Who Do We Think We Are?   /   Spring 2021   /    Notes & Comments

The Unbearable Burden of Invention

A corollary of giving priority to invention is that imitation, once the foundation of creativity in architecture, is banished.

Witold Rybczynski

The Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam; photograph by Jannes Linders.

Buildings’ nicknames are the public’s attempt to make sense of the incomprehensible. Several odd-looking London skyscrapers have cheekily illustrative monikers: the Gherkin, the Cheesegrater, the Walkie-Talkie. Angelenos call the mammoth Pacific Design Center the Blue Whale. Beijingites offhandedly refer to the headquarters of China Central Television as Big Underpants. A Shanghai skyscraper with an aperture at the top is the Bottle Opener, and Bilbao has the Artichoke, Frank Gehry’s titanium Guggenheim museum. My favorite is the nickname of an addition to the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam—the Bathtub.

The original Stedelijk Museum, or city museum, was built in 1895 in the style of the sixteenth-century Dutch Renaissance. The gingerbread red-brick building with pale stone stripes is pretty as a picture. The 2012 modern addition, which doubled the size of the museum, is the work of the Amsterdam architectural firm Benthem Crouwel. The competition-winning design ignores its neighbor and obviously aspires to be the Dutch equivalent of the Bilbao Guggenheim, an in-your-face architectural icon. From certain angles, the windowless white form, raised in the air and covered in a reinforced synthetic fiber finished in glossy white paint, really does resemble a giant hot tub. Michael Kimmelman of the New York Times observed that “entering an oversize plumbing fixture to commune with classic modern art is like hearing Bach played by a man wearing a clown suit.” Not good.

“Good architecture can be startling, or at least might not look like what we are used to,” writes the critic Aaron Betsky in Architect magazine. “Experimentation can sometimes look weird at first, but it is a necessary part of figuring out how to make our human-built world better.” Now so used to buildings that break the bounds of convention, we find the suggestion that experimentation is an essential part of good architecture unremarkable, even banal. But is it true?

Berlin’s Altes Museum, built in 1822, doesn’t look like a plumbing fixture. Its architect, Karl Friedrich Schinkel, modeled the 300-foot façade of giant Ionic columns on an ancient Greek stoa (a covered walkway or portico). Inside, he based a two-story-high rotunda on the Roman Pantheon. Schinkel was one of the most inventive architects of the nineteenth century—the plan of the museum, with its circuit of long, narrow galleries, was without precedent, and the severe side and rear elevations, which would inspire later modernists such as Mies van der Rohe, were almost shockingly plain. Yet like so many architects before him, Schinkel kept one eye on the past. That meant imitation as well as invention.

Imitation was at the heart of the Italian Renaissance. Starting with Filippo Brunelleschi, architects sketched and measured Roman ruins and incorporated the capitals, friezes, and moldings into their own work. Although the functions of the buildings they designed, such as hospitals, palazzos, and country villas, were new, the elements of their architecture—its language—were old. Renaissance architects also copied from each other. Andrea Palladio copied the so-called Palladian window, an arch-and-columns motif, from the Library of Saint Mark in Venice, whose architect, Jacopo Sansovino, had copied it from Donato Bramante, who used it first in the choir of Santa Maria Del Popolo in Rome.

Bramante was responsible for another architectural invention. When he designed the Tempietto, a commemorative monument on the site of St. Peter’s crucifixion in San Pietro di Montorio in Rome, he modeled the tiny chapel on the circular Temple of Hercules Victor, the oldest surviving marble temple in Rome, and he incorporated Roman spolia (repurposed building materials) in the form of reused Tuscan columns. But he also added something novel: a tall drum surmounted by a dome projected above the circular colonnade. This combination of new and old struck his contemporaries as a stroke of genius. Bramante’s influence is apparent in Michelangelo’s great dome of St. Peter’s Basilica, as well as in domed buildings such as St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, the Panthéon in Paris, and the US Capitol in Washington, DC.

Invention, always a part of architecture, was usually restricted to a few gifted individuals—the rest followed. “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery that mediocrity can pay to greatness,” wrote Oscar Wilde. Yet imitation not only allowed lesser talents to learn from the masters, and in the process raised the level of workaday buildings, it also permitted great architects such as Michelangelo and Schinkel to build on the achievements of their predecessors.

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