In this rare self-reflection on the work of the architectural journal, the editors of the AR take a retrospective view of all the factors that shaped it over the previous 50 years
First published in AR January 1947, this piece was republished online in September 2015
‘Then Purg’ d with euphrasy and rue
The visual nerve, for he had much to see’ – Paradise Lost.
The second half of the twentieth century starts, for THE ARCHITECTURAL REVIEW, on January 1, 1947. It was founded at the end of 1896. December 1946 saw the completion of its fiftieth year.
To mark this solemn moment it has been decided to break one of the paper’s strictest rules. In devoting the supplement which follows to an exposé of policy, the REVIEW is doing something it has never done before. For fifty years its policy has been not to discuss policy. Yet if something is to be gained, after aeons of discreet and even baffiing silence, by answering some of the questions some of the public ask some of the time regarding the REVIEW’S objectives, is not this a good opportunity? Or must we assume with Euripides that silence remains always without exception “true wisdom’s best reply”?
It has become increasingly clear to the present editors that, wise though the vow of silence is, there are moments when it should be broken. They do not flatter themselves that a public declaration of policy will be accompanied by a revolution in human behavior; nevertheless, such as it is, the REVIEW’s niche in the world is well-established, while some of the things it sets out to do still seem to be ill-established, or misunderstood, or not understood at all. They conclude that a definition of objectives may turn out to be a useful way of celebrating the half-century.
To dispose promptly of the self-evident, THE ARCHITECTURAL REVIEW is an architectural magazine. Its prime purpose, that is to say, is to record with varying degrees of efficiency the more interesting buildings of the age, wherever they may turn up. Such a record obviously has a permanent value beyond its immediate use to practicing architects and culture fans, since whether or not the buildings illustrated go out of date, the bringing of them together in one work is a way of providing the raw material of architectural history.
That is the first function of the REVIEW - to record contemporary buildings for the immediate benefit of specialists and for the ultimate use of posterity. This function it shares, however, with other architectural papers in many countries. The REVIEW differs from most of the others in that this, though its first, is not by any means its only function; it is an architectural paper, but it does not deal only with architecture; and when it deals with architecture, it does not always deal with the right sort of architecture, a thing the more orthodox reader is inclined to find disturbing. Here lies one amongst many possible sources of misunderstanding, for herein exists evidence of deliberate policy – but let us, before discussing the ways in which the REVIEW flouts good taste, try to add a few more items to the list of its orthodox activities.
Amongst these must be mentioned next, since properly it comes second in importance to the recording of buildings, the policy of providing space for literary discussion of the visual arts, including, of course, the art of architecture. One of the aspects of the English cultural tradition most worth preserving is the practice of dilettante journalism by experts who are also amateurs – the indoor, that is to say the wet-climate, equivalent of the ancient rhetorical fun and games of the market-place. For any art in England there is a public so long as it lends itself to being written about well; indeed the reason why architecture, during the Edwardian interval, lost so much prestige lies to quite an appreciable extent in the fact that no one had been found, between John Ruskin and John Betjeman, to write about it quite well enough. But the urbane habit of literary dilettantism, of scholar’s table-talk conducted in public, is not one that can be indulged without a medium.
A significant sign of our particular time, and a very encouraging one, is the multiplication in the form of new publications, and old ones re-born, of the instruments that serve this particular purpose; nor need one pass over in jealous silence those more general periodicals which, like the REVIEW, have spanned successfully the period, now behind let us hope, of almost complete philistinism. Nevertheless, as a matter of history, the REVIEW has been alone in supplying undiluted “third programme” for half a century, without asking for and without getting a single round of the applause that has been so rightly offered to Mr. Haley and the B.B.C. after thirteen weeks. Its ability to do this has been due to the fact that for fifty years the REVIEW’S programmes have been “sponsored” in effect by a sometimes bewildered but on the whole marvelously tolerant building industry, now gratefully acknowledged for the first time.
In this context a special job of the REVIEW’S during the last twenty years has been to apply the higher criticism in fields which are generally regarded as being purely utilitarian – in the actual trades of which the building industry is made up. To the concrete, steel, glass, brick, electricity, plastics, timber and other trades the REVIEW has given special issues devoted mainly to the discussion of their souls. And for the modern movement in architecture it has performed the same service. The results in each case have been the reverse of what might have been superficially expected. In the very branches of the building trade which might be supposed to be of the earth earthy, and impatient therefore of high-mindedness in any shape, the REVIEW has gained some of its most intelligent friends; and the modern movement in architecture, far from wilting under the higher criticism, has revealed itself, to the surprise of that section of the literary intelligentsia which had not realized the need of architecture to purge itself the hard way – by going back to first (and therefore elementary) principles – as being made of very stern stuff indeed.
