(Published in A10 #14, March/April 2007, Amsterdam)
Yes, how do tastes change?
Recipe 1, would be to impose it. It is probably still the best way. And the rules of taste dictatorship are, for that sake, well-known.
Recipe 2, would be to reform. This is a softer version. It takes ages. It takes a firm pulse, but it is also the most effective in the long term. Reform is, on the other hand, rather harsh and boring to perform.
Recipe 3, would be to educate. This is the noblest, but not precisely the most frequent. There are always considerable costs to this option, and so, even if there is an opening to it, at some point it seems to become an intolerable burden. Financially, or otherwise. It takes updating, investment, hard work. Certainly, it is not adequate to any sort of lazy culture.
Here we start to run out of options.
But I would say recipe 4 possibly deals with subverting taste codes from within.
With the idea of working ‘from within’ I imply that through immersion one can deal with existing conditions – be those of the market, of social distinction or of disciplinary constraint.
In countries where education still lags behind for most of the population, taste – like other matters – is still in that phase in which it requires some kind of reform. And, believe it or not, such reform is now mostly driven by the mass media.
Considering the obvious setbacks of populist media, though, other social actors have to partake in the responsibility of refining and redefining taste.
As taste affects the reception of architecture – as much as it does any other cultural production – this is also a question that has to be dealt with by architects.
Immersion in popular culture – i.e. in the consumer market – implies a specially sharp and critical perspective on how to deal with mainstream taste and, still, within it, provide for the evolution of architecture culture.
Let’s presuppose, for instance, that general taste has caught up with modernist architectural taste. Architects should then proceed to offer some evolution of their own taste culture.
After all, and as we know, taste culture equals the hardcore of any creative discipline.
Difference, social or otherwise, is affirmed and confirmed in taste. Beyond professional skills, technical knowledge or artistic talent, taste is the great contender.
And if mainstream taste has caught up with your specific or specialized taste – and you still want to affirm it – then you better move on.
This is as elementary as any fashion philosophy can get.
Ikea or Wallpaper defined modernist taste to a larger audience because they were there, immersed in the practical field, demonstrating taste, making it accessible, reconstructing it for the masses. The goals of modern reformists have been thoroughly achieved.
Thus, architecture culture must now move on from modernist taste. That is, of course, if architecture still wants – as in the early modern period – to be determinant in the processes through which tastes change.
Within this context, if, as an architect, you are today leaving the main urban centers to build the landscape of the smaller cities of a country such as Portugal, you are still bound to confront very different taste cultures.
But because Ikea indeed arrived; because the media need novel whammy flavors; because Wallpaper or Elle do reach the more affluent investor; because indeed architects became fashionable, architects are already much better off than before.
Even within this evolving scenario, though, only a few of these architects will then risk – and achieve – traveling beyond the shores of politically or economically correct taste.
One architect was telling me he is surprised with favorable reactions to his designs, specially within what used to be an adverse territory for architects.
Not only he participates in the upgrade of taste that is slowly and subversively sweeping through Europe, but he also manages to produce intense and non-conformistarchitecture at the same time.
The reasons for his undulating aluminum facades are both technical and aesthetic. They perform to sound, reducing acoustic pollution to a minimum by the side of a busy road. And they perform to design, constraining visual proportion to what his sensibility understood as a heavy construction bulk. The building volumes sit in a specific way to solve a specific aesthetic reading of the urban environment. They perform to vision, augmenting the dynamic perception that follows from car movement. And they perform to design, abandoning the geometric rigidity of the modernist slab.
But, then, all these operations are also performing an alteration of taste.
Not only as opposed to the neighborhood and its mix of cheapness and kitsch, but also as opposed to what architectural taste is now expected to produce around here.
And people really seem to like it.
Pedro Gadanho, Lisbon, 2007