Rationales beyond Rationalism

The aspirations of early twentieth-century modernists to an ahistorical mode of design, eschewing any reference to historical tradition, dovetailed with the rational problemsolving approach of Viollet-le-Duc's design method. Hence modernist architecture tended to be largely an exercise in formalism, ignoring the physical context into which it was inserted and lacking associative cultural references. Indeed, for all his devotion to historical architecture for what it could teach the architect about design, Viollet-le-Duc had been interested neither in the functions for which those buildings were designed nor the aspects of their designs that denoted cultural content. He saw the Gothic cathedral, for instance, as a rational response to certain kinds of functional requirements but not as an expression of the age of faith. Hence his rational design method had ignored the matter of meaning in architecture.

To endow a design with cultural meaning may involve going beyond straightforward rationality. And to understand that is to recognize an important limitation in rational design method, namely the blithe assumption that there is a single right way to go about designing a building, one that, if faithfully followed, will lead inexorably to the right solution to the problems posed by the functional program. By contrast, a postmodern outlook accepts that the logic of a truly satisfactory solution may lead beyond purely rational formulation, tolerating ambiguities that result when competing truths come into conflict. So began a new series of inversions of the accepted verities of architectural theory, creating a mannerism that exists beyond the realm of the classical orders.

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