The International Style & Its Counterfeit

By Michael Stonikinis

Recently I’ve noticed that the topic of Rome has come up in casual conversation with friends and coworkers on more than a few occasions. Needing only to reflect briefly on these circumstances, I soon came to the embarrassing realization that in almost all instances I was the one responsible for raising the subject. To those that I have bored talking of popes, palazzi, the Palatine and Pompey the Great, I apologize and confess that I have something of an obsession for the Eternal City. I could write endlessly about the many reasons behind my affection for this noble ancient city, but, with brevity and the reader’s patience in mind, I will focus on only one such reason, namely, the city’s inimitable architectural and urban character.

A Swiss Guard at his post in a cortile at the Vatican

A vandalized bust of Julius Caesar at the Villa Borghese gardens

The endurance of the city of Rome over the centuries is, at least in part, related to the unmatched quality of its architecture and urban fabric. There is something special about the relationship between its abundant public spaces, the intimate scale of its streets, its numerous sites of grandeur and the modest yet respectable buildings that fill the gaps in between that make it a city without equal. Another important feature that distinguishes Rome from most other cities is, of course, its age and history. 

Staircase adjacent to the Renaissance Campidoglio leading to the ancient Tabularium

Preserved segment of the ancient Aurelian Walls

There are many ancient cities in Europe but only a very small number of them are nearly as old as Rome. In fact, many of these ancient cities were essentially founded by and initially flourished under the Roman Empire. For instance: Milan was founded as Mediolanum; Paris as Lutetia; London as Londinium; etc. In a certain sense, Rome became during its long imperial period and later through the spread of the Roman Catholic religion something much larger and more globally significant than just a particularly pleasant hilled city along the Tiber. Its expansion across Europe and, eventually, the world allowed for the diffusion of its ideas, technology, culture and, most importantly for our purposes, architecture. To be clear, by “Roman” architecture I do not simply mean “classical” architecture but, rather, something much broader that captures the versatility that was necessary for Roman architects to build aqueducts in Spain and baths in Britain. It is this broader, more flexible understanding of Roman architecture that I would now like to explore by way of a slight detour.

Aisle roof trusses in the early medieval church Santa Sabina on the Aventine Hill

Entrance to a modest dwelling in the Trastevere section of Rome

Entrance cortile to the medieval Santa Maria in Cappella in the Trastevere section of Rome 

A few months ago I came across a clever article by a young journalist named Oriana Schwindt titled “The Unbearable Sameness of Cities”. I say that the article is “clever” not because its observations are particularly original, but rather because it succinctly and wittily makes record of a variety of phenomena that I (and surely many others) have come to notice over the last several years but could not correlate or make explicit in quite the same way that Ms. Schwindt does. Specifically, she had come to identify, while on a months-long, coast-to-coast tour of the United States, several odd similarities shared between nearly all the cities that she visited. One example is the proverbial Trendy Coffee Shop, of which we are all familiar whether it is found in New York or Nashville, Oakland or Oklahoma City. I’m sure you can picture it instantly: the Edison bulb light fixtures; the shabby-chic hairpin leg chairs; the reclaimed wood wainscoting; not to mention the five-dollar lattes and various items of ironic décor. Other examples that she gives are likewise apprehended instantly: the Hip Microbrewery with the quadruple-hopped Lucky Charms IPA; the Casual Brunch Place with seven kinds of avocado toast; the Raucous Barbecue and Beer Hall with lacquered rough sawn wood tables and felt letter board menus. I could go on but am confident that I’ve made my point.

An old Fiat parked along a street in the Campo Marzio

The ancient church of Santi Luca e Martina located near the Roman Forum restored during the Renaissance

Before returning to Rome I’d like to focus for a moment on how this strange new uniformity of American architecture as recorded by Ms. Schwindt has, to some significant degree, fulfilled one of the loftiest goals of the High modernist movement: popularity and ubiquity. What I mean is that it has become a sort of New International Style, the likes of which would surely have baffled Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe. Crucial to the appeal of this new style is the curious reverence it gives to a kind of mid-century industrial revivalism, or as Ms. Schwindt more vividly puts it, “steampunk by way of West Elm”. The rustic hardwood flooring; the ersatz factory light fixtures; the exposed brick walls: all of these defining features of the New International Style endorse a type of design that is, much like the Old International Style, restrained and inornate. But, interestingly, they also implicitly endorse a type of design that is unquestionably historicist. Unlike the Old International Style which relished the new, the New International Style relishes the old. 

A small trattoria with an elaborate ventilation system in the Trastevere section of Rome 

An ancient Corinthian capital on display

It is at this perplexing impasse that I would like to return to Rome.As I have mentioned above, Rome’s success as a model for urban design is due to the versatility of its architecture. This flexibility allows for the successful application of its architecture across both time and space. In other words, both a basilica built in Trier, Germany by imperial Roman legionaries and a basilica built in Toluca, Mexico by Roman Catholic missionaries have proven to be enduring architectural features within their widely divergent local contexts. The city of Rome is therefore nothing less than the site of the greatest and most comprehensive application of this truly universal system of design—the True International Style. 

A restored section of exterior wall in the Renaissance-era Vatican Belvedere

Statue of Saint Peter in the Baroque-era Piazza di San Pietro

Reconstructed corner of an ancient building near the Teatro di Marcello

In comparison, both the Old and the New International Styles are, for different reasons, less successful systems of design. The Old International Style of the High modernists, while in a sense incredibly versatile because of its focus on abstraction and universality, ultimately failed because it was incapable of adapting to the unique needs of each instance of its application. Conversely, the New International Style outlined above, while able to accommodate the various unique needs of each application, is incapable of accounting for the abstract, universal needs of architecture such as symbolism and typology which help distinguish, for example, a hospital from a hotel; an opera house from a fire house; etc. I realize that I am now approaching subject matter too complex and difficult for the more casual setting of this essay. 

Segment of a (presumably) ancient barrel vault on display

Remains of the Portico di Ottavia with medieval masonry infill  

So, to conclude, let us return to Rome on the Capitoline Hill where, unlike Gibbon, whose vision from that very spot was famously one of Decline and Fall, we might scan our surroundings and see things differently. The many ages of Rome at once stand transposed before us: the Renaissance Palazzo Senatorio; the medieval Basilica di Santa Maria in Ara Coeli; the modern Altare della Patria; and, of course, the famous ancient bronze statue of Marcus Aurelius (or at least its replica). This scene, as good as any other in the city, should remind us that Rome’s perseverance throughout the ages is not due to the linear progression of one successive architectural style after the next, but rather to a synthesis of many variations of the same tradition of design which is not limited to a particular time or period and is, in a word, eternal.

Juxtaposition of the medieval church Santa Maria in Ara Coeliand modern monument to Italian nationalism the Altare della Patria

The modern Altare della Patria located at the heart of ancient Rome