One of the best pieces of criticism I’ve read this year appeared a couple of weeks ago on the Awl, the online journal best known for affectless and typically New York-centric takes on contemporary culture. (Co-founded by Choire Sicha, the new major-domo of the New York Times Style section, it’s now edited by Silvia Killingsworth.) The essay, by Sam Kahn, is largely about playwriting. It’s called “The Triumph of the Quiet Style.”
Kahn’s argument has two basic threads. First, that the wildly influential Annie Baker and other younger playwrights, in a reaction against the testosterone-fueled approach of figures like Neil LaBute and David Mamet, are producing work that unfolds slowly, without rapid-fire dialogue or bombast — work that is, in a word, quiet. And second, that this sensibility (“the dominant, most provocative, most interesting aesthetic of our time”) increasingly can be glimpsed in art forms beyond theater, including fiction and film.
There’s no mention of architecture in Kahn’s essay, but it’s easy to see some parallels. For the last year or two, I’ve been thinking about how best to sum up the most important emerging strain in contemporary architecture. This is an approach that rejects the hyperactive form-making of celebrated architects like Thom Mayne(very much the LaBute of his architectural generation), Daniel Libeskind, the late Zaha Hadid and others in favor of work that is spare, solid and unhurried.
As I’ve noted before, there’s something archetypal about this architecture. Its forms are basic, totemic: Euclidean shapes dredged from the long memory of the field. It sometimes relies on modules or grids. It’s often monochromatic. It’s post-digital, which means it rejects the compulsion to push form-making to its absolute limits that overtook architecture at the turn of the century. As a result, it sometimes looks ancient or even primordial. It never looks futuristic.
It is often architecture that has some weight, a palpable sense of mass or layers (as opposed to a highly photogenic skin). It’s mostly produced by architects born in the late 1960s, the ’70s and the early ’80s. Its overriding characteristic is a sort of stillness. It is against virtuosity (at least the showiest kind). It’s mostly made of stone, wood or concrete instead of glass and curving metal panels. Something Kahn says about Baker’s work is also true of this architecture: It exists “at room temperature.” It occasionally slips past the spare into the plain or the generic, and from there to the intentionally or ironically banal. It’s like some recent movements in fashion in that way.