Architecture school theory: authenticity

The word ‘authenticity’ is tricky to handle. It carries multiple senses. Something that is authentic is true, but not quite in the sense of being a true report or description of something. Authenticity has meanings that centre on a notion of truth; specifically, truth as correspondence. Authenticity is relational. When something is inauthentic it is incorrectly or improperly related to other things. A forged or reproduction artwork, for example, is inauthentic in that it does not correctly relate to a known artist; it does come from that artist—in the sense that the artist is still the originator of the composition—but it comes as a copy. That said, I’m going to disregard senses of authenticity such as authorial authenticity. I’ll set out only the following senses of authenticity:

1. Having truth to experience. Literary modernism tends towards this sense; i.e. the narrative of Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’;
2. Having an appropriate relationship to some culture or practice, recent or old;
3. Being open to the possibilities of the present (or responsive to the challenges of the present) rather than having an appropriate connection to the culture or practices of the present.

The first sense—truth to experience—looks to be something beyond architecture, which is non-representational.

The third sense—openness to present possibility—is what Pevsner seems to be getting at in ‘Pioneers of the Modern Movement’, although his presentation of the idea is minimal.

It is the second sense of authenticity as I’ve defined it—authenticity as an appropriate relationship to some existing culture or practice—that suffuses Frampton’s influential 1983 essay ‘Towards a Critical Regionalism’. In this essay, Frampton sets out to give parameters to a reformed modernism. The appropriate cultural relationship Frampton has in mind is a complex one:

“[Critical Regionalism] has to ‘deconstruct’ the overall spectrum of world culture which it inevitably inherits; in the second place, it has to achieve, through synthetic contradiction, a manifest critique of universal civilisation.”

In Frampton’s scheme, ‘universal civilisation’ terms a technologically oriented, productive but placeless modernism, while ‘world culture’ names our collective inheritance of region-specific customs and practices. This inheritance is reported on—we all know about it, or can come to know about it—but is essentially localised.

Frampton also defines his reformed modernism against what he sees to be the alternative of ‘Populism’, which works, he says, principally through signs:

“… the primary vehicle of Populism is the communicative or instrumental sign. Such a sign seeks to evoke not a critical perception of reality, but rather the sublimation of a desire for direct experience through the provision of information. Its tactical aim is to attain, as economically as possible, a preconceived level of gratification in behaviouristic terms. In this respect, the strong affinity of Populism for the rhetorical techniques and imagery of advertising is hardly accidental. Unless one guards against such a convergence, one will confuse the resistant capacity of a critical practice with the demagogic tendencies of Populism.”

Frampton’s characterisation of ‘populism’ looks to have Venturi and Scott Brown in its sights. Three decades on, Frampton’s aim here looks off, even as his use of the term ‘populism’ is prescient. What we now see in political populism is a demand not for signs and quotations, but for the full blown restoration of tradition in the built environment; ‘proper buildings’; actual Grecian-style, stone-built structures. Post-modernism is not the current architectural populism, even if we deny to the current architectural populism the authenticity it so clearly wants, and in doing so, call it post-modern.

But my main concern is that Frampton’s formula for authenticity looks pretty much undeliverable. He approvingly cites Utzon’s Bagsvaerd church, near Copenhagen (1968). This is a building which combines rectilinear—although interestingly articulated—elevations with a fluid, expressive section. The elevations are said by Frampton to be representative of ‘universal civilization’; i.e. they are simple, economical and repetitive. The precedent for the section is said to be the Chinese pagoda form. However, the pagoda form is abstracted; it has something of the form of the pagoda; it does not ‘quote’ a pagoda. This, for Frampton, is the right response to ‘world culture’. In Frampton’s scheme—if I have it right—‘regional’ only means ‘regional somewhere’, and not necessarily ‘regional here’. And in the drawing from elsewhere, there is to be at the same time an (appropriate) transformation; the regional element is to become something else, even as the spirit of the original (supposedly) remains.

I can see two problems with this. The first problem is that—in the Utzon example, at least—the elements are unrecognisable as what Frampton describes. When I look at photographs of the Bagsvaerd church, I see not a straightforwardly modernist exterior—something representative of ‘universal civilization’—but some sort of modern interpretation of a local vernacular. The exterior includes pitched roof forms (although glazed).

It calls to mind domestic construction, faintly Germanic classical in its proportions. But that could just be me. Nor do I see a Chinese pagoda in the interior. And this, too, could just be me. But it could be you as well. There is a problem of recognisability; the formula aims to deliver a special kind of authenticity, but it is hard to see how this can work if the building user cannot perceive the cultural connection intended. For that user, there is either perhaps no authenticity at all, or else the ‘wrong sort of authenticity’. When I look at pictures of Bagsvaerd, I see something church-like, certainly; something Scandinavian, and—because I’ve seen Aalto—something Aalto-like. To me, Bagsvaerd looks like a (northern European) modern church. And it is one, too. Authentically so. I feel on safe ground with this.

The second problem is that Frampton’s formula seems to rely on judgements of taste. Elements of existing culture are to be abstracted and transformed, and tastefully, not crudely; cutting and pasting is out (or the result is ‘populism’). Now architectural education follows something like a conservatoire model; there is there a cultural transmission, in which architects train their successors to apply (what is considered to be) good taste judgement. As it happens, I think Kenneth Frampton has good taste; I share his appreciation of Utzon, whom I consider to be an admirable architect. I enjoy the subtleties of his Bagsvaerd church. In his 1995 book ‘Studies in Tectonic Culture’, Frampton makes an excellent presentation of not only Utzon but also Mies, Kahn, Wright and others; I recommend this book. And I try to have good taste too. But in an architectural theory, an exhortation to exercise good taste judgement—to do things well, with refinement—just won’t bear much weight. Something more categorical is needed, for a theory.

Beyond Frampton, I have to say that I find myself losing faith in the idea of architectural authenticity, at least in its second meaning as I’ve given it. It seems to be a problem concept, one that causes a lot of effort and lost sleep, and for not much in return. There are many superficial applications; the current wave of interiors featuring walls and floors of Delftware is fatiguing.

And authenticity is a notion seemingly surrounded by pitfalls. Authenticity is readily co-opted into grim politics. Frampton has done his part in popularising Heidegger, and Heidegger’s advocacy of architectural tradition has now been enthusiastically—and unexpectedly—taken up by the far right; a development surely not anticipated in architecture schools. There’s more work to be done to secure authenticity for modernism, if it’s still wanted there.

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