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Outrage: ‘Lost causes fill the margins of architectural history’

Jonathan Meades

If you live a long life you will see your works destroyed − if, that is, any of your projects were actually realised

The single most celebrated edition of this magazine was published 59 years ago. Outrage made Ian Nairn’s name. It was a precocious exercise in architectural and topographical agit-prop. It gave the language a fresh coinage, subtopia: even Prince Philip got his laughing tackle round this new word. It was widely discussed in the non-specialist press and in the House of Commons. It spawned the Civic Trust, radio and TV broadcasts, exhibitions. And it was entirely atypical of both the AR and of the other architectural magazines of the day. It was such a resounding success because its very subject was failure. Rather, failures.

The failures of planning legislation, of local authorities, of central government, of property developers, of speculative builders and, above all, of the architectural imagination. The failures that were so omnipresent they were taken for granted and had remained largely unwritten about since Clough Williams Ellis’s England and the Octopus appeared in 1928. Ruralist writers such as HJ Massingham and Brian Vesey-Fitzgerald might have parenthetically deplored what the latter called Jerrybethan suburbs and arterial road sprawl but their paramount interest was the preservation (or revival) of a pre-industrial England, all hurdles and handcraft, a wishfully escapist enterprise that was bound to fail just as Nairn’s faith in a new generation of architects who might heal the damage wrought by their predecessors was destined not to be redeemed. There was an inevitability about this. Nearly all architecture fails in some regard, functionally or aesthetically or technologically or socially. And leaving aside the fact that it is death that is the ultimate failure, architectural lives, like political lives, like, indeed, all lives, end in failure.

Personal failure, professional failure, reputational failure. If you live a long life you will see your works destroyed − if, that is, any of your projects were actually realised; you will be accused of betraying the ‘principles’ of your (comparative) youth by creating unaffordable housing; you will be accused of having created antisocial housing in your (comparative) youth; you will suffer derision after a lifetime’s balmy adulation; worse, you will be ignored and forgotten. The period of neglect which follows your death may be infinitely expanded. It may stretch down the decades. There’s every chance that you will be presumed dead when you are toddling about the house with that well-thumbed copy of the 1964-5 Daily Mail Book Of Bungalow Plans which included your breakthrough Sun Trap F-shape House With Double Carport. Fashion’s vagaries can be cruel.

Fashion’s vagaries can also be kind. Given that ‘mid-century modern’ is to this decade what Art Deco was to the 1970s maybe Kenneth Sargant, Max Lock and Peter Thimbleby will come to enjoy a belated mini-celebrity (or exhumation) as, say, Ronald H Franks and Elie Mayorcas did in the decade which taste forgot. The bemused owners of their works will find themselves besieged by the attack dogs of the Twentieth Century Society. Is that a form of belated success? Yes. For we prospectively crave posthumous recognition. However much we may dissemble it we yearn not to be forgotten. The matter is, of course, largely out of our hands. Literally, for our hands may be turned to crematorium sludge. But death is as unfair as life and those who have not tasted success in life are unlikely to get it in death.

The manifold varieties of architectural failure are forensically classified in Timothy Brittain-Catlin’s Bleak Houses. This is an engrossing and thoughtfully perverse meditation on reputation. In it there looms large the shade of Horace Field, the author’s ‘ultimate loser’. His name may be unfamiliar but his big, blowsy neo-William and Mary railway offices will be known to anyone who has ever disembarked at York Station. He was by most conventional criteria reasonably successful, a prolific designer whose timing was unfortunate. His houses of the 1880s in Belsize Park look like works of 20 years later: it never pays to be too original. He committed a crime against posterity by omitting to publicise himself during his lifetime, and no one did it for him. He was of precisely the generation that CH Reilly lauded in Representative British Architects of the Present Day but was omitted. Thus in death he doesn’t make the cut in Alastair Service’s Edwardian Architecture and its Origins and is cursorily dealt with in that writer’s Edwardian Architecture. He published no manifesto, no theoretical bumf, only a study of domestic architecture of the 17th and 18th centuries. And unlike Edgar Wood or John Burnet, whose father’s pupil he had been, he could not be claimed as a ‘pioneer’ of Modernism. That vital ‘progressive’ box must remain unticked.

Success is visited upon those who proclaim their success. They are doing their bit for mankind and reading their work for you. That zebra-striped ventilation shaft symbolises man’s inhumanity to horse-like animals. That ice sculpture for Dubai is sustainable. That facade in glass bricks is a demonstration of The Groin Corporation’s transparency. Zoomorphic forms are the footprints of dreams. And so on. It is nothing short of naive to equate success with the achievement of sublimity or the incitement to delight or even a quality as mundane as fitness for purpose.

James Stirling and the Smithsons were successes. You didn’t hear that from me, you heard it from them. Ian Nairn was, it goes without saying, a failure.

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