In 1755, Francesco Algarotti, disgusted with what opera had become, wrote An Essay On The Opera in which he called for its simplification. For Algarotti, opera had degenerated into a vehicle for soloists to grandstand with endless improvisations overshadowing the music and ignoring the drama. Even the drama had lost the plot with mythological characters in extraordinary and complex situations. Algarotti saw drama as being the essence of opera and wanted the emphasis restored to it, with everything else secondary. Christoph Willibald Gluck and his librettist, Ranieri de’ Calzabigi, were the first to make it work with their 1762 opera Orfeo ed Euridice. It had characters and drama people could relate to, music that could be remembered and lyrics and a plot that could be understood. It’s regarded as the first truly modern opera.
Early 21st century architecture resembles 18th century opera with starry soloists impressing audiences with their stylings and ornamentations, but there’s no architectural Algarotti proposing any obvious and achievable vision of what architecture should be. In my previous piece for Common Edge I wrote that we need a new definition of architectural beauty and someone rightly pointed out that we also need to work out how to go about getting one. Deciding what we want architecture to be is the first step towards getting a new definition of architectural beauty. Working towards it follows naturally from that.
It was only possible to get opera back on track because of Algartotti’s firm and clear idea of what opera should be so, for the sake of argument, let’s suppose that architecture exists for the good of humanity. What’s stopping it?
Anything a Starchitect Does
Architecture has history of following the money. In the distant past it pandered to the agendas and egos of rich rulers and property developers, and in its recent past panders to rich property developer rulers whether in Shanghai, Doha, Baku, Mexico City or New York. This has had the effect of skewing the definition of architecture in the direction of projects of dubious economic, environmental and ethical foundation. […]