Style, stylism and restyling between conservation and design

by Andrea Pane

Compasses Magazine

The issues of style can be said to be the basis of the centuries-old debate on art and architecture

The issues of style (Stilfragen, as the title of an essay by Alois Riegl of 1893) can be said to be the basis of the centuries-old debate on art and architecture. Derived from the Latin stilus – a pointed object that was used to engrave wax tablets – the term brings us back to the field of linguistics, in which the main speculations on the subject of style were carried out, in the sense of an author’s “way of expressing himself”. From here to the concept of style in the figurative arts, intended as a set of formal features that characterize a group of works, the step is short, but marked by critical issues around which architectural criticism has been questioning for over two centuries.

Starting with Gottfried Semper (Der Stil in den technischen und tektonischen Künsten, 1860-63), who deterministically subordinated architectural forms to contingent reality, to the criticisms of Riegl himself – who opposed them with an intention of art (Kunstwollen), result of the tension between technical conditioning and creative will – the beginning of the 20th century experiences a progressive liberation from the ties of 19th century stylism. But it is only a partial liberation, which marks a part of architectural criticism more influenced by neo-idealist philosophy, while contemporary architectural production is still moving towards the search for a unifying style. From the short but intense season of the De Stijl movement, theorized by Piet Mondrian and Theo van Doesburg (1917-1931), to the search for an International Style proposed by Philip Johnson and Henry-Russel Hitchcock with the homonymous exhibition at the MOMA in New York (1932), the tension towards an abstract language, even disconnected from any local influence, has marked a large part of the debate on contemporary architecture.

With the crisis of the Modern Movement and the birth of Postmodernism – marked by the books of Robert Venturi (Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture, 1966; Learning from Las Vegas, with Denise Scott-Brown and Steven Izenour, 1972) and Charles Jencks (The Language of Post Modern Architecture, 1977) – we still talk about style, but intended as an extrinsic and ironic “quotationism”. The architecture of the last 50 years has been strongly influenced by this irreverent and false approach, interpreting style as an interchangeable language, according to contexts and conveniences. This has happened especially in the Middle East, where too much has been “learned” from Las Vegas and in general from urban growth along a strip, as Venturi predicted. This has meant, especially in Dubai, the construction of a considerable number of ugly postmodern buildings, concentrated along the Sheikh Zayed Road, among which the Al Yaqoub Tower certainly stands out for its exhibitionism, in imitation of London’s Big Ben.

Alongside all this, however, the last decades in the UAE have seen the progressive recovery of local traditions, at least on a formal level, in an attempt to define an “Arab style” that, on the one hand, is linked to the history of those territories and, on the other, meets the expectations of tourists, fascinated by a generic “orientalism” of manner, whose roots go back to colonialism. However, it was a mainly extrinsic recovery, which did not take advantage – to quote a Western reference – of the reflections on “critical regionalism” theorized by Kenneth Frampton in the mid-1980s, as Cristiano Luchetti rightly points out in his interview with Brian Johnson and Wael Al-Masri, entitled Style. The results were therefore various and controversial, often carried out by the same architect, as for two projects created by GAJ (Godwin Austen Johnson) and illustrated by Luchetti. On the one hand, an intelligent combination of modernity and tradition (the complex of buildings created for the Sharjah Art Foundation), on the other, questionable operations such as the Al Seef district along the Dubai Creek, where the slavish re-proposition of traditional formal language, accompanied by a “modern” dimension of urban spaces, offers to the most sensitive visitor an unpleasant feeling of estrangement.

Starting from this central core of the issue, dedicated to a reflection on the most recent and controversial outcomes of the “Arab style” in the UAE, the rest of the articles orbit around similar themes. Thus we find, in the [essays] section, an in-depth study on the theme of architectural conservation in Japan, developed starting with a general essay by Mizuko Ugo and a specific article by Matteo Belfiore dedicated to the Meiji Mura Museum in Nagoya, marked by the reconstruction of part of the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo by Frank Lloyd Wright (1923) demolished in 1967. A similar report on New Zealand follows, also divided into a general essay by Pamela Dziwulska and Candida Rolla, respectively the president of ICOMOS New Zealand and an architect specializing in heritage, and a specific article on the conservation of the Anglican church of St. Paul in Auckland by Salmond Reed Architects.

The gaze towards the Far East continues in the [focus], entirely dedicated to new architectural trends in China through four large, medium and small-scale projects. Projects that go from the folie of the Loop of Wisdom in Sichuan, i.e. the new museum of technology designed by Powerhouse Company, to the critical regionalism of the complex built by Neri & Hu on Yangcheng Lake, north of the city of Suzhou, to the recovery of materials and traditional techniques in Wang Weijen Architecture’s Valley Retreat project in Jiyuan City, and to the new artificial landscape of Aurelien Chen’s Dragon Mountain Pavilion in Rizhao.

The [architecture & plan] section, dedicated to the Archaeological Park of Pompeii, can also be considered tangent to the theme of style. Introduced by an exclusive interview with Massimo Osanna, director of the archaeological park from 2014 to today, it depicts the complexity and extent of the works carried out in the last seven years in Pompeii, culminating in the restyling of the Antiquarium. The issue is then completed by a project for the Dhayah Fort in Ras Al Khaimah (UAE) and by the renovation of a vernacular house from the first half of the 20th century in Fukuchiyama, converted into the Hishiya hotel by Fumihiko Sano. Finally, we paid a dutiful tribute to two protagonists of design and art criticism in Italy, Enzo Mari and Lea Vergine, struck down by Covid-19 one day apart, and whose life was entirely dedicated to a radical and avant-garde vision of creating.

Photo courtesy of Wael Al-Masri

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