What Is Eclectic Architecture?
Architectural styles have fallen out of favor throughout history. Generally, the peak of one movement means the decline of another. Over time, the situation may reverse, as in the case of postmodernism, which has divided opinions since its emergence, but experienced a revival in the first decades of the 2000s (or maybe not). Temporal distance contributes to the revision of certain styles’ relevance and evaluation of their qualities – or problems.
Eclecticism is certainly one of these controversial cases. The name denotes an artistic attitude that mixes elements from various periods and artistic styles into a single work. In art, this compositional syncretism was noticeable in the 16th century. In architecture, this stylistic mixture was predominant in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
In both art and architecture, criticisms are based on the lack of originality, decontextualization, and trivialization of valuable characteristics – especially when amalgamated with others that may or may not come from “opposing” styles – and the maximalist result itself, especially in architecture. Criticism may have its reasons for being. However, within the context and stance of eclectic architecture, there are interesting points that demonstrate a very contemporary artistic attitude.
New technologies spark imagination and exploration. The Industrial Revolution allowed for the production of construction materials on a large scale, such as iron and glass. Along with technological advancement, engineering also improved. Simultaneously, cities urbanized, and the possibilities of constructive experimentation with these materials expanded. The eclectic language introduces new materials to the time context through current aesthetic shapes.
During this period, the dominant architectural style was taught in Fine Arts schools, based on grandiose, symmetrical, and imposing designs. Historicist stamps already prey on eclectic architecture’s infamous appropriation attitude. If the example to be followed is a historical revival, with the availability of new materials, why not explore what other historical periods have to offer in terms of plasticity and use of the new raw material? There is a mixture of Greek pediments and columns and ornaments from the Baroque period and Gothic vaults, but these elements are not the only ones. History becomes a repository of solutions to be combined.
Interestingly, the search for historical examples of architectural composition was a highly disputed topic between the 1960s and 1980s, which coincidentally or not, locates postmodernism. Historical revivals are always ambiguous. The return to an earlier period may be full of intentions to recover values or certain social stages – the adjectives attributed to neoclassical architecture currently prove this – and the forms serve as symbols of an idea. In eclectic architecture, the ornaments and classical inspiration indicate the idealized refinement and progress of the moment.
Combinatorial experimentation to create new ways of expression sets precedents for unexpected projects, which can sometimes cause strangeness but indicate creative availability for an unfamiliar language. In addition, this stance also allows each location to add and combine elements from their particular cultures and contexts, or those appropriated from other cultures (a recurring and, fortunately, increasingly questionable attitude). After all, the models that served as the basis for eclecticism were hegemonic, and the mixture of elements of marginalized cultures or peoples appeared exoticized or interpreted in a European way. For example, the University of Birmingham, designed by Sir Aston Webb and Ingress Bell, employs Byzantine elements in its form.
European academicism and rigor yielded canonical examples of eclectic architecture such as the Paris Opera House, by Charles Garnier, and the Gare d’Orsay, by Victor Laloux, Lucien Magne, and Émile Bénard – transformed into a museum in 1971 by Gae Aulenti. The former inspired the Municipal Theater of Rio de Janeiro, by Francisco de Oliveira Passos and Albert Guilbert. The National Library, by Francisco Marcelino de Souza Aguiar, also marked the entry into the 20th century, so promising. In São Paulo, eclectic architecture was “inaugurated” with the Ipiranga Museum, by Tommazio Bezzi. However, it had one of its greatest exponents in the architect Ramos de Azevedo, responsible for the buildings of the Municipal Theater, Liceu de Artes e Ofícios (now Pinacoteca do Estado de São Paulo), and Estação da Luz.
With modernism, eclectic architecture became associated with a particular social class. The new artistic language broke radically with its predecessors. Formal exploration led to more impactful uses of eclectic materials. Between successes and failures, inspiration and appropriation, it may be of interest to reflect on the creative attitude of eclectic architecture as a genuine combination of elements from different periods or places. If contemporary art mixes materials, objects, and even experiences to open up new readings about the world, why can’t architecture do the same?
It is not necessary to return to historicism, view architecture history as a catalog of solutions, or use elements without understanding their meanings and contexts. But it is important to know that signs transmit messages, and it is necessary to know which messages one wants to propagate. Experimenting with diverse forms, materials, and uses – without implying pastiche or falling into quick judgments of “bad architecture” or distortion – can enrich professional practice and result in surprising buildings. Hopefully, positively.