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 dishonest. On the other side, they claim social and

  • democratic principles to rationalize, standardize and/ or trivialize and fragment the

    human environment with a widely unpopular aesthetic of industrialized and synthetic

    products, unsustainable and unhealthy building materials and methods, and disruptive

    incomprehensible scales, types and forms of construction . They refer to the artistic and

    cultural freedom and autonomy of the modern architect, to the genius of the creator and

    artist, but do not hesitate to confine the cultural diversity, ingenuity and freedom of

    citizens in a despotic way! They blame traditional architecture to have served

    authoritarian politics and repressive regimes in history but do not feel any scruples in

    serving all contemporary dictatorships and undemocratic regimes throughout the

    whole world with modernist icons designed by a handful of star-architects, and

    participate uncritically to a vast production system of a most depressing, destructive

    and unsustainable global suburbia. Their work often empowers corporations, big

    institutions and obscure political regimes and disempowers local citizens, inhabitants,

    neighbourhood associations, etc.

    With no or little respect for historical conventions and cultural traditions, the modern architect imposes a built environment claiming the legitimacy of a historical mission.

    Rejecting the value of historical culture and precedent and criticizing classicists to turn

    back the wheel of history he has come to suggest to embodying the spirit of history

    himself. Not having learnt from history he believes that history has to learn from him!

    Endeavouring integration and harmony is considered to be a treason; the learning from the existing communities, places and buildings as well as the analysis of principles

    of historic cities and architecture are regarded as a matter of irrelevant amateurism!

    Even if todays modernist architects were as skilled, competent and able as architects

    from the past centuries they seem to unfortunately insist to demonstrate the contrary.

    They do refuse, often arrogantly, to engage with urban and architectural issues sensitive

    to social and urban contexts, they refuse the time-tested traditions of urbanism and

    contextual architecture and they often ignore even the best achievements of the modern

    tradition (and its social and cultural ideals) and contemporary precedents, a culture of

    modernity to which they pretend to belong.

  • Luxembourg, Pole Nord Building: because the demolished historical building at this location was called

    Pole Nord the architects thought that making their building look like a piece of ice was a stroke of

    genius.(photo by Lucien Steil)

    Looking at the designs of modernist colleagues, I dont envy them for their fame and commissions and often feel compassion when I see their grim faces and sad expressions.

    I wonder whether they know the joys of disegno, or inventio and the delight to

    interact with empowered communities and happy citizens to share a vision, to craft

    buildings and places where people can find meaning, identity and continuity, and

    above all pride of place.! It always surprises me how distant the many joyless,

    depressing plans and uninspiring visions and projects are from true human concerns,

    desires and needs, and how artificially moralistic, puritan and abstract the

    philosophical and theoretical views really are.. and how brutal above all when they get

    built. - Why, should we continue to ask, why have they have forgotten or abandoned

    the principles of the good life and the virtues of citizenship?

    It seems to me that architects from the past were happier and so were their patrons, and all people pleased and inspired with their work. They regarded themselves as

  • modern, organically contemporary, without necessarily thinking of modernity as a

    quality in itself. In fact, is modernity not simply the consciousness and positive

    acknowledgment of a present historical situation and its specific sensitivity and

    character? Is it not rather, the positive feeling, intuition and expression of a single and

    unique present which every great culture experiences in its moments of intense cultural

    and artistic creativity? We should hence avoid granting an absolute and universal value

    to modernity: aesthetically, morally, stylistically, politically and culturally. Modernity is

    not the sole privilege of the 20th century avant-garde or of any vanguard or cultural and

    historical rear-guard. Every culture owns its modernity in moments where it is most in

    unison with both its time and with the universe according to Hassan Fathy.

    Luxembourg City, View towards the Faubourg du Grund (photo by Lucien Steil)

    Why have the most beautiful cities in history been built, rebuilt, transformed and

    enlarged in such a fine way over many centuries? Why has architecture been so

    comfortable, pleasing and acclaimed? Why have architecture and city-building been so

    much integral parts of a large popular culture while today they are being occulted as an

    elitist and esoteric cult and ignored or shoulder shrugged upon by the general

    population? -There were certainly many reasons, but it seems to me that the happy,

  • harmonious and complex continuity and inventive development of cities and

    architecture was made possible by:

    - 1) The use of imitation as a creative method (Imitation of Nature)

    - 2) The recognition of tradition as a living process that connects past, present and future.

    - 3) The consciousness of humility of the individual in the cosmos and her/his acceptance of

    limitations (recognition of the sacred and the profane).

    Imitation encompasses following aspects:

    - Respect of the built environment and un-built heritage: this is the nature of


    - The acknowledgement of the traditional city as an enrichment of nature and as

    the natural habitat of mankind

    - The translation of physical and moral characteristics of places and buildings and

    the phenomena of tectonics in a conventional architectural invention.

    - The articulation of the sensual, moral and abstract principles of nature , through

    constructions and materials in an ecological, logical, consistent and significant

    building that adapts harmoniously to a specific context.

    Imitation is not codified as a building regulation but as a poetical and artistic sum of

    principles. It has a lot of trust in the individual designer providing him with a wide

    field for imagination, invention and experimentation within a system of natural laws.

    Innovation is possible within imitation and occurs when necessary and useful. It proves

    to be almost out of reach within both the rigid and authoritarian architectural, urban,

    construction and technical codes, and the anarchic, arbitrary and iconoclastic design

    wilderness of academy; innovation would then become a mere matter of stylistic

    appearance and of symbolic gesticulation.


    It does not ask for the absolute newness and contradiction, or a fanciful, weird and

    strange, mostly superficial innovative form or content of a creation.

    It is the sound creation from the essence of the original. Hence the issue is not the

    sensational feeling of the unprecedented, but the quest for, - essential values and their

    meaning, - unprejudiced creation that depends on an understanding of the original,

    and ultimately the essence, the nature of a thing. According to Mircea Eliade, every

  • creation is a reproduction of the original creation. Martin Heidegger also perfectly

    states that the nature of a thing can be found in its origin.

    If only originality was understood this way, modern architecture would be much more

    exciting and acceptable, for it would be part of a universal creation which is understood

    and sensed as a harmonious unity of nature and culture, and of sacred and profane.

    Pastiche/ copy/ imitation

    Architecture that refers to traditions and that is committed to contextual issues and

    integration is often regarded as pastiche. It is true that many an attempt to recreate an

    architectural integration based on traditional precedents may become trivial and

    superficial, and even kitsch, but this is equally true for the many faux modernist

    replicas and interpretations. The culture of fake is a deeply rooted disease in our

    modern building production and it is due obviously to the phenomena of mass

    production and industrialized building materials and technologies. It is due in large

    part to changing design paradigms in architecture from The Imitation of Nature to

    The Imitation of the Machine

    Definition of a copy

    A copy is a consistent, complete and precise reproduction of something.

    Definition of pastiche

    It is a superficial and approximate interpretation of something; it is an impressionistic

    reflection of a copy.

    Definition of imitation

    An invention of something new, based on the principles of Imitation of Nature, and of

    selected precedents from a historical urban and architectural culture and its memory of

    built and unbuilt legacy.

    *On one hand an interest in sustainable human cultures and ecological and environmental

    concerns, urban cultures, political pluralism and tolerance, and refined living, but on the other

    one no compassion for architectural and artistic pluralism, traditional art and architecture and

    popular feelings. Modernists have no problem to openly admit that they prefer classical music

    but consider classical architecture outdated, if not politically inacceptable. They like vernacular

    architecture in exotic countries or as a style for their own country houses but reject local

    vernacular architecture as a reference for contemporary creation and other peoples country