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Troubles in Theory Part II: Picturesque to Postmodernism

The second essay in AR’s series: Troubles in Theory

Introduction

The first article in this series sketched a broad picture of the forms taken by architectural theory after the Second World War. This survey deliberately avoided using the term ‘Postmodern’, not because the word itself was bereft of a history of its own, but rather because, in retrospect, and viewed outside the lens of art-historical categorisation, the theoretical stances of the entire post-war period were all, already, ‘post-modern’.

Thus the AR’s revival of the principles of the Picturesque, through the lens of Townscape and the publication of Philip Johnson’s Glass House, with his historicist commentary, coupled with the shift to historical meta-analysis represented by Colin Rowe, all presaged the truly Postmodern theory of ‘Collage City’, published in 1975, the year in which Charles Jencks finally nailed down the term.

‘Let it therefore be boldly stated that the REVIEW has a “call”, a call of quite a low-class evangelical kind. (…) Underneath its more obvious aims, running through them and linking them together, is another less tangible one, which may be described by the words, visual re-education.’
The Editors, The Architectural Review, January 1947.

Introducing the January 1947 issue of the AR, the editors – JM Richards, Nikolaus Pevsner, Osbert Lancaster and Hubert de Cronin Hastings – celebrated the opening of the ‘second half century’ of the Architectural Review’s publication with a bold statement of policy. The ‘Modern movement in architecture’ was now finally accepted as ‘being made of very stern stuff indeed’, thus freeing the Review to widen its scope.

Side by side with the obligation to provide a ‘third programme’ for architecture, the editors affirmed, was the equally strong mission to educate the public in the art of architecture, to act ‘in the cause of visual culture’. What that meant was made clear by a reference to the ‘great visual educator’ Uvedale Price, a model for the understanding of the ‘visual experience’ bound to the ‘pursuit of the visual life’ presented in ‘landscape and townscape’.

During the War, the AR ran several surveys of bomb damage to buildings ‘of architectural importance’.Photographs and drawings of smoking ruins were often accompanied by surprisingly lyrical prose. Hence ‘the Picturesque was allied to the terrible Sublime

During the War, the AR ran several surveys of bomb damage to buildings ‘of architectural importance’

The ‘First Half Century’ had seen the ‘drama’ of the Modern movement, summarised in two ‘acts’ by Pevsner in a pictorial resume of his own Pioneers of the Modern Movement (1936): Act I, where Ruskin, Morris and the Arts and Crafts movements had prepared the ground had been followed by Act II, which traced ‘the natural development of fresh visual symbols’, and the acceptance of new building techniques.

But a third act was now needed in order to bring true visual principles to technological expression: this act would bring back that most English of English traditions, the Picturesque, studied now not only in terms of landscape design but ‘in relation to the new problems of urban landscape’.

This act would reinstate the main plot – to recapture ‘the scope and richness’ discarded by the modern revolution and to work for a re-humanisation – the building up of tradition: ‘new richness and differentiation of character, the pursuit of differences rather than sameness, the re-emergence of monumentality, the cultivation of idiosyncrasy, and the development of those regional dissimilarities that people have always taken a pride in.’ He concluded: ‘In fact architecture must find a way of humanising itself as regards expression without in any way abandoning the principles on which the Revolution was founded.’

Modern architecture is ‘dominated by planning’ and conceived in terms of ‘one coordinated scene’ – but has not yet acquired ‘visual three-dimensional status, nor has the new scale that the landscape element has introduced into architecture been fully assimilated’. The visual allows for a ‘continuity of tradition’ and ‘that historic precedent can be used constructively, not as an escape’.

In this assertion of principle were bound up all the complex strands that were to preoccupy the AR over the next 30 years: the dedication to visual experience, the identification of such experience with the themes buried in the English Picturesque tradition, and the demand to make these themes both pertinent and graphically visible to the public at large, and the seeds of what Pevsner himself would observe some 14 years later, and not without some dismay, the ‘return of historicism’ in what he called ‘Post Modern Movement’ architecture.

John Piper’s survey of colour in the Picturesque village, part of a regular series of colour in buildings with evocative drawings by the artist. Sharawaggi, ‘the art of making urban landscape’, was first expounded in January 1944, presaging the AR’s Towns

John Piper’s survey of colour in the Picturesque village, part of a regular series of colour in buildings with evocative drawings by the artist. Sharawaggi.

