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What happens to architecture in an age of populism?

Paul Finch
  • 1 Comment

Votes for Trump and Brexit suggest a new era of populism, but how will this filter down into the design of the built environment? wonders Paul Finch

Is there a new populism in architecture, and if so, what is the connection with global elites and the apparent trend against globalisation and neo-liberal economics, in favour of greater national and local identity?

That was the question posed to speakers at an event organised by Robert Adam, partly to mark the publication of his latest book, a collection of everything he has written about architecture and related matters in recent decades. His own view, set out in the February issue of Traditional Building, is that architecture is certain to change as a result of phenomena including Brexit and the election of Donald Trump.

In short, the age of the International Style (that phrase no longer used much) is well and truly over, though it is not clear what will replace it and what the consequences might be. However, he hopes that it is ‘traditional architecture’, for which read Classicism, that ‘recognises the disillusion with internationalism and globalisation, and reflects the rise of localisation’.

Las vegas trump hotel crop david r tribble

Las vegas trump hotel crop david r tribble

Source: David R Tribble

Thinking about this prior to taking part in the event, I wondered whether Trump’s preferred building style, a combination of bombastic Postmodernism and gold leaf, might be the emerging architectural style, rather than the polite Classicism of Thomas Jefferson. This in turn led to thoughts about ‘populist’ as opposed to ‘popular’ architecture, which is difficult to define let alone identify. I suppose the EUR district south of central Rome is one example, and perhaps Las Vegas. In both cases an architecture has been commissioned by rich and powerful people to impress a section of the populace – and it has worked.

Try making a comparison with music. What is populist as opposed to popular? National anthems? In Britain the last night of the Proms, with all that stuff about Britons never being slaves (though we used to trade and own them)? It is a bit easier when it comes to politics, a good example being President Trump himself, a populist who won an election in which his opponent won more of the popular vote.

Classical architecture, that representation of power, empire and slavery, only became popular with a broad public when it was adapted to vernacular use, especially in respect of housing.

There was a suggestion that what the public really wants cannot be delivered because there is not enough teaching of traditional design

But does this mean that ‘contemporary’ architecture, with a relationship to Modern rather than Classical traditions, is unpopular? Judging by the queues to get into the Gherkin on Open House weekend, the growing popularity of the Shard and the large numbers of visitors to the Walkie-Talkie, it would be foolish to push this argument too far. Don’t British tourists flock to New York, Miami and Las Vegas to admire the new rather than the old? 

There was a suggestion at the Adam event that what the public really wants cannot be delivered by today’s architectural profession because there is not enough teaching of traditional design. This suggests an extraordinary failure on the part of the housing industry to take into account the desires and preferences of huge numbers of people. I find this a bit dubious. Housebuilders need to know their market.

During the discussion, I couldn’t help recalling two remarks made by the late Philip Dowson, patrician, Gold Medallist and Royal Academy president. In an Architecture Club debate on popular culture, he said the idea that if something was popular it must be good was akin to arguing that ‘100,000 lemmings can’t be wrong’.

As for Las Vegas, he was flying there for the first time, and gazed through a window at the city below as they approached the airport. Turning to his travelling companion, he declared: ‘Vulgarity on this scale … It’s bound to succeed.’

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Readers' comments (1)

  • '...an architecture has been created by rich and powerful people to impress a section of the populace...' - and the strong public interest in the 'gherkin', the 'shard' and the 'walkie-talkie' is surely drawn by the tricksy shapes - as well as the size - of these towers.
    Populism meets the 'liberation' of computer aided design and manufacture, and there doesn't seem to be any sign of a change in course, with Calatrava's threatened gloopitecture on the Greenwich peninsula and - on a smaller scale, outside London - Libeskind's new collapsing physics research centre at Durham.
    Maybe it's gawpitecture, with clients, architects and builders having the resources to indulge the first two's fantasies to the point where we'll look back from the future and wonder what they were at - or on.

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