The Return of Rationality?

December 8, 2009

About ten years ago the Architectural Record, I suppose feeling that it was no longer a cutting edge publication, initiated a yearly survey of what was supposed to be cutting edge in design.The magazine continued to publish the work of well-established firms, mainly starchitects, while also noting the emergence of what it calls the Design Vanguard. (Note the clever avoidance of avant garde). For most of the last decade the DV firms were indeed out there on the edge of what most architects do, and much of the work was, frankly, not worth looking at. We saw light construction, virtual  transparencies, blobs, shards, computer morphs, mobius strips, and every manifestation of formal gobbledygook. Whenever the dreaded issue arrived I would simply toss it in the nearest trash bin.

This year I was curious about the vanguard. Would the young turks be angry at the collapse of capitalist excess like the rest of us? As I leafed through the pages I sensed a real change in attitude. Projects were smaller, more modest, and deliberately less complex (and expensive). Less was patently unbuildable. Most astonishingly, fewer designers were loathe to use parallel planes. The words “order,” “simple,” “historical,” “natural,” and “craft” appeared, and often! Were my eyes deceiving me?

Dare I say that these architects generally designed within the bounds of economical, buildable, and socially useful forms, usually rectangular ones. When Modernism was a vanguard, this attitude was called “rational,” and architects saw order not as one concept among many, but a manifestation of the human brain’s need for structure and symmetry. As we know more and more about the brain, it appears that the term “rationality” can be more precisely associated with forms that are conducive to the brain’s tendency to project an ordered world.

One architect in particular, seemed to project this very human sensibility–Spain’s Jose Maria Sanchez-Garcia. Even his name has an Everyman kind of ring–Joseph John Q. Jones-Smith, roughly translated. His work is simple, modest, appropriate, and kind to the environment. Will more young architects begin to design in this way? I hope so. Rational architecture is universal–classical architecture is the ultimate rational architecture. Modern forms that echo the order of the classical world, like some shown in this “vanguard,” will last more than a generation. Perhaps they should have called it the “rear guard.”

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