Buildings, like humans, can be dishonest. They could be excellent architectural gems, but not necessarily honest – design details that do not reflect functionality properly and sincerely. You may find this quite familiar. Mies van der Rohe had his famous words “Form Follows Function”, and he will be the first one presenting some dishonest architecture. One example is the Kluczynski Federal Building (1974) – one of the several buildings of the Chicago Federal Center complex in downtown Chicago. The vertical I-beams on the exterior surface that travel across the entire facade does nothing more than decoration. Aesthetically it is pleasant to view; they add pattern and vibration to the massive structure; the material contributes to the overallness. However, these “beams” are clearly not based on function. There Mies betrayed himself.
We can say the same thing for Jørn Utzon’s Sydney Opera House. The building is well renowned to the world for its signature “shells”, which happen to be non-structural at all. And Adolf Loos as well. The Looshaus in Vienna – a.k.a the Goldman & Salatsch Building – is a steel concrete mass yet it’s openly showcasing four non-load-bearing pillars at entrance. Worthy of note is that the building was completed in 1909, 1 year after Loos wrote his famous essay Ornament und Verbrechen. (Ornament and Crime)
The list could go on and on for starchitect’s best works. On the other side of the story, truly honest architecture could be total esthetic disasters and money-driven beasts, which make up of the majority of the cityscape we have around the globe. They are the mundane residential and commercial projects that cater to needs and strive to be economical on every possible level. But mostly we do not even consider those “artisitic” because architecture, according to Philip Johnson is the art of how to waste space. So here we have honest but disappointing architecture.
But things don’t have to be so extreme and ugly. There definitely exist buildings that are both honest and beautiful. Viollet-le-Duc called it “Structural Rationalism” (though his practices, like those of Mies, went in the other direction from his theories); I call it “vernacular”. (I know these are actually quite different concepts, but they roughly line up within this argument.) It could be historic buildings that reflect regional tastes, social impacts, materials, natural elements, etc. It could also be contemporary ones. And the ones that evolve over time. Chartres Cathedral in France demonstrate two distinctly different tower spires simply because one of them was finished in 1160, and the other in the 16th century. The same applies to Antoni Gaudi’s La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona. The key is that the building be specific to the time, to the site, to the people, and to the culture. It is what Walter Benjamin defined as authenticity in his essay the Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (1936) – here and now of the artwork, place and time from context: “The authenticity of a thing is the essence of all that is transmissible from its beginning, ranging from its substantive duration to its testimony to the history which it has experienced.” Vince recently wrote about the emotional logic of authenticity, which is connected to this discussion but talks more about how our subjectiveness and sentiments influence the way we see authenticity.
In that sense, honesty in architecture changes with context, which is especially true of historic buildings. Any honest preservation projects would capture that change as well. Facadism is one of the familiar bad examples – an extreme in splitting the context away from its form. Colonial Williamsburg is indeed controversial for that very reason – denying the fact that authenticity changes.
But there’re much more interesting stories about authenticity in preservation – or not. Le Corbusier had designed a house for the worker’s village in Pessac, France in 1926 with pure modernist philosophies. But as soon as the building was occupied, the perfect form started to lose shape. Undefined front yard has been enclosed to mark property line; strip windows for picture-perfect landscape have been covered up by curtains; flat modernism roof has been pitched to shed water…Thus the maestro’s work has been patinaed (or you may say destroyed) – in an honest way that reveals truth with time. Standing on a preservationist’s ground, I would define the period of significance as the time when the house was freshly built without hesitation, because on one hand we have Le Corbusier and on the other we have the end users along with their random amateurish modifications. But which weighs more to the core of preservation? In other words, the mark of civilization? Which shows real authenticity?
According to Jane Jacobs, it is undoubtedly the end users. Her arguments against the mainstream urban planning theories in the 1960s are comparable to real-life patinas versus computer renderings. That patina, whether in individual building or a neighborhood, means honesty and authenticity. Our diverse, lively, aged, varied, homely, and honest cities.