Generic Individualism – The Reigning Style of our time – and its Discontents


Roman architecture was very like today’s style and approach in being generic and mass-produced. It was impersonal, but with a slight twist – witness the Pont du Gard on the Euro 5 bill, a standardised algorithm given a zoom-shot for our sensibilities. Gothic architecture also was churned out in an International Style, but it occasionally had a more personal and local character because the clients had a story to tell through architecture. The Reigning Style Today (always capitalised) is GI (Generic Individualism) and it dominates all large practices, global cities, academic epigones, Starchitects doing icons (or Startists doing art) for a simple reason: because these stars exist in a special firmament, the global marketplace of Bigness. It also creates its discontents, and alternatives, but the latter are limited under present regimes of production and accumulation. One way to go beyond this reigning paradigm and achieve a deeper character of architecture is to focus on content, the underlying idea or concetto that attracts client and architect into a more committed personal relationship: “architecture is the existential act between consenting adults in public,” an art you can stand up for. Bigness, by contrast, is a ground of warfare and zero-sum negotiation so it is no surprise that after Modernism’s universal generic for everyone, and Post-Modernist’s mass-customisation for ever individual, we have reached a rather low level synthesis of GI. Yet architectural freedoms still exist, as a few contemporary examples show, especially when client and architect are inspired by a shared goal.

Charles Jencks