A few weeks ago I invited my social network contacts to make a list of their twenty best 20th century buildings. I was flooded with responses. There was a wild frenzy of people sending me rankings and listings of architectural masterpieces.
The same obsession with lists also exists in cinema. Every few years a list of the best films in history reappears. Citizen Kane tops the chart time and time again, for decades, until suddenly it’s replaced by The Godfather II and Orson Welles doesn’t get a look in again.
So why do we like lists so much?
Firstly, I think, it’s because we architects are enthusiastic fans of architects. That doesn’t happen in other professions, but in architecture we do act as if we were in the film industry. We have our myths, we know the most intimate details about them, we know about their intrigues and their ambitions … and we love them.
We all have our favourite architects and buildings, but often our tastes are the result not of rational analysis but of quite inexplicable, fiery partisanship and sheer fascination. We try to travel as much as we can to see our favourite works, we buy books about them, we worship them like minions serving their gods, we argue about them, clutch at them, drool over them… We’re pretty freaky.
So you only need to ask an architect or a student of architecture about their favourite buildings and they’ll launch into a starry-eyed monologue only comparable in intensity to the diatribe they’d unleash if you asked them which famous one they hated the most. This is like football, and we’re hooligans.
Thanks to this tendency towards hero-worship, many architects become media idols (at least within this relatively small field of architecture junkies: there aren’t many of us, but we make a lot of noise) and their buildings take on an almost iconic symbolism as key monuments.
One thing I found surprising was that, according to the lists my friends sent me, the gods of architecture are the same ones as ever. (OK, it was a list of 20th century architecture, and that didn’t include works from the 21st century, but the most admired buildings were all from around the middle of the century – the 1950s, 1960s at the latest. Whatever happened to the long, very productive second half of the century?)
I know for a fact that nearly all those who voted are much younger than me, but the results were the same as if I’d issued the same invitation to my classmates at university back in the 1980s. Thirty-odd years have passed but the masters of the podium are the same as before.
Twenty-five-year-old architects now continue to venerate the same great masters that we sixty-year-olds idolise, figures who are also the same ones that our teachers (now in their eighties, if not dead) taught us to love.
Lists! Lists! Basically they’re an exercise in paying tribute to our myths, figures who, simply for their mythical status, are no longer just people and works that happened to appear in the world at a given moment. They’re now considered legendary archetypes, judged for the fascination they command rather than for their objective qualities.
Because those of us who do decide to make lists admit the biased, uncritical nature of our enthusiasm and our capacity to wildly indulge in our heroes.
And hey, we love it.