A whole row of other good causes could be listed, such for instance as the need to demonstrate the unity, or rather the indivisibility, of the arts, a purpose for which the REVIEW was originally founded; but perhaps enough has been said regarding the more obvious routines of architecture and town planning. In these there is little that needs explaining, and nothing that could be described as offering a defense of what to the hostile critic must seem the REVIEW’S excessive preoccupation with frivolous subjects; with Victorian merry-go-rounds and rustic railway stations, lighthouses, gin-palaces and nonconformist chapels, exotic villadom cemeteries and monkey-puzzles, which form the principal source of irritation amongst those who find the REVIEW perverse and affected and of which this supplement is designed to provide the vindication. Before any defense of these can be attempted, however, it becomes necessary to make an admission.
To glide smoothly over this admission would, in the circumstances of this article, be lacking in candour. Let it therefore be boldly stated that the REVIEW has a ”call”, a call of quite a low-class, evangelical kind. It does not set out to lead a political or moral or even a social revolution, nor is it ever likely so to do, however great the temptation (and the temptation, in a decade when technicians feel called upon, reasonably enough, to take the lead in setting the world to rights, is not small). The REVIEW has another job to do, in its own way no less revolutionary – sociologists would perhaps class it as an aspect of the same revolution. 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. Since it is the most imponderable of the REVIEW’S policies, and thus the most open to misunderstanding, this is one that deserves to be given, on this special occasion, a good airing. It is founded on the belief that when politics, technics and sociology have been given their due, architecture remains an art, and architects must turn out, in the long run, to be artists or nothing. This does not mean that they must not be politicians or technicians; it does mean that their political and technical selves will ultimately subserve their artistic selves.
Thus, while it is right that some men and organs of opinion in the great international world that building now encompasses, should spend their energies on matters predominantly sociological or technical, it is right also, according to the principle of the division of labour which still retains its hold, that certain others should remain inflexibly devoted to the imponderable matters described here for convenience under the collective term, art. The REVIEW belongs to the latter category; it can be described, in fact, without exaggeration, as the only architectural paper in the world that does so belong. In that lies its uniqueness. And in view of the fact that there are dozens of other excellent papers in this and other countries which cater for the other branches of building, the REVIEW may perhaps be forgiven for remaining true, in its mulish way, to its original purpose, which is to serve architecture as a visual art. When the technics of town planning or sociology also serve this purpose, they have an important place in the REVIEW otherwise only a secondary place.
This may sound a limiting condition. In fact, these limitations are, in the opinion of the REVIEW’S editors, the source of its freedom, its freedom to pursue the cause of visual culture. How great is the need and how few and lonely are those who try to supply it is demonstrated by the dilemma of the modern world, with its astounding resources and inability to mobilize them to a desired end because it lacks the vision to conceive that end. There is an ineluctable connection between the inner and outer vision just as there is an irresistible tendency in all men to put their eyes into literary spectacles through which the world of seen things becomes the world of associated emotions. A far from illegitimate use of the eyes, even for the purposes of the resthetic life, yet one, notwithstanding, which ignores a whole world of resthetic experience that of direct vision. Few subjects are more difficult to discuss, since from lack of use, the capacity in question is probably rarer even than the capacity to feel religious emotion, and by its very nature it does not lend itself to interpretation in words. Thus to those who see only in order to read, or to remember, or to promote political propaganda – for those who make use of the process of seeing only as a convenience for other forms of activity – the idea that the same process can serve as a powerful medium for communicating direct emotion sounds like nonsense, and presumptuous nonsense at that. On that presumption, nevertheless, is built the whole fabric of the visual arts, with architecture at the base. And to those for whom visual relations matter, the capacity to see represents itself as a way of salvation, just as for those for whom social relations matter, forms of political arrangement represent themselves as a way of salvation.
When two such protagonists meet, it is usual for one to claim for his view priority over the other’s. Fifty years ago it was fashionable to treat art as though it were entirely independent of other social realities (art for art’s sake), whereas today the fashion is to treat the political scene as the universal determinant, which settles, amongst other things, the course and current of art. The fact is, and perhaps it is time we reminded ourselves of it, that heaven has many mansions (though they are as difficult to get into as those on earth) with means of communication that wait not upon the order of our discovery of them. The break-in through art, at all times, in all places, is no more and no less valid than the break-in through politics or science, nor shall we gain by making politicians of our artists or scientists of our clergy, though in so far as the artists and clergy are also human beings, they do not necessarily lose by having political and scientific passions as well – so long, that is, as they do not subordinate their arts or their gods to them. That, however, is by the way, and the point is that in these latter days events have conspired to deny inexorably the break-in through visual art to all but a small elite of professional painters under special licence to see. Only when we look at paintings, photographs (the films) and objets d’art – which includes anything from a cathedral to a piece of established scenery – are the rest of us expected to use our eyes. The rest of the seen world is considered to be visually outside the pale, which accounts for the astonishing visual conditions for instance of all our cities.
