If you were to conduct a survey of stores selling furniture or light fixtures, you probably would find that most of their inventory is stylistically "traditional," not "contemporary."
People in America's suburbs overwhelmingly prefer "traditional" rather than "modern" homes. Subdivisions are full of houses styled "colonial," "Federalist," "Queen Anne," "Cape Cod" or "Tudor." The majority of houses built around D.C. have porches, pediments, pilasters, columns with capitals, cornices and trim -- both exterior and interior -- whose decorative origins are classical, not modern.
Lawyers, doctors, accountants, trade associations, corporations and government officials often furnish their office interiors with furniture and decoration recalling or replicating styles of the 18th and 19th centuries, despite the stylistic aspirations of the buildings they occupy.
To many people, modern architectural motifs may seem appropriate for commercial and institutional buildings; but these same individuals persist in adhering to traditional motifs when shaping personal environments.
Why do so many people reject modernism? Did modern architects fail to interpret properly both history and public taste when searching for new architectural languages? Were American homebuilders, furniture producers and antique dealers ahead of architects in understanding the relationship between style, culture and consumption?
Recall Washington's history. Born in the 18th century, it soon acquired its own distinct architectural heritage of classicism and historic revivalism, exemplified by its monuments and buildings, both public and private. In no other American city is this heritage so strong or so readily perceived. This is true today even though few classically styled buildings were built in D.C. between 1945 and 1975.
Modern buildings in the nation's capital, no matter how well designed, always seemed out of place to some Washingtonians. What proved comfortable in Chicago, New York, Philadelphia or Los Angeles just didn't seem to fit comfortably here.
Yet in the 1960s, "good" architects didn't "do" historicist buildings. Such projects were left for those considered hacks or panderers to low-brow tastes. Many architects still practiced according to the exclusivist manifestos and principles of orthodox modernism -- less is more, form follows function. It was only a matter of time before mainstream sensitivities and taste would embrace the sophisticated values of modern architecture -- or so we all believed.
Well, not all. Robert Venturi wrote "Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture" in 1966. His "gentle" manifesto proclaimed that "a valid order accommodates the circumstantial contradictions of a complex reality."
Hybrid designs that have "messy vitality" were preferable to pure and simple ones. "Less is a bore," he wrote, arguing that richness of meaning was better than clarity of meaning -- that "more is not less."
What did all this mean to architects? Venturi's manifesto challenged many assumptions made by modern architects as to what role architecture plays in society. Venturi suggested that architecture is a medium, not a machine. Buildings could be both symbolic and literal conveyors of messages and memories; this ultimately might be more important than their functional performance or formal rationality and simplicity.
Venturi advocated being inclusive rather than exclusive. He praised ambiguity, plurality and multiplicity in style and meaning, whether for a building or a city. It was no sin to use ordinary elements -- the "honky-tonk," the profane -- to make designed environments. Venturi rejected notions of utopian perfectability, asserting that "Main Street, USA" was not only reality, but also was aesthetically desirable.
Suddenly, the old rules were called into question. It was as if any design at all, even if ugly, might be appropriate if its decoration provided sufficient doses of nostalgic relevance and meaning. These historical and cultural references would be read like a book or experienced like the Las Vegas strip. No compelling, abstract, utopian order was needed.
Similar or derivative themes were sounded by other architectural theoreticians and practitioners. They advocated a "collage" approach to design coupled with the direct use of architectural history, both American and European. In the past resided the primary sources for creating buildings rich in symbolism and allusion, artifacts of memory as well as innovation and prophecy. Abstract, high-tech or platonic geometries of the modern movement, denuded of ornament, were judged incapable of providing any of this.
To strict modernists who believed themselves liberated from the irrational manners of historicism, revivalism and eclecticism, this seemed heretical. Were there really no timeless, universal, immutable principles? Was the choice of design styles and motifs merely a matter of personal taste and variable circumstances?
Some architects believed that this new heresy, soon to be labeled "post-modernism," was merely a polemical reaction to the failure of many modern buildings to charm the public, to solve society's problems or to achieve other lofty goals enunciated by the original apostles who brought the word from Europe. Some thought it was simply the next phase in the diversification of modernism and were less worried about its polemics.
But to many Washingtonians and Washington architects, it meant that 19th- and early 20th-century ideas, along with those of Rome and the Renaissance, once again could be legitimately resurrected, transformed and applied in the 1970s and 1980s.
Only marginally comfortable with many brands of modernism, Washington was a ready and willing recipient of the neo-historicist architecture that Venturi's polemic would unleash. With stylistic liberty and free choice presumably reestablished (ironically, modernism supposedly had freed architecture from Beaux Arts imprisonment), designers of new Washington architecture could access the past at will.
Since the mid-1970s, many new buildings, most of them privately developed, would wear post-modernism's imprecise label, or a piece of it. These fundamentally modern structures have facades that distinguish them in one or several ways from their more orthodox modern brethren:
* They may be polychromatic, using pastel colors and diverse materials, rather than being predominantly monchromatic and monolithic;
* They may use classical elements, building fragments and ornamental details -- Greek or Roman columns, arches and keystones, cornices, pediments, entablatures, friezes and trim;
* They may echo or caricature such classical elements or motifs without literally duplicating them (they may be painted on or made of metal, plastic, or plywood);
* They may collage diverse stylistic elements and motifs to achieve visual complexity while still alluding to some single historical style or building overall;
* They may replicate or recall a specific historic building or style of the past -- unabashed revivalism -- or they may be zealously contextual, mirroring the compositional and stylistic attributes of neighboring or abutting buildings.
The historic building preservation movement also contributed to the growth of post-modernism in Washington. The reuse of old buildings or incorporation of their disembodied facades into new buildings led architects to relearn historical styles as they were increasingly obliged to cope with them in practice.
Given post-modernism, is "traditional" modernism dead? Hardly! But one thing is evident: Stylistic pluralism, eclecticism and permissiveness are today's ordering principles. Architectural styles, like other fashions, now emerge and change at an unprecedented rate.
NEXT WEEK: The current stylistic mix.