I have just started as a first-year architecture student and I have already broadened my perspective on architecture so much in such a short time and how much more there is to know! A few ideas have been on my mind on a very complex and vast topic namely: what is regarded as canonical architecture and who decides what counts as one? This is an attempt to draw attention to assumptions that we, as a collective, make from a western perspective regarding high architecture – something worth studying – and the opposite, low architecture.
The architectural canon is defined by power relations which operate through hierarchies often framed in binaries. There is a tendency to think in good and bad, high and low architecture that is especially apparent when looking at power dynamics geographically. Considering that the context of two buildings will never be exactly the same, it is nearly impossible to rank them, which questions the way architecture is evaluated and deemed worthy of study. How the architectural canon is shaped defines collective and institutional thinking, which in turn reproduce power hierarchies that benefit only the ones in power. In order to deconstruct hierarchical assumptions defined by collective thinking and education, the first step is to realise how embedded they are and question what is considered legitimate architecture, without dismissing the value of canonical architecture.
In two widely taught books on modern architecture by William Curtis and Kenneth Frampton, both published in the 1980’s, Modernism is considered an expression of western knowledge which is ‘the intellectual property of certain countries in Western Europe, of the United States and of some parts of the Soviet Union’ 1 and ‘its results were copied all around the world’ 2. Modernism is presented as a high style, as canonical and as what one should aspire to. In relation to that, Curtis mentions modernism in the context outside the above mentioned regions: ‘by the end of the 1950s, transformations, deviations and devaluations of modern architecture had found their way to many other areas of the world’ 3. ’These forms were usually lacking the poetry and depth of meaning of the masterworks of the modern movement’ 4. In the universalising currents of the 1980’s, Frampton’s ‘critical regionalism’ was a new architectural position which strove for some form of political independence and to preserve local culture. However, the idea that modernism operates only in one direction – starting from the centre to then spread to the periphery – is still present in how Frampton defines ‘critical regionalism’. In this understanding, modernism is represented only by high architects, and even after the diffusion of modernism in the world it is assumed that peripheral cultures solely imitate European high modernist architects and derive elements from their local vernacular that they appropriate to articulate them in high-art buildings. Even if globalising trends are combined with local needs, modernist architecture of the countries outside the Western world is often personified, reducing it to a form of architecture that is mainly practiced by architects trained in respect of higher traditions. Fernando Luiz Lara includes in his writing Modernism Made Vernacular a quote of Keith Eggener: ‘it is ironic that writers discussing the places where these designs appeared so often emphasized one architect’s interpretation of the region over all others: Tadao Ando for Japan, Oscar Niemeyer for Brazil, Charles Correa for India and Luis Barragán for Mexico’ 5. In that sense we assume that ideas are only coming from the top, however this can be challenged.
Thinking of modernism as an expression of western knowledge which should be followed and copied blindly in other parts of the world is a misconception. ‘Brazilian radicals were predisposed to challenge foreigners’ stereotypical views of their country and then to cannibalize such ideas for their own purposes’ 6. Le Corbusier’s visit to Brazil was undeniably very influential on modern Brazilian architecture, however locals were not simply passive consumers of his ideas. The prologue of Précisions by Le Corbusier, which was influenced by the thesis of the youth of São Paulo based on the cannibalistic metaphor, is proof that the spread of modernism was not unilateral. Looking at Lara’s writing, he illustrates well how people come up with ideas from the bottom discussing how the hybrid architecture of postcolonial Brazil emerges. Lara dismantles the dichotomy between modern and vernacular, showing examples of how ‘elements of high architecture are appropriated by laypeople and rearticulated into the vernacular’ 7. He even argues that house owners have adapted and applied modernist vocabulary to their own homes, which were not designed by architects, but built only with the help of a contractor and unskilled laborers. He goes as far as saying that ‘even the poorest favelas are constructed using modern principles’ 8. This statement is not to be misunderstood and misused to promote that anyone could practice architecture regardless of qualifications and disregard the value of expertise and education. Rather, it is imperative to take hybrid culture as seriously as high architecture and acknowledge it as its own vernacular future.