Nor can architects be excepted from this generalization, blinded as they are by their training to all but a few routine effects. And yet although painting, as Uvedale Price realized, will always remain the great visual educator, and painters the top visual professionals, nevertheless it is to architects that mankind will have to look to realize in visible terms a favourable environment for itself. It is thus the architect’s role to become the master co-ordinator, through whom the technicians of the statistical sciences and the mechanical facts, as well as the painters and poets, must look to translate their raw material into the stuff of which visible civilization is made. To this end it is not merely desirable, it is of incalculable importance, that the architect, trained in many arts and sciences, should learn from the painter how to see. In which case the student of sight, far from confining himself to certain limited visual routines, such as those that are so apparent on the drawing board and in the art gallery, cannot afford to consider any visual experience a waste of spirit that gives him a wider insight into living patterns. So, too, the architectural magazine.
Underlying the whole of the REVIEW’S apparently diffuse and disjointed articles on landscape and townscape is this master proposition of the importance of the pursuit of the visual life. Complaisant phrases celebrating this theme do not, perhaps, as they roll off the pen, give the idea that it is a proposition of much delicacy, but in point of fact, before it could help architects to recapture the capacity of direct vision, the REVIEW had to recapture it for itself. Hence the REVIEW imposed upon itself a self-denying ordinance under which, for some years, it deliberately denied itself the pleasures of historicism and antiquarianism. It even denied itself, as far as was humanly possible, illustration of all academic architectural motifs, so that for a period in the REVIEW’S life the academic vocabulary pretty well ceased to exist. Thus, to take an example at random, the classical column, which through misuse had long ceased to have any architectural meaning, so passed out of currency that it can almost be said to have been rediscovered, as far as the REVIEW was concerned, in a recent topographical article on a ruined city in the Middle East (AR February 1946). Here a Corinthian column came to life, having somehow divested itself of its boring meaninglessness and emerged as a very significant thing. Such is the reward of self-discipline, an experience the REVIEW is merely sharing with many individuals who have been going through the same process of visual re-birth. The advantages, great and rewarding to those who have accepted the discipline and come out the other side, are a new keenness of perception – which may enable designers to give to the modern movement a new increase of life.
Obviously the purely visual goal cannot be pursued in isolation by the total human being, since the activities of seeing are bound up in many deep functions of the human soul, besides many not-so-deep requirements of the physical body. But the particular purpose a magazine can serve is to isolate specific targets for attack, and it is the REVIEW’S function to emphasize the problems and potentialities of visual design, to re-create a visual culture which will help to re-create civilization. Out of this arises the REVIEW’S apparently perverse preoccupation with those extravagant or surprising objects or scenes, such as a surrealist municipal seat on the front at Swanage or an exotically decorated butcher’s shop on the Old Bath Road, which on the surface, but on the surface only, seem to have so little in common with the normal practice of architecture by normal beings. They are, on the contrary, the stuff of which architecture is made because they are the stuff from which the visual nerve, to use Milton’s phrase, can derive that which it cannot derive from the contemplation of established charms – exercise.
To re-educate the eye – that is the special need of the next decade. In the next ten pages the REVIEW tries to demonstrate in greater detail the thread which binds together its apparently arbitrary choice of material. Those items from past numbers are selected for presentation which the editors feel are likely to be irritating even to the reader of goodwill to whom particularly this explanation is dedicated – if, indeed, these pages succeed in relieving some of the irritation without undoing the goodwill, this momentous infringement of the rule of silence will have done what it set out to do. But before releasing the reader for another fifty years, the editors would ask him to remember that, far from following any well-worn paths, as many papers are fortunate enough to be able to do, the REVIEW, unroped to any guide, may be said to be hacking its own way up the ice-slopes of modern experience, a situation in which the most expert mountaineer may make a slip.