However, the principles outlined in ‘The Second Half Century’, had in fact been developed by Hubert de Cronin Hastings writing as ‘The Editor’ in February 1944 under the title ‘Exterior Furnishing or Sharawaggi: the Art of Making Urban Landscape’. Here, Hastings harked back to ‘the time of Ebeneezer Howard and Raymond Unwin,’ and the effort to allow ‘Billy Brown, the Little Man, and Bill Brown, the working man, to live a decent life in decent surroundings’, an effort tied to the image of the garden city, whence derived the image of the popular picture of the ‘semi-Tudor’, an image that still maintained traction some 50 years later.

Hastings noted that England was no longer looked to as ‘head of international inspiration in architecture’ as it had been in the time of the Arts and Crafts movement. Planners had ‘failed to provide an alternative picture comparable in realism, vividness or simplicity’, while technological, or transportation based, models of the culture could not hold the ‘Browns’ who ‘want a picture of the kind of world the physical planner will make, and up to date he has been given nothing between Port Sunlight and MARS’.

There was, Hastings argued, a serious need for a ‘picture’, ‘literally – a picture,’ that would ‘to reconcile visually in the mind’s eye what appear to be irreconcilable elements in any town plan: quaint bits, new bits, monuments, traffic, tall buildings, short buildings, flat blocks, individual cottages, etc.’

Thus he advanced a solution, ‘Picturesque Theory’, as it evolved in England during the 18th century and was internationalised in the early 19th century. ‘What we really need to do now,’ he suggested, is ‘to resurrect the true theory of the Picturesque and apply a point of view already existing to a field in which it has not been consciously applied before: the city.

He admitted that this would demand ‘a revolution in taste’, and therefore supplied a photo essay as a means of developing the elements of this revived theory. Photographs illustrated the idea of the ‘street-picturesque’, which encapsulated ‘the liveliness of the Picturesque street, whose chimneys, odd roof angles, protruding bows, trees and shrubs chiaroscuro, some distant eye-catcher closing the vista constitute a genuine piece of urban landscape’; the old and the new ‘a contrast of complementarities’; the success and failure of accident as opposed to the ‘visual laissez-faire’, which produced ‘a mining-camp not an urban landscape’.

Postmodernism to Post-Criticism

In a masterstroke of prospective nostalgia, Hastings concluded by taking as his model for such theory, that of Uvedale Price and Richard Payne Knight, as described in Christopher Hussey’s The Picturesque. The art of the Landscape Picturesque was, he claimed, identical to what the Chinese called ‘Sharawaggi’ or irregular gardening.

Landscape should be observed with the painter’s eye (he cited Claude Lorrain, Salvator Rosa, John Piper, John Nash, Edward Bawden, Eric Ravilious, Christopher Wood, Kenneth Rowntree – painters of the ‘urban scenery’) against those who see ‘the new Jerusalem all open space and concrete’.

This series of dialectical photographs, would lead, Hastings hoped, to a ‘visual policy for urban landscape’, one that was ‘natural to the English temperament’. He concluded: ‘Any time he so desires the modern town-planner is free to pick up Picturesque theory at the point before its corruption by the Gothic Revival; pick up the theory, rediscover its prophets, and apply the principles.’

Perhaps the most dramatic of these early appeals to the Picturesque, was published immediately following the London blitz and entitled ‘The Architecture of Destruction’. An introduction by the artist John Piper sketched the impression of London’s ruins: ‘Roads blocked, warehouses still burning’. The article was illustrated by photographs of the bombed-out shells of churches and offices, taken the morning after the raid, ‘a sea of smoking rubble’. These terrifying images, were, however, accompanied by a surprising commentary.

Postmodernism to Post-Criticism

 

The ‘transparent shell’ of a corner building exhibits ‘drama’; Paternoster Square and Ave Maria Lane are seen as ‘examples of the surprising proportions of air-raid scenery’; the north of St Paul’s has been transformed into a ‘grotto’; stone calcined by fire has a ‘peculiar quality’; ‘striking motifs’ are observed in windowless arcades.

The article ends by enthusiastically noting ‘the surprising poetry of destruction: the oddity of a newly bombed interior and the almost gaiety, like a scene in a French film, of a garden in next morning’s sunshine’. These were ruins looked at ‘with an artist’s eye’, as architecture in their own right, exhibiting ‘an intensive evocative atmosphere’, to be admired ‘frankly for their own beauty’. This was the Picturesque allied to the terrible Sublime, and pressed into the service of visual re-education with a vengeance.

These articles were to anticipate many pieces devoted, on the one hand, to the theory of the Picturesque, and on the other to Townscape. Hastings, under the pseudonym Ivor de Wolfe, wrote on Townscape, basing his theory on Uvedale Price’s ‘An Essay on the Picturesque’ (1794), prefacing a pictorial essay by Gordon Cullen, entitled ‘Townscape Casebook’, the beginnings of Cullen’s powerful role as popular illustrator of the principles.

