Why are architects so obsessed with schools and rules?

What we build.
Feb. 4 2009 11:18 AM

That Dogma Won't Hunt

Why are architects so obsessed with schools and rules?

The Comcast Center in Philadelphia. Click image to expand.
The Comcast Center in Philadelphia

"Architecture is an art, not a religion—there are no dogmas," declared Robert A.M. Stern during a recent lecture in Washington, D.C., on the occasion of receiving the Vincent Scully Prize, named in honor of the esteemed architectural historian. It was hardly an unexpected statement, coming from Stern, who is the least dogmatic of architects and whose work spans the stylistic spectrum. In my own Philadelphia, standing almost within view of one another, are Stern's small Federal-style campus building at the University of Pennsylvania; his modernist all-glass 57-story Comcast Center; and, under construction on Rittenhouse Square, his brick-and-limestone residential tower, which recalls a downtown apartment house of the 1920s.

Architecture, the pragmatic art of the possible, is always a compromise between the client's demands; the exigencies of the site; the taste of the moment; and the constraints of budget, technology, and building regulations. Consequently, you might think that dogma would be the farthest thing from an architect's mind. Not so. The history of architecture abounds in unbending pronouncements: "Form follows function," "ornament is a crime," "less is more," "less is a bore," and so on. These assertions are modern, but the doctrinal tradition is ancient. The first architectural treatise ever written, Vitruvius' Roman handbook, is essentially a compilation of rules: This is the proper way to design a temple, a Doric column must have these proportions, and so on.

Architects are unbending in their judgments. My Modernist friends hold multipaned windows, ogee moldings, and wallpaper beneath contempt; my Classicist friends deride bare walls, uncomfortable furniture, and pipe railings. You'd think that in a world of shoddy and mindless building design—of ugly, big boxes and airports that resemble bus stations—any attempt to raise the architectural bar would be appreciated. Instead, the verbal rockets fly: self-indulgent, irrational, and trendy from one side; nostalgic, retrograde, and derivative from the other.

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Why are architects so dogmatic? Partly, it's because architecture is a zero-sum game. A publisher of novels doesn't have to choose between Tom Clancy and Tom Wolfe, but a building client must choose one architect. Thus architects are obliged to compete. It helps to convey an air of inevitability about one's design. In fact, there may be many acceptable solutions to any particular building problem; architecture is not engineering, after all, but acknowledging diversity risks making the architect appear whimsical, a creature of fashion. To convince the client—and perhaps themselves—of the rightness of their ideas, architects are best off being dogmatic. There is only one right way—my way.

A tendency toward inflexibility is also the result of a need for consistency; even an eclectic architect stays within relatively rigid stylistic boundaries in any particular project. There is a place for tempered-glass railings and wrought-iron balustrades, but it's generally not side-by-side in the same building. Architects who mix and match—the mercurial British maverick James Stirling comes to mind—are few and far between. Most designers tend to develop a relatively narrow language of architectural forms, materials, and details—minimalist or articulated, light or heavy, purist or traditional, technological or hand-crafted—and stick to it.

The point that Stern, who is dean of the Yale school of architecture, was making in his Washington lecture was that while a tendency toward the dogmatic may be inevitable and even necessary in the architectural profession, it should not be allowed to infect teaching. Architecture students should be exposed to the widest possible range of contemporary ideas in order to find their own way. In the process, they will learn the most important lesson of architectural history: There are no right and wrong styles, only well- and poorly conceived buildings.

Witold Rybczynski is Slate's architecture critic His latest book is The Biography of a Building: How Robert Sainsbury and Norman Foster Built a Great Museum. Visit his Web site. Follow him on Twitter.