Though it would be absurd to put forward a hard-luck story, as though the REVIEW were struggling against adversity when in the material sense it is manifestly an extremely successful piece of journalism, nevertheless it may not be out of place to remind the reader who has any goodwill left, that the causes the REVIEW sets itself to fight for are on the whole arduous and unpopular and extremely difficult to explain, and for the most part involve the paper in expense, criticism and ill-will. It would be an easy matter for the REVIEW to put this right. It could achieve a much more spectacular success by quietly jettisoning its objectives. Expediency would dictate quite other goals than those it aims at, which are bound to appear high-falutin’ even to most architects – the ideas of enthusiasts in the impolite eighteenth-century meaning of the word. In his milder moments the reader is asked to remember this. There are few papers – or people – who genuinely do battle year after year for the more enduring values, and those that do seldom escape being labelled impossible persons. The REVIEW has done battle for fifty years and has in consequence come in for rather more than its share of criticism. This is to be expected; its guardians do not repine. Very occasionally, however, it is nice to feel, whatever the results, that the good intentions are not entirely misunderstood.
The below are an attempt to summarise THE ARCHITECTURAL REVIEW’s policy since its foundation in 1896. Though they illustrate most of the significant changes architecture experienced during that period, they are not to be taken as architectural history, nor indeed as a history of the contents of THE ARCHITECTURAL REVIEW. The text should be read as a kind of monologue by the editors, who are looking back reminiscently and recalling year by year what they and their predecessors had in their minds as they guided the REVIEW along paths dictated only partly by changing circumstances; chiefly according to a number of principles from which the REVIEW has never departed. These principles should emerge from what follows; their rather didactic nature is inevitable when policy motives are separated from the stream of illustration and reportage that gave the REVIEW body. The illustrations are chosen as representing the various facets of this policy as each one caught the limelight in turn. Each item illustrated is thus in its own way a landmark.
Records the revolution in two acts and distinguishes the main plot
It is seldom that the turn of a century serves also as a turning-point in the arts. But such was the case with architecture at the turn of this century. The revolution which had been brewing for some time in the minds of architects began to show its architectural consequences in the years after 1900. It is a complicated drama which divides into two acts with numerous scenes, and a plot embroidered with sub-plots.
In Act I such men as Ruskin, Morris, Mackintosh, Voysey and Lutyens play the leading parts, and in it the main plot begins to unfold. In the first scene the stress is on politics with the revolt against the social consequences of industrialism leading to various forms of guild socialism. Then two subsidiary plots begin to unfold, one is Art Nouveau, a later development of the Arts and Crafts movement (supported at this time chiefly by The Studio). In this an attempt is made to substitute entirely new visual symbols for those devaluated in the period of random eclecticism. The trouble here is that its appearance is altogether too early; what should be a later scene in Act ll (the natural development of fresh visual symbols following the mastery of new techniques and new social factors), dies of a premature birth.
The other subsidiary plot in this act is the return to the Georgian or neo-traditional style, which is in fact a turning away from the imminent approach of Act ll. It is a solution which does at least fill many parts of the bill, but except for a few masters, such as Oestberg, Tengbom, and Lutyens, Macartney and Newton (the last two both editors of THE ARCHITECTURAL REVIEW, chief supporter of the neo-Georgian style at this time) it is a very limiting solution, implying the constant repetition of a few main chords – simplicity, the beauties of brick and masonry, and the eternal links with a great heritage. However, there is little future in it since it is outside the scope of the main plot, and it becomes progressively weaker through inbreeding.
Act II acclaims and accepts the fact of the mechanical revolution. Such men as Perret, Loos, Behrens, Gropius, Mendelsohn and Corbusier play the leading parts. The background to Act II shows the industrial revolution accepted as a fait accompli, although the struggle against its ill-effects continues unabated. Marxism as a social philosophy gradually comes to predominate over guild socialism, although towards the end of Act II its influence begins to wane. New materials and new methods of building which result from the mechanical revolution are accepted with an enthusiasm that overwhelms prudence, and the first scene is played on the slightly hysterical note of expressionism. However, doubts that this might prove to have been another sub-plot are without foundation, for already the next stage has been foreshadowed in the powerful early work of Behrens and Wright. Along with other great figures of the time they passed through a phase of expressionism, but it reveals itself as an aside rather than a sub-plot; the climax has been reached, the architectural revolution is established. No further proof is needed for this than the fact that in 1934 Morton Shand could write in the REVIEW a full history of the course of the revolution.
Scene 2, which shows the rise of functionalism and the development of a modern idiom with stars such as Le Corbusier, Gropius and the chorus of the Bauhaus, Mendelsohn, Maillart and Tecton, takes place in the next section.