Today, more and more people are challenging and questioning both hierarchies, and the ideological assumptions that emanate from collective thinking and from institutions that are in fact orienting power which in turn reproduce power. Similarly, the language used to describe modern architecture is framed in binaries which contributes to maintaining existing hierarchies. The dual framing of high and low manifestations of architecture is inherently loaded with assumptions of power hierarchy benefitting only the ones at the top. Andrade’s Manifesto Antropófago exposes many of these binaries ‘civilization and savagery, superiority and inferiority, and originality and imitation’ 9. Andrade’s writing was an attempt to empower the peripheral post-colonial culture by ‘re-centering the core versus periphery relationship, which posited the values of the European culture as universal truths, and regarded the primitive beliefs and social substandard’ 10. Almost a hundred years later, the balance of centre and periphery is still not achieved. I am struggling to find the perfect wording to convey my thoughts as, regardless of the language I use, it is loaded with assumptions and is often outdated. Words such as ‘Global South’; ‘The West’; ‘Western world’; ‘centre and periphery’; ‘developed nations’; ‘developing nations’; ‘high and low architecture’; ‘informal’; ‘slums’; ‘primitive’, to name a few, are loaded with assumptions of power hierarchy. In order to understand what is called architecture, and understand what legitimate architecture is, the language used to discuss and describe architecture needs to be rethought.
Realising how deep rooted assumptions are and how embedded they are in collective thinking is imperative. Becoming aware and critical of how education is structured – including the architectural canon – is a major part of deconstructing hierarchical presumptions based on geographical location. In the books of Curtis and Frampton, two books considered canonical, there is a great geographical imbalance in terms of the material covered. The fact that the curriculum is constructed from a western perspective comes as no surprise and is not necessarily wrong. But the way architecture history is taught and which books are used should be revised. Rather than looking at architecture in relation to Europe, teaching a methodology of how students can approach different cultures would be crucial. Diversifying the invited guest critics would also help to engage with different perspectives. When widening and including new architecture worthy of study to the canon, a number of excluding factors come into play such as limitation by the location, sources and languages of the Western world, which all makes it more difficult to collect information and understand architecture outside the canon, but that does not mean we should not try. We need to involve more people in questioning the hierarchies, which is not about dismissing the value of education, expertise, craftsmanship and life experience of the canon, but about acknowledging other views and perspectives and seeing them as equals.
1 William J. R. Curtis, ‘The Process and Absorption: Latin America, America, Australia, Japan’ in London: Phaidon (ed), Modern Architecture since (1996 ) p. 491.
2 William J. R. Curtis, ‘The Process and Absorption: Latin America, America, Australia, Japan’ in London: Phaidon (ed), Modern Architecture since (1996 ) p. 567.
3 William J. R. Curtis, ‘The Process and Absorption: Latin America, America, Australia, Japan’ in London: Phaidon (ed), Modern Architecture since (1996 ) p. 491.
4 William J. R. Curtis, ‘The Process and Absorption: Latin America, America, Australia, Japan’ in London: Phaidon (ed), Modern Architecture since (1996 ) p. 567.
5 Fernando Luiz Lara, ‘Modernism Made Vernacular: The Brazilian Case’, Journal of Architectural Education, vol. 63, vo. 1 (2009), pp. 41-42.
6 Valerie Fraser, ‘Cannibalizing Le Corbusier: The MES Gardens of Roberto Burle Marx’, Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, vol. 59, no. 2 (2000), p. 191.
7 Fernando Luiz Lara, ‘Modernism Made Vernacular: The Brazilian Case’, Journal of Architectural Education, vol. 63, vo. 1 (2009), p. 42.
8 Fernando Luiz Lara, ‘Modernism Made Vernacular: The Brazilian Case’, Journal of Architectural Education, vol. 63, vo. 1 (2009), p. 41.
9 Antonio Luciano de Andrade Tosta, ‘Modern and postcolonial? Oswald de Andrade’s “Antropofagia” and the politics of labeling’, Romance Notes, vol. 51, no. 2 (2011), p. 218.
10 Antonio Luciano de Andrade Tosta, ‘Modern and postcolonial? Oswald de Andrade’s “Antropofagia” and the politics of labeling’, Romance Notes, vol. 51, no. 2 (2011), p. 221.
- Frampton, K. (2010 ), Modern Architecture: A Critical History. London: Thames & Hudson
- Curtis, W. (2009 ), Modern Architecture since 1900. London: Phaidon