Tom Wilkinson interviews Paul Davies on his new book - a more accessible survey of architectural history
If architectural history were a party, Paul Davies’s new book Architectural History Retold would be like hearing about it the morning after from a keen-eyed confidant: regrettable incidents are related with relish but not without sympathy for human frailty, and through a welter of anecdotes and telling details the full picture gradually emerges. Davies, who is Senior Lecturer at London South Bank University and a regular contributor to our Reputations series, spoke to the AR’s History Editor Tom Wilkinson about the continuing importance of the historical overview and the central place of biography within it.
Tom Wilkinson: Reading the book, it struck me that an alternative title could be ‘a personal history of architecture’ – personal in that you put yourself in the picture, and also that it’s all about people.
Paul Davies: Biographies are interesting, and unauthorised biographies are even more interesting. That was the original title of the book – The Unauthorised Biography of Architecture. It’s not that I’m not a stickler for the facts, but I do think that to engage people you need the personal story. When you find out that Mies van der Rohe had 80 Münch etchings under his bed or wherever he kept them, you know something about that person, you’ve got it in a flash. And it’s personal in the other sense because you’re always learning – what I knew when I was 18 is different from what I knew at 35 and what I know now that I’m 55, so it seems to me you should acknowledge that. There’s one line in the book where I say I’ve never read any Seneca or Plutarch, but I do realise they might be important, and that is the idea behind the book – if you can get somebody engaged in the process they might realise that too.
TW: And that somebody that you’re engaging, who is that ideal reader?
PD: It’s for first-years or people who are interested in architecture but don’t know much about it yet, even if they’re 60 years old. It’s for an audience that isn’t specialised. And that’s how it came about in the first place, because we thought architecture was being taught by a lot of specialists, and perhaps architecture as a subject should be a bit more general at entry level. There are some schools of architecture where you can go through the whole process and be taught by a whole series of specialists and hardly get the common thread at all. And I thought that was plainly wrong – there should be an overview.
TW: What does the book offer people that other architectural surveys lack?
PD: When I was a student I felt that reading Robert Furneaux Jordan, or a bit later Kenneth Frampton, was a bit of an uphill climb. Reading Tom Wolfe was fun, but the rest weren’t – even reading Pevsner is like wading through mud sometimes. When they begin, students are bewildered by a world of information on the internet and they can’t make value judgements. At least with this book they can see someone making value judgements. It’s very much how it comes out in the lecture hall, and in the lecture hall you’re sometimes pacing up and down wondering what to say and then something will come out and you connect all the bits together. So that’s why it’s very lopsided, if you were being technical, because it is meant to demonstrate the thought process, which is sometimes self-reflective. I stop at one point during the Renaissance and talk about a conversation I had with my wife Julie in which we were discussing how people lived then. And it should retain that discursive quality, because I didn’t want to list.
TW: And yet there’s still a progression, for all the asides. If you look at the contents page it runs from ‘Greece’ to ‘The Future’.
PD: Well this was the point, to provide a survey. You really do have to get a picture of the calamities that we’re approaching if we don’t do something about it. But the powers that be have installed a system that completely mitigates against that because it just panders to individual desire the whole time. Of course the very weakness of my story is that it is done from my own perspective so it involves my choice as well, but it’s done in the service of the idea that there is a great Enlightenment project of a history that can still be pronounced and that says we have got somewhere, and we’re in danger of chucking it down the toilet.
TW: Another thing that arises when writing a history of architecture is the question ‘what is architecture?’, and there’s a point at the beginning where you say that Eskimos don’t have to bother with it. But at the same time you refer to figures as diverse as Kenneth Williams and Colin Rowe, Frank Zappa and Frank Gehry, and you couldn’t say that Kenneth Williams or Frank Zappa were architects, so you bring in a lot more than just architecture.
PD: I do have a beef with this thing about what architecture is, and the book is an attempt to explain it. When I look around schools of architecture I see as many definitions as there are people teaching the subject. There’s always that line that comes up – ‘oh but it’s not architecture’. And then I immediately think, what the hell do you mean? You mean, in my terms, that whatever it is hadn’t undergone sufficient process to meet the consensus of what architecture is, as agreed by the people who teach it. You can do very simple things and they can become architecture so long as the process is established and that is OK. As for the stuff you bring, like the ingredients to cuisine, well they can be asides and critical comments from Frank Zappa. His song ‘Flakes’ is about a world of authors who can’t write, artists who can’t paint, builder who can’t plumb, and so on, just a lot of people making it up with increasing debt and decreasing profit, and that seems to me to be a problem, a fundamental political problem. Sometimes the bleeding obvious has to be said, no matter how many Frank Zappas or Kenneth Williamses you have to bring in to illustrate it.
TW: So what do you hope for the novice architecture student to take out of the book?
PD: It’s more of a parable and far more moralistic than I thought it would be, because of one’s anxieties about the future. You can’t go around just thinking that everything is lovely and that your identity politics is the only thing that matters in the world. That tends to be how architecture schools start the year –first-years do a project on who they are and what they like. I heard it this morning, and people were clapping each other as if it was important. But look at what happened over the summer with the refugee crisis – I think it would be a change for the better if we approached those first days by saying, ‘Look, this is the situation, this is what you’ve got to know about, and here’s this book which at least will give you the basics, and you might read it because it’s quite entertaining, and it’s obviously partial but he’s unapologetic about that.’
TW: I have a rather silly question now. At the end of the book you mention the wonderful fact that Le Corbusier’s favourite book was Don Quixote, and he had a copy of it bound in the skin of his dog Pinceau. And I wondered – what or whose skin would you have the book bound in, if you could?
PD: [Laughs] My wife would say it should be a donkey. I like that idea. We have an affinity with donkeys.
TW: And you could turn one of its ears over as a bookmark.
Architectural History Retold
Author: Paul Davies