Trades the development of the modern idiom
Appreciation of the modern idiom grew naturally out of expressionism. It is no accident that Gropius, Taut, Mendelsohn, Dudok, and so many others went through an expressionist phase; for although in many ways it “forced” the modern idiom, it was the inevitable result of the enthusiasm with which they quite understandably greeted the new technical developments. Here at last were the means by which they could realize a non-eclectic style and establish the architectural revolution. A revolution which for want of the appropriate weapons had already made several false starts. So the flat roof, the long window-bands, the glass-cage staircases and all the motifs of architectural cubism in terms of walls and openings were developed before functionalism became the slogan. The first accent, therefore, was on the aesthetic rather than the utilitarian, but the seed was there, and functionalism was soon to come into its own and to make a regime out of a revolt. It was not enough to re-establish the fundamentals of form-unadorned surface; fitness for purpose had also been lost and had to be recovered.
Dudok’s forms, which readers of the REVIEW saw already in 1923, now appear as a transition in this process, and when for the first time one of the modern Continental architects designed a house for England – the Bassett Lowke House by Peter Behrens – it had still some of the mannerisms of the expressionist phase. However, the first examples of a purer functionalism had already made their appearance in England, outstanding among which was Kodak House by Sir John Burnet (1911) to be followed later by Austin Reed’s in Red Lion Square by Joseph Enwerton (1925), Easton and Robertson’s new Horticultural Hall – in its use of concrete arches the most important of them all (1929) – and Frederick Etchells’s offices for Crawford’s in Holborn (1931).
Etchells had by then translated Le Corbusier, and Le Corbusier had himself written in the REVIEW. Gropius had appeared already in 1924. Since about 1932 the REVIEW, in its programme of recording contemporary building, has conceptrated on what has proved to be the most significant idiom of the day, that is the idiom of Le Corbusier, of Gropius and of their comrades in arms in other countries. In the REVIEW, Asplund made his first appearance as a functionalist in 1930, Aalto in 1931, the then still revolutionary architects of Soviet Russia in 1932, and Maillart’s graceful and ingenious concrete bridges in the same year.
It is such structures as these that demonstrate the unity between the functional, the technical, and the aesthetic aspects of the Modern Movement. The purest expression of the aesthetic aspects, that is of architecture as abstract art, is brilliantly shown, to take an English example, in Tecton’s Penguin Pool at the London Zoo (1934). But in every successfully designed modern building (whether by Wells Coates, Maxwell Fry, Connell, Ward and Lucas, Chermayeff, Joseph Emberton or any of the other English pioneers) the element of abstract art comes out, a proof of the ease with which by now the new idiom is handled.
Finds in the products of science raw material for a new architectural aesthetics
Architecture that lays claim to the title “contemporary” has to be two things. It has itself to make the best and most adventurous use of the new materials and new methods of construction that science provides, and it has to display a clear relationship with the other things that are going on in the modern world. In practice, it can be shown, these are often but two different facets of the same thing. Modern science has filled the visible world with a whole range of new shapes and objects – not necessarily architectural ones – and these provide the raw material from which modern architecture can fashion its own characteristic style. One answer, therefore, the REVIEW was able to give to those who accused the Modern Movement of demanding that all design initiative be abandoned, was to illustrate and reveal the beauties latent in the products of the machine age, with which modern architecture has so many natural affinities; in particular, to show how appreciation of these (often accidental) beauties can help to develop the kind of sensibility, the refinements of perception for example, that the full development of a new architectural aesthetic demands. Eyes could become accustomed to the stimulus of new shapes by looking first at giant aeroplanes. They could see the orderliness of modern design emerging from the chaotic complexity of an underground railway system. They could learn to appreciate new standards of precision by looking at the intricate mechanism of a dynamo, and new subtleties of spatial relationships in the bold, unambiguous architecture of ships.
Demonstrates the antiquity of the functional tradition
It is by no means a new thing for buildings to be effective as architecture without relying for their effect on any of the systems of symbols (and the rules of thumb associated with them) which we call the historical styles. But seeing that the Act of Revolution largely consisted of an effort to break free from an indiscriminate eclecticism which had resulted in the inability any longer to distinguish the fundamentals of a living architecture, it becomes relevant as part of the process of educating the eye to appreciate the visual basis of good architecture, to seek out examples of non-eclectic architecture wherever they can be found.
As the REVIEW ·has shown, these occur most often at times when engineering problems dominate design, for then architects are tempted to rely on geometry unadorned and the natural characteristics of materials. This particularly means the nineteenth century, the age of expanding industry, of experiments in new materials and of imaginations fired by the opportunities they presented, new mills of stone and cast iron in the Pennines and the Cotswolds, and airy birdcages in Hyde Park. But it means other times and places as well: a strange phenomenon in Delhi where buildings themselves serve as astronomical instruments, for example, or the English seaside, where the strength and simplicity of an age-old nautical tradition endow lighthouses and other nautical paraphernalia with its own qualities, or much of the vernacular building – from fortresses to farm buildings – of the Middle Ages. Finally, if, starting at the present, we trace the growth of modern architecture back to the early experiments with new materials, experiments which largely determined the direction of its development, we find, every now and then, a piece of architecture which stands out as work of art in its own right, and does not derive the greater part of its interest from its historical context.
