The Six Different Types of Architecture

Riffing on Chris Heath’s piece from earlier this week, I think I’ve arrived at a comprehensive account of what makes architecture, through each of its various physical forms, special. There are six distinct types in all, and each is associated with different emphases in architectural design. There is the repetitive, the disorienting, the sanctified, the labyrinthatic, the dynamic, and the sacred. From this, I think I have condensed a kind of architecture, as against a mere aesthetic experience. The first form is repetitive, I call it the pietistic form. It is ornate, almost religious, given to stories and fables. Described most poignantly by a nineteenth-century French noblewoman, the madonna as reconstruction: The dark-haired lady (she likes to be called Madam) enjoys and exalts an elaborate, ornate and meditative structure built with all manner of wrought iron to her immediate need to commune with her chosen deity, the Madonna. This Renaissance-style building is symbolic of and reflective of the Madonna’s unconstrained actions: Freedom, not obedience, is the essential characteristic. To this modern interpreter, Benedictines are the Rosa Parks of architecture, as there is a sense of enmity and distrust between them and (French-wrought) nobility. The second type is disorienting, I call it modernist architecture. Even if it is full of humanistic elements, it tends to make use of quantitative and statistical techniques for rendering a building to form a form that approximates something ideal—though not necessarily the ideal community or community space, but a state of being or experience. And as modernist architecture grew in influence, modernism and 20th-century style went hand in hand. Conceived as modernism, many buildings now look out of step with today’s buildings. But the different forms of modernism might be seen as two different ways of putting the same primary process: Use everything available on hand. Reinvent the world. New money, labor power, or intelligent technology. Put it all together and make it into a beautiful architecture. The third type is sanctified, I call it butonic or mystical architecture. But the formal norm is a sober, stable enclosure around the individual (with each room being one) or a space (the Sistine Chapel is but some of the examples). Modernism, though, was not exactly a secular project, and yet many butanic buildings, including some sacred ones, stand out as sacred. The inside is sacramental or religious even if the external case is secular. This kind of sacred architecture is very diverse, but it often exists in tandem with unholiness. For instance, the inner courtyard in the Virgin Mary Chapel at Corpus Christi University, Rome, is thought to be the grandest mausoleum in all the Roman Empire and is the most expensive and most luxurious chapel in the world. All this leads to the fourth type: the labyrinthatic, and I call it my personal favorite. Such buildings avoid the uses of an all-encompassing space and shelter some isolated thought or action. They often combine it with something deep and mysterious. They often feature idiosyncratic spaces. This kind of architecture, more than its counterparts in the other four categories, has the least demand for rationalization and explanation. Rather, a labyrinthocentric experience has a spiritual effect: a kind of branching tunnel. This ideal design scheme makes architecture a potent vehicle for resolving conflict. Although freedom often ends up as a pretty beautiful thing in architectural form, the individual can often be alienating in life. In making us look, see, and go, architecture can make us more accepting. Not bad for a profession that tends to tax both mind and body. The final and hopefully most unified type is dynamic architecture. This is the category that seemed to catch Heath’s attention when he termed it “the exciting, always-changing new thing.” This is the archetypal building, the megaphone of its time. It can be both beautiful and beautiful and beautiful, depending on the beholder. From the modernist industrial-design organization to the beehive (both the bark and its hive on a bee), this category describes many familiar and very welcome urban buildings. The “nifty modern” office building is at the other end of the spectrum, a box that can be dispensed with. The forms of dynamic architecture bring together a variety of ideas, interests, and textures. They are flexible. As for Heath, the most refreshing idea that the project identifies is that cultural intensification—what NYC calls cultural renewal—must be enacted in the physical realm.