Imitation and the creative genius

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  • Imitation and the Creative Genius

    Lucien Steil

    London, Spitalfields area (photo by Lucien Steil)

    Architects and builders were not more creative in the past than in modern times, nor more intelligent, but they seem to have been smarter in some ways, and some time in

    many ways .. . The main, very essential difference though is that they did not try, or

    feel they had to be creative geniuses. They were not under pressure to be exciting and

    innovative at every moment of their career. Today on the other hand everyone seems

    obliged to be striking or innovative and compulsively unique and many like to be

  • considered as genial, inventive, special, with an unequaled and mesmerizing

    personality, stunning charisma and creativity. The unprecedented claim for an infinite

    realm of personal ego worth of stardom and a limitless ambition of inventiveness,

    creativity and subjective self-expression is not only tragic, frustrating, sad, but utterly

    pathetic. It is a definite set-up for failure, anxiety and unhappiness and above all a

    recipe for systematic cultural imposture. It favors a cultish hubris of the super-creator

    as much as it mistakes schools for incubators of competition, creativity and talent rather

    than places of learning.. What is usually celebrated is arbitrary, transgressive, or

    boringly minimalist and conceptual, and more often than not meaningless

    architecturally, often nonsense. It seems almost we have all become part of a never-

    ending reality show distracting all of us from the normality and normative, and

    exacerbating the iconoclastic and iconic. Professionals and students alike suffer

    however from a contingency of imagination and a strangled use of visual memory.

    They have to cope with the trauma of a bottomless, uninspired, undefined and open-

    end creativity culture, and they cope poorly with it! The mind thus turns naturally to

    hysteria and panic, depression and megalomania and often ends in the combined

    interaction of all of these mental states resulting in one of the saddest and ugliest

    culture of building ever experienced in mankinds history! Strangely enough the full

    steam on genius and high winds on unchained self- expression and new subjectivity

    have killed off imagination and poetry, feeling and sensuality, as well as reason and

    purpose, almost simultaneously alas, on the great battlefield of modernity and


    At many schools of architecture students are coached, challenged, fired up, terrorized and mystified, but not taught, and they are rushed into inventing and experimenting as

    if they were all without exception extraordinary and exceptional geniuses with innate

    divine capacities of vision, imagination and creation or as if just by random or arbitrary

    bricolage the algorithm of newness, the gravity equation of novelty and of so-called

    originality were to be infallibly guaranteed. . This dysfunctional and naive pedagogy

    obviously ignores the true genius of many centuries of great craftsmanship,

    architecture and urbanism: It is beyond doubt that good cities and good architecture

    were mostly always produced with rigorous, rational and good education in

    humanities and building trades, geometry, drawing, studies of precedent, classical

    proportions and traditional building technologies and tectonics, apprenticeship and

  • training, etc. They were invented, developed and built by generations of wonderfully

    anonymous craftsmen, Baumeister , architects, dilettantes and engineers. They relied

    on copy, imitation and emulation based on the best and most excellent, time-tested and

    successful precedents, models and types available in literature, building documents and

    more often built in local or regional context.

    Luxembourg City, Promenade de la Corniche (photo by Lucien Steil)

    Now our modernist colleagues have no interest in precedent and the study of successful exemplars of architecture and urbanism in history and present, preferring the

    gaze into the future hoping the unused potentials of massive contemporary genius will

    prevail and improvisation will randomly lead to emulation and excellence, if not

    eternal truth.. The clean slate, the Tabula Rasa and the obsessiveness of novelty and

    of transgression remain the dominant imperatives of contemporary architectural

    creation. For the modernist architects nothing is more valuable than their own personal

  • fixation on the drama of self-expression, the torments of creativity and the tragic quest

    for modernity. Dressed up in their black and austere outfits modernist architects and

    artists have forgotten about the sweetness of the Muses and have given up on the

    Citta Felice as much as on harmonious, beautiful and comfortable architecture to

    serve, elevate and delight human communities.

    The whole world seems but a battlefield of competitive and often bitter creativity and experimentation for the sake of experimentation, always seen from a narrow

    perspective of a tyrannical and frivolous Zeitgeist, compulsive novelty, purposeless

    innovation and individual genius ! Now how do the infinite legions of contemporary

    geniuses account for an apparent lack of convincing evidence of success and popularity

    in their design and rebuilding of the modern world? Where is the piazza San Marco of

    modernism, where is the St. Peters of Deconstructivism, and did Modernism ever

    produce even a happy small town as the adorable little Pienza? How do modernist

    activists then morally cope with their failure to build desirable, sustainable and

    beautiful buildings and cities? How do they explain their indifference to beauty,

    happiness and true citizenship? Do they care at all?

    What others do, think and love is not important to the fervent missionaries and zealots of architectural modernism. The task they consider most important is a mission of

    radical and constant change, of transgression and of challenge enhancing and

    encompassing the ruthless speed of change, sacrifices and transfiguration of

    modernism. - They certainly cannot spend time wondering about nostalgia and of the

    resilience of romantic images of the past, as do a majority of people forced to live in

    their buildings and spaces! Thrown into the patterns of industrial modernism,

    functional and social disruption, aesthetical anarchy and cultural deconstruction their

    lives cannot but gravitate to hopes of redemption from modernism. Modernist

    architects, planners and urbanists continue however to imagine, design and build sad

    and depressing environments where nobody wants to live, and where nobody deserves

    to live. Their combination of a creative banality-mediocrity, of ugly originality, of

    deconstruction, of minimalist misery, and of parametricist non-sense have created

    pathologies and architectural monsters difficult to explain or to understand. The overall

    rejection of imitative strategies based on time-tested precedents have made real

  • excellence and meaningful wholeness impossible. How could any type of enduring,

    sophisticated and civilized culture start from what seems an utterly absurd, fragmented

    and unhappy legacy?

    What's wrong with modern architects?

    They possess skills, intelligence, culture (probably as much as designers and builders of the past), have idealism, sensitivity, dedication and can access huge databanks of

    scientific, technical and artistic knowledge (more than any generation of artists in

    history). Yet really what more can they achieve after almost 100 years of trials and

    errors, and above all what else do they want to achieve? They often put all their efforts

    to ruin the very art they claim to serve, ignoring the aspirations of people, and even

    repressing their own feelings towards home, community and place. They often gave up

    on many of their historic professional skills and seem to be torn apart by conflicting

    ideologies* and aspirations.

    They seem unwilling or incompetent to compose culturally, organically, ecologically, architecturally, etc., with existing communities, landscapes, cities and buildingsTheir

    suffering is terrible but self-inflicted and unnecessary, -they keep trying, persisting

    aloofly, and yet they continue to fail because they are no longer concerned with the

    realm of architecture, nor interested to build durable, successful and popular places and

    buildings.. They feel entitled to be the heralds of modernity and the heroes of a tortured

    and tormented modern world, compelled to celebrate and brood upon unpopular

    doctrines and experimentations of built forms and spaces. Rather than offering the

    healing expertise and artistic emulation of the architect, they become a driving force of

    the dissolution, deconstruction dissociation and fragmentation of our built and natural

    environment. They have come to fight the very core values of architecture itself, the

    substantial principles of Firmitas, Commoditas, Venustas as outlined by Roman architect

    Vitruvius and contributed ultimately not to a better architecture but to the absence of

    architecture in large parts of the contemporary world.

    Modern architects are trapped in a ferocious dilemma: they act as artistes maudits, unwilling to deal with conventions, public taste and common sense, which they regard

    as petty bourgeois, kitsch or dishones