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Eclecticism: The Architecture of Liberal Democracy, by Daniel Morales

When power and information are held by the few, innovation and freedom of expression are limited.  This is just as true in architecture as it is in politics.  The 18th century British poet William Cowper articulated the rise of Eclecticism, writing of the architect, “He catches all improvements in their flight, spreads foreign wonders in his country’s sight, imports what others have invented well, and stirs his own to match them, or excel.”  Eclecticism, defined as the freedom to choose, is not a style, but the natural expression of a liberal democracy.  In this paper, I will identify the historical, cultural, and philosophical underpinnings of Eclecticism and its parallel today.

Whatever else a building’s design was meant to convey, it was always understood to be an expression of a patron’s power, be it the Church or State.  This began to change in the 17th century with the growth of Europe’s Maritime Empires, and nowhere more so than in England.  As Voltaire wrote, “The English are the only people on earth who have been able to prescribe limits to the power of kings”.  The vast wealth generated from its colonies gave rise to a middle class who demanded a greater freedom of expression, both political and aesthetic.  This new consumer culture expanded the arbiters of taste beyond the dictates of the few to the marketplace of the many. Newtonian science prompted philosophers to explore the feeling of beauty beyond an expression of God’s creation or Platonic ideal.  The Scientific Revolution of the 17th century gave rise to Empiricism, the notion that knowledge comes from sense experience rather than being handed down unquestioningly.  This idea would eventually undermine absolutism in both politics and culture.  

Since the Renaissance, Classicism was thought to represent a universal and a priori standard of beauty, the ideal expression of the divine right claimed by monarchs.  England was the last of the European powers to embrace Classicism because of its association with the Catholic Church and the civil wars of the 17th century, which established Parliament as the ruling power.  As English society democratized, British Empiricists began laying the philosophical ground work that would eventually undermine Classicism’s monopoly on taste and set the stage for Eclecticism’s flowering in the 19th century.  Joseph Addison was one of the first to explore a secular aestheticism and its effects on the psyche.  By identifying both innate and associational pleasures, he elevated the psychology of aesthetics over academic formalism.  Francis Hutcheson widened the debate between absolute and relative beauty by emphasizing the role of the individual’s experience while George Berkeley rejected the idea of an innate sense of beauty, arguing that beauty was beholden to utility and fitness of purpose.  David Hume argued that “...each mind perceives a different beauty”, yet acknowledged the innate qualities that made certain works universally beautiful and therefore timeless.  Aesthetics was now thought to be both universal and relative as variety became an important component of aesthetic pleasure.

Architecture’s patronage was enlightened by the proliferation of travel, exposing the world’s built heritage to a wider range of people.  Aspiring gentlemen followed in the wake of England’s naval reach, bringing home with them an expanded view of architecture’s variety beyond the orthodoxy of academia.  The rise of modern archeology and its dissemination through the huge increase in book publishing further democratized aesthetics.  The gradual displacement of Aristocratic taste in favor of popular taste was a natural outgrowth of the rising middle class and the new consumer culture.  By the end of the 18th century, new theories of architecture had emerged to make sense of the variety, from the Sublime to the Picturesque and Rationalism to Romanticism.

Stylistic pluralism was the inevitable result of absolutism’s decline and the spread of information, which begs the question; why does academia today reject Eclecticism, especially given what we now know about how humans perceive their environment?  Whether our sense of beauty is personal, universal, or a combination of both, Eclecticism reflects what the late Vincent Scully called, “the pluralism of the modern period”, the expression of a liberal democracy.

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