Records the impact of the revolution on the human environment
The increasing technical mastery which was so significant a part of the nineteenth century, and which in its great engineers provided modern architecture with a mighty ancestry, was paralleled by an awakening social awareness, which found its fullest expression in the work of such men as Booth, Howard and Geddes. If all had gone well, the transformed social system they advocated might have provided the framework within which technical advances could safely be made without danger of over-specialization. But the greatest achievements of twentieth century architecture up to the second world war appeared (and were reflected in the pages of the REVIEW) only as isolated images of the new ideas, which in the wider sphere of community planning and landscaping were reflected in theory but not in practice. The few real achievements in this sphere, Bournville, Port Sunlight, Letchworth and Welwyn, all suffered from being isolated in time as well as space. They were town-planning incidents. At Amsterdam, on the other hand, instead of a cut-and-dried plan, a method of procedure was worked out, first of all for the collation of facts on a scientific basis and then for the production of plans subject to constant re-adaptation, and this proved to be a pioneer achievement in urban reconstruction.
In England the war gave an impetus to the study of the sociological aspects of planning, and in addition, in the visual sphere, the chains that had bound the town planner to the Beaux Arts tradition for a century were at last severed by the rediscovery of our eighteenth century landscape heritage. Here (as the REVIEW, in face of much misunderstanding, has been at pains to point out) was a functional approach which answered contemporary aesthetic problems of landscape design.
In America the T.V.A., however unique its problem and enormous its scale, in its spirit and its methods has shown what planning can contribute to the revival of a vigorous community life expressed in a complementary architecture and in a vital landscape picture.
Employs shock tactics to stimulate visual awareness
In the period immediately preceding the Act of Revolution, the way to the enjoyment of architecture through the eye had become weedy with disuse. Architecture was enjoyed for the various associations it aroused, for its prestige-value, for its intricacy of workmanship, but seldom for its own sake. And it is a fact that the enjoyment of architecture is nearly all a matter of the way you look at it. This is not to encourage the promiscuous point of view. For a selective vision is necessary at all times, and a fixed viewpoint even some of the time, but an eye which cannot at will range over the whole field of architecture and discover the unexpected pleasure, is not an eye for architecture at all.
The reconquest of architectural vision entails the use of many of the same methods that are employed in curing amnesia. A shock will often do it, or the focusing of attention on familiar objects, which have almost disappeared by being taken for granted. It is like the proverb heard often in childhood, whose significance is suddenly understood for the first time in later life, when it is used in an unexpected context. Through such experiences, the eye as well as the mind can discover fresh meanings, and this cannot fail to enrich the imagination and through it the creative ability. This is why cubism and surrealism were such important movements to architects, and why the REVIEW went out of its way to reveal their implications. Pioneer work was done by photographers such as Moholy-Nagy, and Francis Bruguiere, and by painters such as Picasso, Braque, Leger, Nash and Ernst, not to forget new techniques of presentation such as the close-up, the cut-out and the montage. That there is still much to be explored in this field as well as much to be restated is evident from the fact that many of the earlier discoveries have yet to be translated into their architectural equivalents.
Pierces the antiquarian smoke-screen
For subsequent generations the achievements of the past serve two purposes, the one evocative, the other instructive. In the nineteenth century the former was so widely appreciated that the very existence of the latter was forgotten. For James Anthony Froude the sound of church bells was only significant in relationship to the Middle Ages; for Ruskin, despite the fact that he did his best to conceal it both from others and himself, the Angel Choir was ultimately of importance only as the expression of a vanished and largely imaginary way of life for which his soul yearned; only William Morris, who alone of his generation was dimly aware that the Middle Ages might provide some practical lessons for his own age, ultimately applied them both in the social field and the aesthetic.
Today our own disappointments have made us more ready to profit by the instruction the past affords. For us the quire of Gloucester Cathedral demonstrates structural principles unapplied again until the time of Paxton, while its power to evoke the age of chivalry is confined to adolescents and film producers. The warehouses in dockland at last emerge from the Dickensian fog as rational and successful attempts to serve a practical purpose, and the mazy passages of Knossos, freed from the highly coloured undergrowth of Kingsley, afford us useful lessons in scientific sanitation.
