On Architectural Contrast

Blowhard, Esq. writes:


I spend more time than is probably healthy trolling providing constructive comments in various reddit architectural forums. There are lots of contemporary architecture fans around there and one thing I see constantly is their enthusiasm for contrast of a very specific type — a traditional building juxtaposed with a Modernist/contemporary one, like the picture above or the other example below.


I’m always sort of baffled when people ooh and ahh over this kind of thing, as if putting a contempo building next to a classical one is a good in itself. Contrasting St. Paul’s with a steel-and-glass box may make for a interesting photograph, but what exactly do the buildings gain from it? What’s the point? They aren’t talking to one another, they’re not having any kind of artistic exchange. In the example above, nothing about the contempo structure echoes, references, or responds to any of the elements in the cathedral. It’s like walking into a room in which two people are having a loud, contentious argument where neither is listening to the other.

Instead, ignore the glass towers in the background and compare the foregrounded buildings on the street in the picture below.


This is what I think of when I hear the phrase “architectural contrast.” There’s a dialogue between the buildings in which the materials, shapes, and colors complement, elaborate on, and extend one another. Notice how the pointed arches of the building on the far left are echoed on the first story of the middle building, but the middle supports the arches on two columns. Or how the striped brickwork of the two buildings on the far right complement one another. Each building is like a different movement of a symphony whereas in the St. Paul’s picture above, it’s like some shoved a Kraftwerk song in the middle of a Bach performance. I may like “Autobahn” but I wouldn’t splice it into the “Mass in B minor.”


I wonder if the popularity of the shuffling on iPods, fusion cuisine, and genre mashups have given people more a taste or appreciation for mixed traditional-Modernist neighborhoods. If the postmodern jumble works for music, food, books, and movies, why shouldn’t a toss-it-all-in-the-air approach also be applied to architecture? It sometimes feels like the mashup is one of our most vital cultural expressions.

Will the pendulum ever swing back away from the stylistic free-for-all? When “contrast” becomes the dominant style will someone finally prod architects to contrast contrast — bring everything full circle — and return to harmony? It can’t happen fast enough for me.



About Blowhard, Esq.

Amateur, dilettante, wannabe.
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10 Responses to On Architectural Contrast

  1. Will S. says:

    Hear, hear!

    I especially loathe new modern entrances to old museums, like I.M. Pei’s infamous new glass pyramid entrance to the Louvre in Paris, or, even worse, the new entrance to the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, which looks like a crystalline monster is eating the old building:


    I love Prague for architecture; it has a variety of different architectural styles, from many different eras, but they work together harmoniously, somehow; nothing too jarring. (And they have an awe-inspiring amount of Art Nouveau buildings, which we don’t have enough of here in North America.) There, too, as in your above two examples, you have buildings that both contrast and complement each other, in an aesthetically pleasing manner.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. JV says:

    As soon as I read your sentence, “I may like ‘Autobahn’ but I wouldn’t splice it into the ‘Mass in B minor.'”, I thought, actually that could really work, and probably someone has already done it and posted it on YouTube. And then the following paragraph you address mashup culture and pretty much echo my thoughts on how that translates across mediums.

    I enjoy a lot of architectural contrast; for instance, I think the St. Paul’s example works. The Royal Ontario Museum example is a shitshow, so simply contrasting for contrast’s sake is not the point. But, for me, there’s something comforting about a modernist/classical juxtaposition, when done right. It’s a tangible expression of the continuum of human achievement, and being in the presence of something like that, I feel firmly placed in and part of it all. Somewhat relatedly, my favorite kind of house is one with a traditional exterior and modernist interior (open floor plan, clean lines, etc.).

    Liked by 1 person

  3. agnostic says:

    It’s impossible to perceive entire buildings from clashing styles as a gestalt, so there is no harmony or dissonance — qualities that are crafted by a single creator into the features of a single work. It’s just one damned thing after another.

    Perhaps the obsession with such photos is driven by a yearning to find meaning and comfort in what is patently unstable flux. If a random jumble is all we’ve got, we might as well make it into an addiction, seek it out everywhere, and try to spread it everywhere. You can understand why folks would want to substitute spastic OCD for dull depression.


  4. JV says:

    “…a yearning to find meaning and comfort in what is patently unstable flux.”

    That’s the human condition, I would say, so I can’t disagree with you on that point.


  5. agnostic says:

    Thinking about how the mod-trad contrast could work, there would have to be a repeated motif of at least one of the styles, maybe both.

    Like if you had identical International Style buildings in a regular arrangement near a single large trad building, or vice versa, or regular arrangements of identical buildings in both styles.

    Repetition of features helps us perceive pieces as a whole. In this case, individual buildings would make up a holistic landscape, with the mod-trad contrast among the elements (buildings) being like a contrast in color, texture, size, etc.

    Not just any kind of landscape would look cool, just like not any kind of color contrast among elements of a single building looks cool. But it is a necessary first step to get one of the buildings to conspicuously repeat itself (not just the generic style represented in distinct buildings).

    We don’t see that in the spastic OCD photos, which are just, “Hey look! It’s X, and Y, and Z!” So what?


  6. Fake Herzog says:

    This is a great post and something that I see a lot in Chicago, although I hadn’t given it much thought with the exception of the controversial Soldier Field rehab a couple of years ago:



    As you can see, they preserved the classical elements of the stadium, but dropped a large “flying saucer” into the middle of the old stadium, creating a jarring contrast. I actually find the new stadium interesting, partly because it is off by the lake and so it doesn’t assault the eyes all the time and partly because the new sight lines are so much better in the re-built stadium. I saw Taylor Swift there with my daughter (I swear!) last year. Modernity has its advantages!


  7. Pingback: Architecture Du Jour: The Morgan Library & Museum | Uncouth Reflections

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