we have lost a particular style’s true meaning. Again, this adds to my extreme dislike.
Is it more trouble than it’s worth? Does it cause confusion and misunderstanding? What does it bring to architecture? There’s no need to apologize for what looks good to your eyes. I understand you like things and don’t like things. I do too. However, I bet it’s not the style you like, it’s probably something else. Talking about that something else will have to wait for another day. Just don’t ask me about style.
photos are from bjearwicke’s stock photo gallery on Stock.Xchng (used under the Standard Restrictions)