Issue 3 Pluralism

As architects who produce responsive design, unique to the brief and the site, we often discuss the nature of the resulting 'pluralism' of our work.

The word 'pluralism' applied to architecture was probably first used by Christian Norberg Schulz in his seminal book 'Meaning in Western Architecture', first published in 1974. He said that this pluralism started from a growing philosophy in the West after the world wars that resulted in a lost belief in global solutions. Translated into architecture this meant doubting the emergence of what became known as the 'international style' within the broader base of the 'modern movement'.

Although this absolutist attitude was to continue, he advocated that it had been 'spiritually dead' for two centuries. He maintained that the 'modern movement' had been the only living architectural force since the end of the Baroque Epoch, then and now, tending towards an architecture of pluralism. That is, to provide an architecture that obtains individual characterisation from the context of place and time - in opposition to the determinism of Neo-Classicism and 20th Century Functionalism. An architecture that would take on the regional character, not only in a sense of geographical factors, but also the implied way of life :  the historical and cultural forces. Norberg - Schultz introduces the notion of a 'genius loci' to describe this more specific and responsive architecture of a place.

Le Corbusier's shift away from the early 'white architecture', influenced by the art movements of De Stijl and Cubism, to the more organic and tectonic works of the 1950's, was seen as a landmark for a more pluralistic language. Moving from the purist forms of the early Parisian Villas (Roche, Savoye, etc...) of early 1930's to the raw textured work of Maison Jaoul (1955) in the nearby suburb of Neuilly, exemplified a new contextual modernism. Corb's contemporary projects like the Monastery in La Tourette continued this shift towards a more project specific response with a reinterpretation of the classic Cistercian assembly of cloister, chapel, and cell, turned inside out on a steeply sloping site to create a new typology of form and spatial sequence. Building on a deeper understanding of history and acknowledging a sense of continuity '...would you know the new you must search the old' (Lethaby 1891).

These new emerging sensibilities, along with the early work of the Scandinavian moderns like Aalto, broke CIAM (International Congresses of Modern Architecture)in 1958, which had a dogmatic hold on the language of modernism. Out of this split emerged a new generation of modernists, supported by Corb, which included architects like the Smithsons, Van Eyck, and De Carlo who formed a loose association called Team 10. They picked up the tradition of humane modernism and therefore the virtues of pluralism.

In the Smithsons’ 1982 book 'The Shift', they describe a 'tradition' that started in the 17th Century. They said: 'Concerning the future, only one thing is certain; that the tree of enquiry has well established roots reaching into new ground with each turn of the seasons, the trunk sturdy enough to support much new growth at its head'.

This is the tradition we practice.  We approach each project as a work of enquiry and, informed by the dual forces of the brief and site, we  ask 'what the does the work want to be? ' No predetermined language of form or material, but a sensibility and sensitivity to context and use. Underlying the superficially observed variety in our work is a set of core values that are pluralistic. Not a symptom of uncertainty or multiple confusion, but a liberation from preconceived notions that kill true invention. Get this right and we can co-create work that continues our tradition of modermism that is imbued with what Lethaby described as 'freedom, confidence and light - so that beauty may flow through the soul like a breeze'.

Keith Bradley