While I sit here writing this post, Lady Gaga’s latest single “Born This Way” is streaming on one of the Top 40 channels on iTunes Radio. Before you start penning the hate mail about me liking Gaga (which I do) or encouraging you to draw while inebriated (which I am not), hear me out.
There is a furious debate surrounding the song mentioned above. As someone with quite a bit of musical training, I was immediately struck by its’ pedagogical similarity to Madonna’s 1989 hit “Express yourself.” Apparently I wasn’t the only one to notice this, as the New York Times music critic wrote about the topic the next day. As with most healthy debates, the two sides are diametrically opposed; one group says it is a brilliant homage to a pop culture icon of an earlier time while others say it is blatant plagiarism. For me, the most interesting part of the discussion is not whether or not the two works are too similar, but the fact that both artists have remained largely silent on the issue.
I think there is an architectural corollary here. While Gaga apparently DOES write her songs under the influence of myriad substances, one does not need to imbibe or smoke something to find oneself incorporating an earlier precedence into the current work. If we are paying attention to our surroundings, we are, by default, under the influence of any number of things; our environment, the latest issue of Architectural Record or Dwell, archdaily.com, the latest Starchitect to be widely publicized, spring break trips overseas, or whatever else your poison happens to be.
Throughout architectural history, one movement upon the next pulled artistic inspiration from one previous era or another. With little exception, ancient architects were influenced by the materials that were available. Trabeated construction arose from readily available heavy timber. Arctuated construction was a result of discovery that compressive materials could span great distances in arch form. Someone discovered that if they moved an arch along its supports, a vault would result. Romans made fantastically thin domed structures out of concrete. Gothic cathedrals hybridized these two concepts and ribbed vaults performing structurally in two or more axis were commonplace. In an admittedly simplistic analysis, the entire Post Modernist movement took established architectural precedence abandoned in the Modernism movement and attempted to subvert their established meaning through unconventional formal, spatial and scale arrangements.
Even current day practice has its’ historical influences. Firms and individuals studying biomimicry look to established designs and processes found in nature to inform their work. And while Libeskind may claim to work with the metaphorical, and the fluidity of Zaha Hadid’s work closely matches the motion one feels in some of her earlier drawings, what we are seeing from these people is really nothing fundamentally new. They both acknowledge their historical influence and spatial inspiration and craft that knowledge into a signature formal arrangement.
As I exceed my word limit, I encourage you to stand on the shoulders of giants and learn from all that has come before you. As we develop our own aesthetic and design signature, we can’t help but be influenced. Find something that speaks to you, deconstruct it in an effort to understand its’ inner workings, and then reassemble it into something that contains the essence of the inspiration as well as your own creative genius. Just remember to give credit where credit is due.