When we have learnt all we can and when the last gleam of historical fantasy has been evoked, there remains, however, still another way of looking at the past: that of appreciating its products for their own sake. The Lion Gate at Mycenae, the Palace of Schonbrunn, Fountains Abbey, remain, not changeless, for each succeeding year alters in some degree their character and their beauty, but eternally potent. In front of them there is only one attitude, that of acceptance, and it is only when we cease to recall the life they once symbolized, or to ponder the ingenuity of their construction, that full appreciation becomes possible. It is only for the reconditioned eye that the past becomes contemporary.
Draws attention to the significance of popular art, urban and rural
Popular art represents the collective effort of a folk or community uneducated in academic routines to express its inner needs. It is significant because it represents unconscious and therefore inherent rather than acquired urges. It is an expression of emotions common to us all, sophisticated and unsophisticated. And it is important as a yardstick by which to measure the gap separating popular taste from sophisticated taste whether in architecture or any other art. For these reasons it is of intense psychological interest – a science modern architecture must study first of all. The REVIEW has sought it out in many contexts: in non-conformist chapels – especially in Wales – where the same sort of builder’s vernacular that had enriched architecture throughout the country in the eighteenth century survived well into the nineteenth; in fairs and roundabouts, where a baroque spirit produces a flamboyant gaiety seldom found at all in England; in the traditional shapes of winebottles and the fantasies of master-cooks; in the subtly various shapes of capstans and bollards that have been evolved by centuries of use on quays and jetties, and in shop-fronts in country towns with their vigorous lettering.
Industrial, urban folk art, which had a particularly vigorous life in the Victorian town, is almost a subject on its own. It is at its richest in that most human of all popular building types, the Victorian pub, with its engraved glass and carved and polished mahogany. In the individualist memorials of the great city cemeteries it is at its most emotional, and in some examples at its most surrealistic. The decay of popular art, both rural and urban, impoverishes not only our environment but our imaginations as well.
Revives the appeal of non-visual criteria
An understanding and appreciation of things from the past has to be re-learnt in each generation. In this particular generation, in addition, a direct way of looking at the past for its visual qualities has to be cultivated because the nineteenth century’s antiquarian attitude limited our enjoyment of history. But antiquarianism apart, it is always difficult to appreciate in a disinterested way the products of a generation which still maintains links with our own. For things that are just disengaging themselves from the confusion created by the ebb and flow of fashion seem specially endowed with a character of romance; they sum up for us the charm of a period we are far enough away from to enjoy but which still holds for us a flavour of nostalgia. Nostalgia is of course a quality nourished by all the overtones of architecture, its associations rather than itself, so the products of these periods lend themselves also to a non-aesthetic study: that of character in architecture, as distinct from abstract design, of literary values and of architecture in relation to topography.
The charm of Victorian architecture is often of a romantic nature, and it is in this spirit (as well as in the spirit of a new understanding of Victorian enthusiasms and ideals) that we can appreciate country railway stations and Gothic villas in once-fashionable spas. That this is a dangerous pursuit is all too evident, for the overstressing of this architectural “aside” was responsible for much of the confusion in which Victorian architecture found itself. But it is the peculiar advantage of the kind of reaction at the back of the Modern Movement that, as an extreme contrast, it both serves to intensify this particular pleasure, and to insulate the architect from the dangers of too great an indulgence in it. This is what the REVIEW has in mind when it sets out to appreciate idiosyncrasy and accept its products in the spirit in which they were conceived: the fanatical inventiveness of a French postman creating his own personal world, the oddity of graveyard memorials, the force of character of a baronial hall erected by a Victorian magnate on a Derbyshire hill-top, in which enthusiasm adequately replaces cultivated taste, and the strange surrealist effect of flamboyant Empire furniture displayed in contrast to the geometrical reticence of a modern roof-garden. All can now be admired with the safety of a paradoxical detached identity.
Traces the repercussions of the revolution through all the arts
In the nineteenth century the theory of Art for Art’s sake may never have secured so wide an acceptance as its apologists would have us believe; but the practice of each art for its own sake, and to hell with all the others, was very general. In the eighteenth century the common denominator binding together the Adam fireplace in the library, the Caslon in which so many of its contents were set and the view of freshly planted clumps and groves obtainable from its windows was as perfectly understood and as unhesitatingly accepted by the noble proprietor as by Sir Joshua Reynolds who had painted his portrait. Not only was social life (in its widest sense) thereby much enriched but the painter or architect was able to acquire that confidence which comes from the realisation that one’s own role is generally acknowledged and in need of no explanatory prefix. It was not until the next century that he was forced to set in motion the cumbrous defence mechanism of the dedicated being, the impractical ivory-tower-dweller, whose genius renders him oblivious of such mundane trifles as the design of a wall-paper or the lay-out of a poster. A mission the REVIEW therefore had to undertake was that of bringing the arts once more into relationship with one another, and of showing how development in each art was only one portion of a larger picture. Its pages had to be opened to painting and sculpture, the art of the film and the poster, industrial design and garden decoration. As a necessary stage in re-educating the eye – the eye both of the architect and of the connoisseur – the REVIEW had to draw his attention to the Act of Revolution, the emergence of a new idiom and the freshness of impact of a contemporary vision wherever they occurred, in other arts besides architecture.
