In architecture, every design element or compositional tactic can become a visual cliche.
The dictionary defines a cliche as "a trite, stereotyped expression ... a popular or common thought or idea that has lost originality, ingenuity and impact by long overuse."
Avoiding the cliche is difficult for architects, even the most serious and talented ones. The cliche pitfall appears when designers, after dealing with "commodity" and "firmness," consciously try to apply "delight" based on what's published in cliche catalogues -- architecture and design magazines.
Architects invariably are torn between two potentially opposing design temptations. One invites exploitation and use of the familiar, the conventional, the tried-and-true. It extends traditions. The other seductively speaks of innovation, novelty, invention born of imagination as well as necessity. The latter strives for an original future while the former celebrates a known past.
It's possible to yield to both temptations, since they are not mutually exclusive. In fact, most great architecture is a blend of old and new ideas. But when does an architectural idea, old or new, become a cliche? Consider some currently fashionable architectural ideas, most of which are based on historical precedents, that readily can become cliches. The classical kit of parts: The facades of Greek and Roman temples have given us, from top to bottom: the triangular pediment (or gable); the cornice; the frieze; the column with its Doric, Ionic or Corinthian capital; and the podium or base on which it all sits.
Lately, temple facades have been seen fronting for fast food restaurants or stores in shopping malls. Sometimes they become cupolas on rooftops. Pediments and gables have been popping up and out of boxy buildings of every conceivable style and purpose. Cornices, often made of sheet metal or fiberglass reinforced plastic, are being wrapped like tourniquets around these same buildings.
Classically inspired columns, likewise fabricated of almost anything but stone, have become the potted plant of the late 20th century as designers scatter them around hallways, rooms and foyers. Structurally they have superseded modernism's minimalist painted pipe and cylindrical concrete column.
The circular arch and keystone kit: An arch is for spanning, but the celebratory keystone at the center, its paramount structural and axial position clearly expressed in traditional masonry construction, today is a solo performer. Keystones have become emblems, frequently signifying little or nothing, made of any material and applied anywhere.
The Renaissance villa and palazzo kit: The Renaissance, especially in Italy, liberated western architecture while reviving the intellectual and artistic spirit of ancient Rome. And it continues to inspire architects, as well as specific models, for designing late 20th century buildings, many of which unfortunately seem to resemble 16th century buildings that have been stretched and strained.
The neo-Renaissance formula for shaping a modern building includes organizing facades so that they're divided into base, middle and top; rusticating the base to look like it's made of massive stones several feet thick with deeply raked joints between stones; expressing the structural frame on facades by using pilasters; applying cornices between base, middle and top.
And Renaissance architect Andrea Palladio, whose villas are without equal, bestowed upon civilization, among other things, the so-called Palladian window vocabulary -- the semicircular window, the vertically proportioned arched window flanked by vertical rectangular windows -- along with systematically proportioned, rhythmically modulated, symmetrical facade and plan compositions. But Palladio's style, not substance, is typically what get's borrowed.
The plan gesture kit: A majority of building plans are laid out orthogonally, with walls meeting at 90-degree angles. Although this admittedly can become monotonous, it has advantages because of the way materials and furniture are made and the way most streets, blocks and lots are shaped. But it doesn't have to be.
To avoid potential boredom while testing human ability to furnish and use acutely angled corners, architects sometimes employ the grid shift or grid rotation. This entails abutting or overlapping two planning grid patterns, one being rotated with respect to the other. As a result, spaces where grids collide are not rectangular, nor are walls parallel or perpendicular to each other.
An equally popular plan move is to inject a curving wall into an orthogonal grid pattern. This creates a kind of visual version of musical counterpoint as the curvilinear wall contrasts with the rectilinear patterns of columns, walls, spaces and oriental carpets. Curved facade walls bulging out pose few problems. Curved interior walls, on the other hand, may prove inconvenient when filing cabinets, desks, sofas, beds or paintings are placed up against them.
The facade pattern kit: Twenty years ago, architects were taught that basic building materials -- brick, concrete, wood, steel, glass -- were inherently beautiful. A wall of brick needed no decoration or special articulation for aesthetic purposes because the natural "materiality" of the brick, its color and texture coupled with the pattern of mortar joints, was sufficiently self-embellishing. The same was presumably true for walls composed of panels of precast concrete, limestone or metal.
But this dogma also has been challenged by the "stripes" or "spots and dots" school of design. Admiring richly patterned wall surfaces of the past, but drawing the line at wrapping buildings with plastic cornices, designers now energize walls visually by introducing stripes. Others impose checkerboard or mosaic-like patterns on both exterior and interior walls.
Patterns can be developed using contrasting colors and textures of brick, stone or tile. Slight changes of plane can add thin shadow lines. But being a purely decorative tactic, "stripes" or "spots and dots" can get out of control. Like ivy vines in the old days, they may serve primarily to disguise otherwise banal buildings.
None of the elements in any of these kits are automatically cliches. None are automatically trite or stereotyped. They become cliches only through overuse and misuse, when their meaning as integral components of a building, related to the building's culture and construction, disappears. If their presence seems unfounded, gratuitous and arbitrary, they deserve the label "cliche."
Ultimately, you must ask yourself if a work is merely a collection of cliches. Not surprisingly, many buildings might look better if some of the cliches were left unexpressed.
Roger K. Lewis is a practicing architect and a professor of architecture at the University of Maryland.