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Arbiters of conscience: architectural jeremiads

Crop eugeniu lordachescu architectural review

In the censure of destruction and alienation wrought by architecture, jeremiads play a crucial role in upholding both aesthetics and humanity

For millennia, visionaries and cranks have been heralding the ‘city of god’, envisaged as a place of awe-inspiring spiritual, and material, riches. There is, however, another prophetic tradition. The ancient Abrahamic figure Jeremiah, the so-called ‘weeping prophet’, remains with us in the form of the ‘jeremiad’ – a treatise in which the writer or speaker laments the condition of the world and righteously seeks another path. If the Jeremiahs had built a city, it would be constructed not from marble and gold but from all the great structures we’ve lost, from the Hanging Gardens of Babylon to the Maison du Peuple to the Vanderbilt mansions of New York. Architectural Jeremiahs do not simply deliver a dirge about buildings burned by fanatics or bulldozed by bureaucrats, rather they issue indictments and warnings of the folly of man.

‘A sense of humanity not misanthropy is at the heart of all real jeremiads’ 

One such jeremiad came from war-torn Syria. Due to myopic development and despotism, as Marwa Al-Sabouni argued in The Battle for Home (2016), communities in Syria were disrupted and divided long before shots were fired. She encapsulated her argument in a TED talk, via Skype, from within her embattled city of Homs. ‘The old Islamic city in Syria was built over a multi-layered past, integrating with it and embracing its spirit. So did its communities […] But over the last century, gradually this delicate balance of these places has been interfered with […] They called them improvements, and they were the beginning of a long, slow unravelling.’ The result was alienation and separation, and Al-Sabouni identified ‘brutal, unfinished concrete blocks, neglect, aesthetic devastation, divisive urbanism that zoned communities by class, creed or affluence’ as the underlying conditions if not the cause of the violence that followed. In The Battle for Home, we find a sense of indignation and grief for something lost that should have been preserved, but also an impassioned and well-reasoned longing for its retrieval or rebirth. 

Marwa al sabouni architectural review

Marwa al sabouni architectural review

Source: Marwa Al-Sabouni

Sketch of war-torn Syria by Marwa Al-Sabouni in The Battle for Home 

The term ‘jeremiad’ came into usage around the time of the Industrial Revolution which threatened so much of the world that had gone before. In the work of critics like John Ruskin, the religious dimension is evident. Harking back to Gothic cathedrals, Ruskin’s sentiments seem archaic but, in The Seven Lamps of Architecture (1849), his concerns were prescient, ‘God has lent us the earth for our life […] It belongs as much to those who are to come after us […] as to us; we have no right, by anything that we do or neglect, to involve them in unnecessary penalties, or deprive them of benefits which it was in our power to bequeath.’ 

It might be thought that the comparatively secular 20th century would have put paid to the religiously charged jeremiad. Yet we find it present in the Early Modernists. Adorned with Feininger’s Gothic cathedral woodcut, and harking back to medieval guilds and church-builders, the Bauhaus Manifesto (1919), penned by Walter Gropius, is far from a dry Functionalist text. Instead, it extols the importance of merging art and craft in a biblical language of salvation, ‘Let us strive for, conceive and create the new building of the future that will unite every discipline, architecture and sculpture and painting, and which will one day rise heavenwards from the million hands of craftsmen as a clear symbol of a new belief to come’. 

Lyonel feininger cathedral woodcut architectural review

Lyonel feininger cathedral woodcut architectural review

Source: DACS 2019

Lyonel Feininger’s cathedral woodcut, 1919

Certainly, there were those who condemned traditions and wanted to start afresh, while lacking the sensitivity of Gropius. For all the inventive dynamism of the Futurists, their declarations in manifestos to sweep away the old world reveal a fanatical absolutism that promised to be just as repressive as anything they replaced. There was often more bravery in the Jeremiahs who stood up against those extolling the purifying qualities of destruction from a safe distance. Take the preservationist Pyotr Baranovsky who saved numerous religious buildings, including St Basil’s Cathedral from destruction by the Soviets, suffering a spell in the Gulag for his brave insolence. Or Eugeniu Iordăchescu who rescued nearly a dozen churches from Ceaușescu’s demolition squads by rolling them to other locations on improvised railway tracks. Then there was the heroic antiquarian Khaled al-Asaad who was beheaded by ISIS for refusing to show them the location of hidden artefacts as they went about destroying Palmyra. These noble stands are not just something that happens in extreme totalitarian conditions. ‘Great architecture has only two natural enemies’, Richard Nickel pointed out ‘water and stupid men.’ Nickel worked tirelessly to record, salvage and oppose the scandalous destruction of Louis Sullivan masterpieces like the Schiller Theater Building and the Chicago Stock Exchange. Tragically, he lost his life under collapsing masonry in the ruins of the latter. It took his death to bring television crews to the site. His spirit lives on in preservation efforts across the world that stand up against power, such as the Vann Molyvann Project, which aims to document and protect the superlative work of the Khmer Modernist. 