Re-establishes criticism with the weapon of the new vision
Appreciation and criticism are two sides of the same picture the first need in these days is to educate the eye, so that it takes a disinterested view of whatever it looks at, seeing the past unclouded by the irrelevant values of antiquarianism, admiring popular art undeterred by its lack of sophistication and appreciating the productions of the last century without being prejudiced by the changeability of fashion, there is an equal need for a discriminating eye in dealing with the productions of our own time. In learning to discriminate without prejudice, we set ourselves certain standards, and all comment on the work of contemporary architects must abide by those standards. Unfortunately the criticism of architecture is almost a lost art, so it has been necessary for the REVIEW to start from the beginning, experimenting with various critical methods. First there is purely destructive criticism, which does not take things very far, but has its obvious function when abuses cry out to be remedied, such as the unseemly disorder of the Strand or Britain making an exhibition of herself in an Olde Worlde display at Buenos Aires. This method can be made more constructive by showing alternative solutions at the same time, comparing one country’s achievements with another’s at an international exhibition or comparing the current exhibition with the one that went before. Then criticism can be of a literary kind, discussing theories and principles and illustrating them in practice, or of an analytical kind, where a new building is not only criticized for what appears on the surface, but is, as it were, taken to pieces, so that the architect’s problems and the reason why he arrived at this or that solution can be understood. Always the object is to set up standards, and make judgments only in relation to them.
Finally there is the method that deals with ideas: criticism by implication. The imagination of architects concerned solely with what is modern can be stimulated by drawing their attention to the riches already existing, in the shape of their inheritance from the past. When the same standards are applied to old and new it is found that in fact they are not antipathetic but sympathetic. The educated eye takes them all as one.
Outlines a further act for the main plot
Revolutions are not made for their own sake but because certain ends cannot be achieved in any other way. After the Act of Revolution, therefore – which is largely iconoclastic in character – comes the process of building anew. Architecture had become side-tracked and it needed this Act of Revolution to set it back again on the permanent way. It also needed a long and patient rediscovery of visual values before the right conditions existed to get it going again on a new course that would show a sense of direction and an objective.
The obvious short-term objective must consist in getting back some of the scope and richness that the Act of Revolution discarded. Architecture has had for the time being deliberately to dehumanize itself, but the success of the Revolution and the subsequent consolidating period of functionalism means that it can now seek more direct contact with human aspirations without compromising any of its principles. It can begin to build up a tradition to think of posterity; and it will soon discover that many things which may have seemed important at the moment of achievement because of the revolutionary gesture they represented, will seem negative and meaningless to posterity, which judges them by what they are, not what they had to struggle to avoid being.
Negative characteristics can only be changed into positive ones by cultivating the arts of expression, which means architecture becoming once more a vehicle for humanity’s dramatization of itself. That is why a short-term objective must involve 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. In fact architecture must find a way of humanizing itself as regards expression without in any way abandoning the principles on which the Revolution was founded.
The long-term visual objective (though concerned with theory rather than practice) must be defined in relation to the course that architecture is in any case taking. Modern architecture is dominated by planning, and is liable to be so throughout the near future. It is being more and more conceived in terms of one co-ordinated scene rather than a collection of buildings to be looked at individually. But the new conception has not yet, as it were, acquired visual three-dimensional status, nor has the new scale that the landscape element has reintroduced into architecture been fully assimilated. Here the short-term objective of visual education must be carried on into the future. So, large-scale planning being now the most significant development in architecture, a major task is to give it positive architectural shape, to turn the science of sociology – in which planning has its roots – into a visual art. Once again this is an opportunity to maintain the continuity of tradition, and show that historic precedent can be used constructively, not as an escape. Take as but one example the Picturesque tradition. This is England’s one great contribution to the art of landscape, and it has been an important part of the REVIEW’s policy to show that it can now profitably be studied in relation to the new problems of urban landscape, which have been clarified by sociological research. In many other ways with an eye trained to discriminate without prejudice, architecture can take advantage of the historic truth that the more things change the more they are the same thing.