Pevsner wrote on the Picturesque, countering Basil Taylor’s assertion that it represented ‘an imperfect vision’, and claiming that the Modern movement itself had its roots in the aesthetic and demonstrating his thesis by reference to Le Corbusier’s informal grouping of houses at Stuttgart. Hastings’s article on ‘Townscape,’ was unambiguous:

‘The movement that used to be called Functionalism has developed an inner schism in which one party [figurehead Le Corbusier] has moved towards the rational or classic or crystalline solution; the other [figurehead Frank Lloyd Wright] towards the romantic or, as he would say, organic […] There is a third movement so far not isolated by the critics […] might be called English or Radical since it belongs to neither of the above categories […] the war cry ‘irregular’ this needs a ‘case-book’ like the case-book of common law.’

An aesthetic theory had now been presented with the claim that it was as English as the ‘common law’ of the country. That such a theory was implicitly counter – if not Postmodern, was demonstrated by the furious response of Alan Colquhoun to Pevsner’s claim that Le Corbusier himself was influenced by the Picturesque; Colquhoun retorted that Pevsner’s Le Corbusier was an entirely visual fabrication, and owed nothing to the internal ideational content of the architecture.

But Colquhoun was himself working out of the image of Le Corbusier fashioned by Colin Rowe – that of a ‘Modernist’ manipulating the geometries of Palladian plans and the imbricated techniques of Mannerist facades within a vocabulary of Purist abstraction.

And Rowe, as has since become evident, was, like his contemporary in art history Clement Greenberg, himself making up the constituents of a ‘Modernism,’ that was in its unifying formal characteristics, far from the heterogeneous work of the avant-gardes in the 1920s and ’30s.

In essence, as Fredric Jameson has noted, the ‘Modernism’ of the 1950s was an ideology invented to justify a specific concept (‘flatness’ for Greenberg, ‘mannerism’ for Rowe) by means of a reverse reading of history. This ‘post’ Modern movement ideology, in its turn was to inspire a second reverse reading: that of ‘Postmodernism’.

While this essential characteristic of post-World War theory was not immediately evident at the time – too much was invested in the precarious victory of modern architecture to deny its continuities with new theoretical openings – today the apparently (and explicitly) oppositional nature of Rowe and Koetter’s Collage City to Townscape, appears less abrupt.

Indeed, as John MacArthur has recently demonstrated, the similarities between a visual theory of urban composition from ground level (Cullen’s Townscape) and a visual theory based on aerial photography and figure-ground plans (Rowe’s Collage City) are more striking than their differences.

In this context, it is entirely logical to find Robert Venturi’s first article published under the rubric Townscape in the May 1953 issue of the AR. Entitled ‘The Campidoglio: A Case Study’, Venturi’s thesis was entirely visual, and concerned with the way in which the character of Michelangelo’s formalising of the Campidoglio had been ‘injured’ by ignorance of the principle that ‘the architect has a responsibility toward the landscape, which he can subtly enhance or impair, for we see in perceptual wholes and the introduction of any new building will change the character of all the other elements in a scene’.

Venturi, in a sequence of figure-ground plans and sections, demonstrated the point. Michelangelo had modified the piazza so that the original senatorial palace was given emphasis by ‘the contrasting elements of [the flanking buildings] colour and texture, and the neutral, even rhythm of their columned facades.’

The intrusion of the huge, monumental structure of the Vittorio Emanuel Monument, a ‘shiny monster,’ had destroyed the setting with its ‘intricate, small-scale neighbourhoods,’ and thus the effect of the ascent to the Campidoglio itself ending in the powerfully visually controlled piazza, as well as the view from the top, which ‘formerly offered views tantalisingly interrupted with rich, unaffected architectural foregrounds’. ‘A wrecking crew could hardly have damaged it more.’

The transition from the visual theory of Townscape to that of Postmodernism was effected by this move, from urban context to the single building, aided by the sense in the early 1960s that architecture had lost itself among the different ways it had sought to justify its social and technological role.

When in 1966, Venturi finally published the work that he had begun in 1954 in Rome, the shift was complete. Under the guise of returning to an original autonomy for architecture, Venturi catalogued the ways in which contemporary architecture might regain some of the richness seemingly lost through modernist abstraction, and all the techniques employed by Hastings, Pevsner and Cullen to revive the visual complexity and contrasts of the urban scene were now used to restore visual complexity to the single building.

Postmodernism to Post-Criticism

The first part of this series of essasy by Anothony Vidler in the Essays section of architectural-review.com

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