We need an architecture "of our time". I hear this all the time, and I hear it mostly from other architects. What they are saying is that they want to do what they want, when they want, and without any relevant notion of context or pattern language.
Here is an analogy of timeless tradition that evolves vs. knee jerk design, based on outside trends & influences.
When I mention or ask someone, “do you know what a 911 is?” I have a response rate of about 95% of them knowing what I am talking about. Note that I did not use the brand of Porsche. If I use that question, “do you know what a Porsche 911 is?”, the positive response rate is 100%.
Why is that? This car is an icon, with an iconic brand. How did it get like that? It evolved design and engineering wise vs. changing in a seemingly random manner. So as soon as I mention the word, “911” everyone has an image in there head whether it is a 1963 model or a 2017. That is a pretty strong indication that you have a timeless design.
-1963 Porsche 911 & 2017 Porsche 911
Lets look at a 1963 model. It is a rear engine air-cooled, carbonated car with manual brakes, manual transmission and it weights in at 2,381 pounds. Fast forward to 2017 and you have a rear engine water-cooled, direct fuel injected engine, computer assisted braking and stability system, computer controlled dual clutch transmission and it weighs 3,153 pounds and with the on board computing power of most laptop computers. Clearly these two cars are night and day and share absolutely nothing in common, other than a rear engine core layout. Yet, these cars remain very much the same (especially in perception) in their exterior sheet metal layout. No one has ever said a Porsche 911 never looks like “it is of this time”.
Now lets contrast this with the equally iconic Ford Mustang. This was a design home run when it was released as a 1964 model car. The design was ground breaking and had the long hood/short deck format which broke from the typical American car design model. The Mustang grew steadily in the 60’s and by the early 70’s, they were the size of a full size car. The ’74 car was based on Ford Pinto architecture and was a drastic brake from the earlier generations. Only the iconic Mustang emblem remained. The model year ’79 introduced yet another fully re-designed car, sharing nothing with it’s predecessors. The ’94 car offered another generation of Mustangs that were based off a different architecture and only vaguely retained the long hood/short deck format. The ’94 generation would be updated in the 90’s and 00’s with some retro styling cues from the 1st and 2nd generation cars. The full on retro rebirth was in 2005 with a new design based on a ’68. The 2010 update was a more sleek refresh on the retro design and another all new design was released in 2015 which further pushed the retro design into new territory. The Mustang looked “of this time” and much of its design jumps around from one trend to the other. Thus, it looks terribly dated 10 years later. Sure, they brand the design with the pony emblem and some retro inspired tail lights, but some of these cars could be called something else and you would really think twice about it.
The summary, is that the Mustang really only evolved in a few places, in the 60’s and after the 2005 car. In between you see wildly different cars that really only share a name and the iconic pony emblem. The design of the car followed trends in terms of size and styling, it always reflected the current “time” vs. growing, or evolving from its core DNA. The 911 on the other hand, always kept changing as well but it never changed its core design DNA drastically. It’s a timeless design icon.
This can and should be applied to architecture. It is the way we have designed and built things for thousands of years. Look at a Savannah row house. This is an imported English style townhouse much like many other coastal English cities. You’ll see the type then evolve into a more Savannah styled version which is adapting to the climate, materials and context. You’ll see this type built for 300 years across many “styles” and trends, but the core DNA is the same. Only when psuedo-modernist architects get involved, do you see the pattern broken. You get something that “is of our time” but its not “of this place”. These buildings always look terribly dated 10 years later while the 300 year old architecture looks timeless.
-Jones St. "timeless"
-Harris St. & East Broad St. "which one looks like Savannah?"
-Habersham St. & Jones St. "70's have not aged well"
Design matters and when we break local traditional patterns of architectural DNA, we break ourselves away from building great places. This traditional evolution of architecture is one of the core-ways places are made great. No one goes to cities composed of modern placeless architecture, instead they flock to cities with great architectural DNA, like Savannah and Charleston. We need to be careful not to loose the DNA which makes the city so great.