‘The best Jeremiahs have a piercing and a clarifying quality against orthodox thinking and in favour of uncomfortable truths’

It is not uncommon in architectural history for Jeremiahs to turn on earlier Jeremiahs. Today’s rebels are, after all, tomorrow’s puritans. Often the target of ire and jeremiads among fans of conspicuously vague ‘traditional’ architecture, Le Corbusier was once an eloquent Jeremiah announcing, ‘Our world, like a charnel-house, is strewn with the detritus of dead epochs’ and longing for the clarity of monasteries and the Parthenon. Some of the most incisive critiques of Modernism have come not from traditionalists but figures like Venturi and Scott Brown who provocatively challenged the righteous sanctimony of High Modernism, with their study of the capital of everything garish in Learning from Las Vegas (1972). Likewise, in his extended jeremiad The Australian Ugliness (1960), Robin Boyd bemoaned the ‘Featurism’, essentially the lack of depth, vernacular, orchestration and consistency, of that country’s architecture, ‘The greater and fiercer the natural background, the prettier and pettier the artificial foreground’. What he was mourning was not the loss of some mythic conservative golden age that never really existed (except for a select few) but the loss of what could have been.

In recent decades, the jeremiad has been heard most vocally from conservative quarters, partly because progressive enfants terribles are more inclined to ‘deconstruct the narrative’ while building buildings for dictators. What unites them with Boyd and Corbu is that their Jeremiahs are more about taste than they claim. In A Vision of Britain (1989), Prince Charles attacked prevailing modern architecture as ‘Frankenstein monsters, devoid of character, alien and largely unloved’. While it was easy to dismiss an heir apparent kicking against the elite, his fellow traveller Roger Scruton has become an architectural bogeyman. The Aesthetics of Architecture (1979) is Jeremiah-esque is in its belief that we are in a quagmire, having taken a wrong turn with Modernism. Beauty is now treated with sneering indifference. 

Australian ugliness robin boyd architectural review

Australian ugliness robin boyd architectural review

The Australian Ugliness by Robin Boyd blasts the lack of depth in the country’s architecture

More nuanced and philosophical than it might be assumed, Scruton has a host of targets – the Functionalists, Freudians, Marxists etc – yet this is all largely a question of taste rather than deeper concerns. As Ruskin pointed out in his lecture ‘Traffic’ (1864), however, taste is itself deep, and intertwined with questions of class, power and identity. While Scruton may rail against cultural relativism, he does so by establishing himself as arbiter of what objectivity is. His sense is common sense. This is a quality of Jeremiahs – they are certain they represent Truth (‘beauty is objective’ goes the mantra), when often it is as much about taste as Orwell claiming anarchists should have blown up the Sagrada Família (‘one of the most hideous buildings in the world’) or Maupassant and co petitioning against ‘the useless and monstrous’ Eiffel Tower. 

Clearly, in all these cases, the jeremiad is about retaining something bigger than architecture. Frank Lloyd Wright never cared much for cities or other architects’ buildings. His critiques of urban development have the quality of a charismatically cynical preacher, ‘Go at night-fall to the top of one of the down-town steel giants’, he lectured in 1904 ‘and you may see how in the image of material man, at once his glory and his menace, is this thing we call a city. There beneath you is the monster, stretching acre upon acre into the far distance.’ His plan to build a mile-high tower, The Illinois, in order to concentrate cities in as small a space as possible, and so save the countryside, show him to have been a provocateur and a showman. At its heart though is the sense that a vital humanity has been lost in the industrialised age. As pioneering as Wright’s work is, and as entertainingly caustic as he can be, you get a sense of restoration – namely through a harmonious relationship with our surroundings.

Frank lloyd wright illinois architectural review

Frank lloyd wright illinois architectural review

Frank Lloyd Wright’s mile-high tower, The Illinois

It’s worth considering the effectiveness of jeremiads in this data-saturated age. One problem is that they might preach to the converted, appealing to populist emotion over contextualised depth and complexity. Another is that they can be fatalistic. Reactionary critics are keen to point out that Extinction Rebellion, for example, has the quality of a millenarian cult in order to dismiss them (and the compelling science around climate breakdown), yet it seems undeniable that part of Greta Thunberg’s presence is her quasi-religious ability to deliver jeremiads. There are perils to this approach. Doom, flagellation and ‘emotionality’, as controversial ER founder Roger Hallam claims, as ‘the only way you can get people to do something’, are questionable motivations, however virtuous the cause. Neither is it beneficial to the children whose world you care about saving to give them the anxiety that the future is already written and something to deeply fear. 

