Individuality in architecture: Will we ever see buildings like these again?

Editor’s Note: Polish-American architect Daniel Libeskind was CNN Style’s guest editor for July 2015. Exploring the theme of architecture and emotion, he commissioned a series of features on the relationship between the buildings we create and the way they make us feel.

CNN  — 

Many minds and hands are involved in the creation of great architecture: the planner’s vision, the architect’s sketch, the engineer’s calculations and the builder’s skill all contribute to the look and feel of the eventual outcome.

From the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona to the Sydney Opera House, the world’s most recognizable landmarks display the character of the people who created them, but can individuality in architecture stand up to increasing pressure from developers to deliver universally popular designs?

CNN Style guest editor and internationally renowned architect Daniel Libeskind warns that his profession is currently battling against commoditization and a “design by committee” approach that devalues the architect’s role.

Architecture’s dirty word

Throughout his career, Libeskind has sought to create buildings that engage people’s emotions, and he feels this is best achieved when the architect’s own vision and feelings are expressed through the design.

“Individual expression is what makes people different from other animals,” he says. “It’s what defines us as a species and yet, increasingly, individuality is a dirty word in architecture.”

For German architect, Jürgen Mayer H., modern architecture is a layered and complex process in which the architect’s individual vision is inevitably tempered by the demands of the brief. But individuality is still possible.

Mayer H. has applied his technically innovative approach to projects ranging from urban master plans to artistic installations, including an undulating timber structure covering a plaza in the Spanish city of Seville.

“Each project is a unique research into context and culture,” the architect explains, “and we always develop individual designs for specific programs, sites and clients. Our architecture is based on a repertoire of strategic explorations that we developed over the years, on pushing limits and being driven by a curiosity for the new.”

According to David Rockwell, the founder of New York architecture and design firm Rockwell Group, individuality is still viewed by some clients as a desirable quality that can help their project stand out from the crowd.

“It is the individual expression of ideas that gives our culture its richness and diversity,” Rockwell explains. “I find our clients come to us for unique solutions and not repetition so I don’t think they believe individuality is a dirty word.”

Ideas that Rockwell finds personally fascinating, such as stagecraft and spectacle, are evident throughout his projects but are applied in ways that respond to the unique requirements of the space and client.

The outcomes, including stage sets for the Academy Awards and interiors for Virgin Hotels and the Nobu restaurant group, provide the sorts of memorable experiences that are key to promoting brand recognition, suggesting that creativity and individuality can add value when used appropriately.

Banality: The new normal?

Sadly, the majority of modern city planners and developers tend to forego curiosity and instead consider most new projects as exercises in box-ticking aimed at producing the safest and least controversial outcomes. The inevitable result is the proliferation of banal architecture that currently blights cities all over the world.

“The systems and protocols of construction are increasingly bureaucratic,” suggests British architect and writer Sam Jacob, “which actively suppresses any sense of individuality, preferring instead a risk averse genericness that comes from the institutional fear of individuality.”

Jacob’s former architectural practice, FAT, regularly challenged established architectural conventions by developing designs that combine diverse cultural references in a postmodern style. He feels there is a “strange fascination and complete distrust of individuality” in architecture and contemporary culture more generally, which has created a dichotomy that discourages many architects from following their own path.

“It’s a schizophrenic situation where we end up endlessly expressing our individuality but in ways that seem increasingly similar,” he adds. “Ironically, the more individualized society becomes, the less space there is for individuality.”

Jacob’s concerns echo those of the 19th century writer and critic, John Ruskin, who argued in his essay, “The Nature of Gothic,” that society’s preoccupation with the accuracy and consistency enabled by the introduction of division of labor nullified opportunities for creative expression within construction.

“It seems a fantastic paradox, but it is nevertheless an important truth, that no architecture can be truly noble which is not imperfect,” said Ruskin, who advocated retaining aspects of craftsmanship so that a human touch could still be discerned in new buildings. “No good work whatever can be perfect,” he added, “and the demand for perfection is always a sign of a misunderstanding of the ends of art.”

Ruskin’s passion for imperfection feels particularly pertinent at a time when a fear of making mistakes is causing architects and developers to opt for conservative homogeneity over unique and innovative architectural proposals.

The awe and delight evoked by the Sagrada Familia and the Sydney Opera House illustrates how important it is to celebrate, rather than stifle, single-mindedness and creative ambition. For the millions of visitors who flock to see these great buildings each year, individuality is most certainly not a dirty word.