By talking to polite Georgian facades and vicious modern buildings, town planner Edwards asserts the importance of architecture’s social responsibility
‘I could not help wishing that these buildings would not talk so much, for sometimes I am utterly distracted by their conversations.’ Between 1925 and 1930, the architectural critic and town planner Arthur Trystan Edwards (1884-1973) wrote a series of 10 articles under the title ‘What the Building Said’. Over the course of these, Edwards − tongue firmly in cheek − perambulated several of London’s best-known and most architecturally eminent thoroughfares: Regent Street, the Victoria Embankment, High Holborn, Hyde Park and the Strand. During his strolls he would encounter buildings and, naturally, begin to talk to them, sometimes genially − ‘“How-do-you-do domes?” I said. “Very well indeed, thank you!” they replied in unison’; but more often than not sarcastically − ‘“Who are you?” I asked. “I am the Prudential Assurance building, the ugliest building in London.” “Really,” I replied, “do you yourself accept the title and glory in it?”’
What these encounters show most consistently however, is how frequently buildings did not get on particularly well with each other. In the first of these articles Edwards is pondering the illuminated advertisements at Piccadilly Circus when his ‘philosophic reflections’ are interrupted by a ‘distressful groaning behind me’, as the old Swan and Edgar’s department store is found to be under attack by the new building soon to replace it, rising up out of scaffolding to its rear: ‘“O-o-o-h,” howled old “Swan and Edgar’s”, “that was a nasty knock you gave me, a brutal kick from behind. I can feel the end is very near now.”
‘In our own time of starchitects and signature buildings, we might be served better by buildings that talk to each other.’
These prosopopoeiae are, of course, satirical, and though the humour can sometimes be hit and miss for a modern reader − the Regency Palladium on Argyll Street asks of its new neighbour, the black granite-clad Ideal House, ‘But why be such a blackamoor?’ − they give form to a common anxiety in the interwar period about the changing face of the metropolis. Almost all the articles in the series record encounters between old and new buildings. When visiting Regent Street, which was largely rebuilt in the years leading up to 1927, Edwards repeatedly stumbles across diaphanous apparitions of Regency stucco buildings from Nash’s old street hovering in front of their quite literally petrified stone successors: the ‘Ghost of Old Oxford Circus’ hovers in front of the new, taller blocks by Henry Tanner completed in the early 1920s, likewise the new Tudoresque building for Liberty and Co is ‘stiff with fright’ as the ghost of the old building it replaced ‘uttered in a hoarse whisper the question: “What are you doing here with seven riotous gables not ten yards from Regent Street? Did I need gables, did I need half-timber work in order to establish for my self my proper station in life? − then, of course, I belong to a street but where on earth do you belong?”’
What Edwards was trying to demonstrate was his conception of architecture’s social aspect, what was expressed not by the plans of buildings, nor, as he might have seen it, the crude expression of their function in their elevation (what Edwards called ‘the fatal doctrine of the priority of the plan’ − the Modernist ideology, simply put), but rather in their facades, their public face, and the way in which they performed in the public realm of the metropolitan street. Buildings, in other words, have manners, and those manners are expressed by appropriate dress, deportment and decorum. The arguments and assaults Edwards witnessed in his flânerie were a result of the discord that arises when buildings are unable to conduct themselves properly − when they clamber and shout, unneighbourly and individualistically, to be seen and heard on the street.
‘What the Building Said’ was meant to show how buildings, particularly of the 18th and early 19th century, should be polite − politeness was of course a great invention of that age. Having the right manners was not conceit or concealment (in the negative or gnostic way we understand it now) for people of the Georgian period, nor for those who claimed to be their successors, the Neo-Georgian architects of the mainstream in interwar Britain. Modern (not Modernist, I hasten to add) buildings often failed to have good manners, and that is why Edwards continually encountered them being so vicious to each other and their antecedents.
To understand the serious point about ‘What the Building Said’, you need to understand a little bit about Edwards’ philosophy. His 1921 book The Things Which Are Seen is a long, rambling and often inconsistent treatise in which Edwards proposes a new hierarchy of the visual arts derived from what he imagined to be the opinion and taste of the average man. The first of the visual arts in Edwards’ new order was the Cultivation of Human Beauty; second, the art of Manners; third, Dress; fourth, Architecture; and finally, in fifth and sixth place, Sculpture and Painting, demoted on the basis of their irrelevance to the man on the street. The fundamental qualities of each art are subsumed by the arts above it in the hierarchy.
We might ignore the cultivation of human beauty − Edwards veers into rather unsavoury eugenicist territory − but the chapters on manners and dress illuminate, in a slightly more palatable way, Edwards’ deeply conservative vision of the world. For Edwards, manners, that is to say, deportment, behaviour according to station, and the old architectural idea of ‘decorum’ as a code of architectural manners, are predicated on the maintenance of a civil society and social hierarchy. Likewise, dress requires readable and commonly accepted codes so that people understand their own place within society. Architecture, he contends, has a lot to learn from the art of dress in respect of its social aspect.
Edwards expanded on this in his best-known work, Good and Bad Manners in Architecture: An Essay on the Social Aspect of Civic Design (1924). In his opening argument he declared that the attribute that makes a building urban is urbanity. Urbanity is ‘good manners, and the lack of it bad manners’. To maintain good manners, buildings must show courtesy and deference to one another − principal public buildings require formal pre-eminence. Commercial buildings should not resemble or outdo in size and splendour public buildings: ‘it may be said that when the church is church, where the town hall is town hall, where the theatre is theatre, where the bank is bank, where the shop is shop and where the private house is private house there is architecture’.
Again, Edwards turned to an anthropomorphic analogy to explain this: ‘In social life it is obvious that good manners consist in expressing certain things, but they are also dependent upon the concealment of other things.’
I make no claim here for Edwards as a great prose stylist − the writing in ‘What the Building Said’ can often be clunky − but he was a great polemicist and critic of the architecture of the interwar period; as effective, if not more so, than his more lauded contemporaries, Robert Byron, Osbert Lancaster and so on. Putting aside his conventional prejudice and conservatism of his age, Edwards’ fundamental point still resonates today: architecture has a social aspect, and in our own time of starchitects and signature buildings, we might be served better by buildings that talk to each other.