Although designing ‘pastiche’ buildings is not yet a criminal offence, the received view is that they certainly shouldn’t be built. This is not just untrue, it’s dumb
When architects want to rubbish traditional design they call it “pastiche”. They roll out the P word and think that’s enough to damn it. It’s so easy. But when Bradford metropolitan council has a policy that says “new development must not resort to pastiche”, when Hertfordshire council stipulates that “proposals that provide a pastiche … should be discouraged”, when someone senior in English Heritage announces that there’s “no contest” between “good modern design and pastiche”, it’s serious. When pastiche is something officials want to stop, perhaps we ought to think carefully about what it means.
In the dictionary, pastiche is “a composition made up of bits of other works or imitations of another’s style”. If this sounds bad, why? Sometime in the 20th century we got the strange idea that for art to be modern it has to be unlike anything done before. This is, of course, ridiculous. All art is based on ideas, influences and bits from other artists. In architecture, this applies to modernist as well as traditional design. How many buildings have glass walls like Mies van der Rohe? How many use curvy Corbusian outside stairs or floating cubic walls?
Avoiding “imitation of another’s style” would mean that you couldn’t do something good because someone had already done it. This would not only be impossible; it would be stupid. But the “pastiche” slander is reserved for new traditional designs. You might just avoid being condemned as a pasticheur if you do a perfect copy – for some unfathomable reason exact replicas of historical buildings are often thought to be acceptable – but try and be creative with tradition and your work will be consigned to a special dustbin. And now, some ideological official can use planning policy to make sure it stays there.
Then there’s Kohn Pedersen Fox’s Bishopsgate tower: is this weird glass spiral a monster version of Vladimir Tatlin’s 1919 Monument to the Third International?
Except for a few periods, such as neoclassicism, architects of the past didn’t make replicas. They got their inspiration from different parts of history, mixed them up with ideas around at the time and made them into something new. Look at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. Designed by CR Cockerell in 1839, the portico is from a 5th-century BC Greek temple whereas a set of projecting columns and standing figures are from 1st century AD Rome. The whole thing sits on a rusticated base and is topped with a giant cornice, both taken from Italian Renaissance palaces. This is a pastiche if ever there was. Did this make all the critics, past and present, recoil? No it did not and does not.
Then what about Foster’s 1975 Willis Faber building: is this really Mies’ 1922 glass skyscraper project with the top chopped off? Or Rick Mather’s house in Hampstead: is this a thinly disguised 1997 rip-off of 1920s Corbusier? Then again there’s Kohn Pedersen Fox’s Bishopsgate tower: is this weird glass spiral a monster version of Vladimir Tatlin’s 1919 Monument to the Third International?
So when is a pastiche not a pastiche? If we follow the definition, it has nothing to do with style and, if we look closely, it applies as much to modernist as it does to traditional architecture. But when you’re out to ban something you don’t like, what’s the truth got to do with it? “Pastiche” has just become a dumb shorthand that says “traditional architecture is bad” and “to be modern you have to keep reinventing the wheel”. The first is bigoted and the second is pointless but traditionalists have learned to expect nothing less. But when the government announce that they will be “giving good design the same status as sustainability” how will the bureaucrats interpret something as woolly as this? The bigots have already given them the tools. As Brighton and Hove have declared, “the plan seeks to raise the overall standard of design and encourage more innovative and distinctive design … pastiche designs will not be encouraged”. This is code for modernism good, traditional bad.
Robert Adam is director of Robert Adam Architects