September 12, 2010
Mies siouxsie
Seagram Building, Mies Van der Rohe, 1969 (source)


We deride the term cliché because it substantiates our insecurities. The cliché informs us that no designer is an island, that we all lack originality, that we are all hacks. In practice, the cliché is a means of organizing a messy abstract body of work into clean boxes _ merely another term for ‘style’.


The International Exhibition of Modern Architecture, held at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City in 1932, is credited with being the birthplace of the modern ‘style’, not because it documented a novel practice, but because it was able to demonstrate a lack of originality in the work of contemporary practitioners across the globe. Aalto in Finland, Le Corbusier in France, and Mies and Gropius in Germany. Imported to America, this sameness reproduced a thousand times over revealed the ‘cliché’ for what it was: the ubiquitous office tower that relied on the Miesian ‘less is more’ in order to erect buildings utilizing ‘less’ materials and labor while reaping ‘more’ profits. Once the trend was detected, the style fell out of favor.


On to the next ‘cliché’.


E. Sean Bailey

Siouxsie Sioux and Friend, c. 1980 (source)


When preparing to leave for my first job after finishing architecture school, I decided to pack items that were predominantly black with a smattering of white and grey, heavily omitting color. This, in spite of the fact that in the preceding years I had mostly worn a combination of primary colors (although due to a lack of funds, by the end of school my wardrobe basically consisted of two t-shirts and one pair of jeans, which in any arrangement produced no particular color scheme). I can’t say that I have always avoided clichés but in this instance I embraced one: the architect in black. Everything would be so easy to match, an uncomplicated wardrobe of doom and gloom, where every piece coordinates perfectly with the next in a seamless series of combinations. Recalling everything from beatniks to goths, this pan-artsy gear provided the perfect funerary attire for easing myself into my new profession. Although a familiar archetype of dress in a Western context, transposed onto my ‘ethnic’ self, an element of confusion was added to this well worn cliché. Considering all of this, in addition to fashion’s front rows also echoing this dark sentiment, I figured black garb isn’t necessarily limited to a legacy as the uniform for architects and could potentially conjure other associations.


Erandi de Silva



3 Responses to “CLICHÉ”

  • Lauren says:


    Sean, I’d have to dissent on your conflation of style and cliché… first of all, cliché can be perhaps better explained as kitsch – something that originally had some value, some experiential “zing” that has been made threadbare, instantly recognizable but degraded. Style is “manner” – an organically related set of formal moves, a “curated” collection, so to speak, or specific visual strategies (in all the arts) that creates its own set of rules: these rules remain implicit, invisible, but present in all creations of the stylist. I think probably all of the architects in the exhibition had style, for better or for worse, but of course the exigencies of formulating a populist modernist architectural “front” required liquidating them in favor of descriptive language that was only superficially related to the actual buildings.


    Indeed the MoMA exhibition did make something that was cliché, but only because of the, well, time constraints of all bad curatorial writing – cliche was present, but not necessarily in the work of Mies or Aalto, only in the dull contours of Phillip Johnson’s understanding of their work.

  • E. Sean Bailey says:


    This zing is the problem for me. I think that whenever you curate, you are robbing the artifact/artist of their originality, whether you want to classify them into a style, a cliche or whatever. In some respects it’s all the same thing.


    As for the “style”, the difficulty is that these rules you refer to don’t remain implicit and invisible. They are there for anyone to see. Architecture especially is such a technical and collaborative process. That said, perhaps the “style” of these architects was never actually touched on at the MOMA show. The stated criteria were: “the expression of volume rather than mass, balance rather than preconceived symmetry and the expulsion of applied ornament”. Ridiculous in retrospect.

  • Lauren says:


    I can’t say I disagree with you at all about curating – to paraphrase Richard Wollheim, anything operating with theory (in the sense that curating does) is only bound to spin the fantasy of generalization.


    When I talk about rules that define a style, I do mean those that remain unseen. Rules that are phenomenally present, perhaps, but not always in a way that is connected to the stated design practice of said architect… this is why I would maintain that style has little to do with cliche, whatsoever. Style has a flexibility because it is created through a logic, like an algorithm, whereas cliché is always the same, just increasingly ill-fitting as it is re-used without flexibility or knowledge of the rules and logic at play in the original.


    I think we are in agreement. “Style” in the term “International Style” was a misnomer. What Johnson was able to coin was a set of generalizations flexible and broad enough to be applied (however clumsily) to a wide array of work. The cliché is the cliché interpretation, not the buildings themselves, but things do become confusing post-war when it is the interpretation and not the logic, refinement or concerns of the original works that serve as models for practicing architects.



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