Timothy Brittain-Catlin’s Bleak Houses, examining the architects who failed the tests of their contemporary critics and historians, is a provocative look at architectural meaning
George Basevi, a pupil of John Soane, is not exactly well known. He did his level best with Belgrave Square, a handsome essay in brick-and-stucco Neoclassical London terraced housing, along with the more delicate Pelham Crescent in South Kensington. He had a crack at early Gothic Revival churches in Chelsea, yet was condemned for his Gothic competition designs for Balliol College, Oxford, rounded on in no uncertain terms by the fiery young Augustus Pugin for whom there could be no dabbling between styles. An architect must either be a Classicist, and thus a pagan, a sham, and unpatriotic to boot, or a Goth, and therefore honest, Christian, an upholder of true national values and, above all, right.
Caught between Regency flounce and muscular Victoriana, Basevi was prematurely outmoded. The Goths were out to get him, and, in 1851, Gothic really did do for him: he plunged to his death through the floor of the old bell chamber of the west tower of Ely Cathedral while surveying the decayed fabric. Poor Basevi was − says Timothy Brittain-Catlin in this beautifully written sentimental journey through the ways in which architecture is presented to the public, and history, through books, journals, magazines, newspapers and other media − a disappointment, a failure, or, in modern parlance, a ‘loser’.
History is littered with architectural losers, who, for the most part have either been swept under the carpet or overlooked by writers and even historians because they do not fit the picture of the heroic, Howard Roark-style architect, that priapic, lantern-jawed, muscular hero who designs according to the highest − and most righteous − principles in one seamless, machismo style, and who is always, but always, right.
Which is why, says Brittain-Catlin, students can be found even today poring over the works of Peter and Alison Smithson, master and mistress (disturbingly) of the ‘cock- flashing’, ‘locker-room intimidation’ school of who-can-piss-highest-up-the-wall Modernism. ‘It is our intention in this building’, wrote the Smithsons of a design for an uncompromising Soho house published in AD, December 1953, and quoted here with relish, ‘to have the structure exposed entirely, without internal finishes wherever practicable. The contractor should aim at a high standard of basic construction, as in a small warehouse.’
This could, of course, be Evelyn Waugh’s Professor Otto Silenus, the humourless mid-European Modernist (from the 1928 novel Decline and Fall) who tells an obliging journalist that ‘the only perfect building must be the factory, because that is built to house machines, not men. I do not think it is possible for domestic architecture to be beautiful, but I am doing my best’.
Much of Brittain-Catlin’s astute and, at times, happily whimsical, analysis of architects who failed − failed, that is, the test of critics, historians and fellow architects − is concerned with domestic architecture, or with buildings overlooked because they are judged too dainty, too delicate, too ‘sissy’.
Ever since Pugin and his colourful black-and-white polemics, architectural criticism and history has indeed tended to be written in terms of one style pitted against another, the right versus the wrong way to design at any given time. The media and all too many historians, says Brittain-Catlin, have been complicit in this sweaty, pugilists’ game. Those knocked out of the ring form a long, bruised and limp litany of architects whose works have hovered between different styles, or who have not been tough enough or who have fallen through the floors of medieval bell towers.
Among them are Horace Field (1861-1948) who designed nicely crafted Wrenaissance-Queen-Anne- style banks in London suburbs and elsewhere (his Lloyds Bank in Okehampton is a delight) in a style we have come to know as ‘Quality Street’, after the title of a 1901 play by JM Barrie, author of Peter Pan. Field’s banks were based on ‘pretty merchants’ houses’ dating from between the Restoration and the mid-18th century, a period − and an aesthetic mood − much loved by anti-modern interwar English novelists, witnessed more recently in Poundbury and available today, as Brittain-Catlin is keen to show us, in the form of Superquick 1/72 scale cardboard models, designed by Donovan Lloyd, a commercial artist, in a ‘Basingstoke 1935-style’ for model railways set forever in the days of steam, precious few cars and even fewer Modern buildings.
‘Do we all have something of Horace Field within us?’ asks the author. Well, no. The majority of architects and those who write about the subject are anything but Horace Fields. They do not believe in the values of sentiment, nostalgia, daintiness and serenity, or in appeals to popular taste, which Brittain-Catlin sees as valuable concerns missing from much modern architecture and debate around it.
The author knows full well that he is batting on a sticky wicket. The overlooked values he cites are the stuff of architecture’s disappointed failures. And, yet there is an appealing world somewhere in the wobbly, sentimental line linking George Basevi and Horace Field. Brittain-Catlin sees it most clearly in a favourite 1925 painting, Summer in Cumberland, by James Durden: a boy in cricket whites stands outside a Queen Anne-style Palladian window watching as his elegant mother and pretty sister, bathed in dappled light, sit down to a silver service tea; brimful with nostalgic charm, and with architecture and interior design in dainty harmony, ‘it is the only picture I have ever wanted to be in’.
This, though, is the kind of intimate world better captured by painters and novelists − as Brittain-Catlin suggests − than by the vast majority of architects, critics and historians. For them, Durden’s scene can only be one of prissy, sissy failure, lacking headline-grabbing cut, thrust and concrete, and the arguments underpinning Bleak Houses if not exactly without substance, then irrelevant. And, yet, this is one of the most intriguing, original and gently provocative books on the meaning of architecture for some while.
Bleak Houses: Disappointment and Failure in Architecture
Author: Timothy Brittain-Catlin
Publisher: MIT Press