The « international style »

Design. Vernacular.

Alexia Schneider,

Photo of the Prime Tower in Zurich
Prime Tower, Zurich Ⓒ Physalide

From Bangkok to Zurich to Dubai, the same towers and “architects’ houses” all made of concrete and glass, the emblematic product of globalisation. An image of modernity at a high price, to the detriment of one’s own culture, climate context and energy saving.

As I write these lines, I am reminded of the glass buildings of Brazzaville, with their sickly bluish or greenish reflections, like an echo of their over-climatised indoor air. Earth, which is known to keep cool, is relegated to the status of a 'poor man's material' and abandoned in favour of these 'modern' buildings, whose hollow cement blocks and reflective glazing fail to counteract heat entering.

Bank of Central African States, Brazzaville
Bank of Central African States, Brazzaville Ⓒ Physalide

How did we get here?

There was a time when, in Europe too, we chose the path of nonsense.

Tom Wolfe, in his book "From Bauhaus to Our House" locates the birth of the "international style" after the Second World War and attributes it to the emergence of the Bauhaus school1 . "Starting from scratch" was the motto of the young artists and architects of the time. What was primarily an ideological motivation in a post-war context was gradually translated into architecture, ignoring successive generations of contextual building cultures. The 'glass box', first erected on the smouldering ruins of Europe, was quickly imitated in the United States and then gradually spread throughout the world.

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Tom Wolfe, From Bauhaus to Our House

Only because of one thing and one thing only: the availability of cheap and abundant fossil fuels, has the 'international style' been able to take hold all over the world. What a group of visionary architects of the modern era dreamed of, the oil industry has made possible.

How else can we explain the advent of an architecture that consumes an insane amount of energy for its production, heating or cooling?

An uprooted architecture

Beyond cultural considerations, non-contextual architecture is at odds with its external environment, and therefore disproportionate efforts must be made to make it liveable.

In the pre-industrial era, the global architectural picture was quite different. Each particular climatic zone on the Köppen-Geiger map2 had its own building culture that was intrinsically in tune with its external environment.

Examples include Scandinavian houses with roofs covered with a thick layer of earth and vegetation to limit heat loss. Another example is the thick-walled houses in the desert with their 'chimneys' designed to catch the wind and create a cooling draught inside. These are all ingenious systems rooted in local resources and refined from generation to generation for a pleasant indoor climate, the challenges of which go far beyond the simple "illusion of the modern".

Nordic house with planted roof
Nordic house with planted roof Ⓒ Manny Moreno on unsplash

Towards a new era?

For it is indeed an illusion. At a time when our resources are running out and access to fossil fuels is no longer guaranteed, the "modern" must change its face.

I remember that when I told people around me that I was planning to study architecture, they often asked me this question: "Later, will you want to do ancient or modern architecture?" Each time, it left me puzzled. Today, I can confidently answer that I want to be involved in a resolutely contemporary architecture. A decarbonised, contextualised architecture, following the principles of bioclimatism.