‘There are limitations in simply raising awareness. Jeremiads need action too, otherwise they are mere requiems’

When fossil fuel industries talk like green activists, and compromised politicians vie to have their photo taken with Thunberg, penetrating jeremiads are needed to cut through the deliberate fog of obfuscation. The fog exists too in architectural preservation – consider the blight of new developments named after some feature or building they demolished, the cynicism of facadism or how developers now use the methods of Robert Moses dressed in the language of Jane Jacobs. The best Jeremiahs have a piercing and a clarifying quality against orthodox thinking and in favour of uncomfortable truths. They act as a conscience – to criticise in order to create the space for something better like Dolores Hayden enquiring ‘What Would a Non-Sexist City Be Like?’ (1980), or to speak for those who cannot as Hassan Fathy did in championing those ‘abandoned by God and man’ in Architecture for the Poor (1969).

Another fine example was Ada Louise Huxtable’s crusade in the New York Times against the sanctimony and solemn hypocrisy surrounding the destruction of Penn Station, ‘Any city gets what it admires, will pay for, and, ultimately, deserves. Even when we had Penn Station, we couldn’t afford to keep it clean. We want and deserve tin-can architecture in a tin-horn culture. And we will probably be judged not by the monuments we build but by those we have destroyed’.

Greta thunberg climate architectural review

Greta thunberg climate architectural review

Source: Justin Sullivan / Getty Images 

Greta Thunberg’s jeremiads on climate change have spurred on environmental activism 

In a world where we’re confronted with social, economic and environmental problems of bewildering complexity, responses that are meticulous, contextual, collaborative and multidisciplinary (à la Forensic Architecture) seem much more appropriate than egocentric rhetoricians. There are limitations in simply raising awareness. Jeremiads need action too, otherwise they are mere requiems. Jane Jacobs didn’t simply write elegies. Rather than just bemoan the loss of buildings like the Firestone Tyre Factory which first fuelled their spirit, the Twentieth Century Society have worked tirelessly to preserve what we have left (we owe the survival of, among others, Bankside Power Station – now Tate Modern – in great part to them). And there are problems with preservation that jeremiads do not address. The functions of buildings change, trades die out, some structures are resistant to adaptive reuse. Is it society’s success or failure that the preservation of so many buildings from Art Deco cinemas to Edwardian Baroque opera houses is down to Wetherspoons or that the continued existence of Saarinen’s TWA Flight Center is down to the success of the hotel it now houses? This points to a deeper question – how buildings need to justify their existence. Utility is no longer enough, let alone beauty or historical character. Profitability is the new gospel. Perhaps it always was. 

‘The fabric of our cities is reflected in the fabric of our souls’, Al-Sabouni contends. And what we do to our cities reflects what we do to each other. It is vital to dispel the false dichotomy between progress and intransigence for there is no meaningful progress if the world is a poorer place. The aim should be not to avoid modernity, in favour of pastiche and historical re-enactment architecture, but to maintain its soul, character and connection to a world beyond the cascading present. Conservation is too important to be left to conservatives.

Nor should Jeremiahs remain lone voices in the wilderness. A sense of humanity not misanthropy is at the heart of all real jeremiads. ‘From my point of view, the main focus should be on creating places that make their people feel they belong’, Al-Sabouni asserts. Working as an architect, she sought to ‘create an urban fabric inspired by a tree, capable of growing and spreading organically’ for the Baba Amr neighbourhood, drawn ‘during the few hours of electricity we get’. This is one, righteous, path. Al-Sabouni considers the alternative in foreboding terms, ‘When I read about heterogeneous urbanism in other parts of the world, involving ethnic neighbourhoods in British cities or around Paris or Brussels, I recognise the beginning of the kind of instability we have witnessed so disastrously in Syria’.  Like all prophecies, the future, and what we put into it, will tell.

The Battle for Home: The Memoir of a Syrian Architect Marwa Al-Sabouni, Thames & Hudson, 2016

The Seven Lamps of Architecture John Ruskin, 1849

The Australian Ugliness Robin Boyd, FW Cheshire, 1960

Lead image: In the face of demolition by the mindless adherents of Ceaușescu, Eugeniu Iordăchescu rescued churches by rolling them away on improvised tracks
Source: Eugeniu Iordăchescu

This piece is featured in the AR December 2019/January 2020 issue on New into Old and Preservation – click here to buy your copy today