Imitation, Innovation and the 700th Cantilever

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Imitation, Innovation and the 700th Cantilever

After seeing the 700th gratuitous cantilever, I ask: Why do architects follow the leader? Whether it’s a “Kahn knock-off” or a “Mies knock-off” or now a “Hadid knock-off,” why has this phrase been attached to every imitator by every detractor for the last hundred years?

It’s because as a group, architects are terrified of being lame. In school, the “loser” students sulked away after being torched by critics who loved to pile on. We all like to pile on. It’s one of our least attractive human traits. The cheapest way to avoid being a loser is to be a poser. Posing—learning a given aesthetic and then using it, shamelessly, is a great way to grow early on—but it’s also an expedient way to sidestep the harder questions of innovation and belief.

Clearly the gratuitous application of the familiar detail is an easy out. The need for many architects to see a fashionable meme and jump on it, gives cover to the uncertain. Attempting the unattempted—authentic innovation—takes courage. Are you posing? Are you imitating?

It’s easier to point fingers and shame the imitator. History shows the innovators were reacting to something they bridled against. Sometimes it worked—so many great architects seized the initiative of Frank Lloyd Wright who first created an early 20th century improvement on the American house. Wright led and architects, academics, and critics followed. Innovation is necessary, or architecture becomes inert while the world moves on, but pandering imitation betrays the creative spirit. When every American car had aerodynamic fins in the 1950’s and every career woman had padded shoulders in the 1980’s, good ideas were replaced with thoughtless superficial replication. […]