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Who should write about architecture?

Academia and journalism are divided by an ever-growing chasm, but it is essential that the two cross-pollinate – for the benefit of both and for architectural culture as a whole

Some years ago, during the reign of a now-departed zealous professionalising dean of humanities, I found myself at the centre of what is now referred to as ‘the battle of Country Life’. I had submitted to the faculty promotions committee a list of publications which included two articles on early nineteenth-century architecture that had appeared in the magazine. This caused uproar, especially among committee members from the School of History, and the dean ordered me to remove them from the list. I refused; he insisted. In the end I prevailed. The argument against their being listed in a bibliography of ‘proper’ academic articles was that they was ‘just journalism’. And what was a university doing supporting journalists?

Of course neither dean nor historians had any awareness of the tradition of publishing architectural history in Country Life. They had conjured up images of foxhounds, country kitchens, and county shows, and assumed that the entire publication was and always had been something trivial. They no doubt understood that it would be ludicrous for, say, a sociologist to start interfering in the publishing record of an expert on German literature. But they couldn’t see how the same thing applied to architectural history, much of which came across as a sort of hobby unless it was backed up by footnotes (that dean used to count footnotes as a measure of academic quality). And yet the amateur milieu of British architectural research and writing is its greatest treasure.

The major national amenity societies themselves – SPAB, the Georgian Group, the Victorian Society and the Twentieth Century Society – provide an endless series of high quality events where professionals, academics and, overwhelmingly, enthusiasts can meet and exchange information and views. No other country has anything like this. They offer talks and walks, pub crawls and slide shows, as well as a magazine and journal. To some extent, continuous production is critical: Celina Fox, for example, has written regularly for years in House and Garden magazine, but is also the author of a Yale University Press tome, The Arts of Industry in the Age of Enlightenment, and much more. The editor, architecture and design writer Pamela Buxton interviews architects and now reports on architectural research – and on new building materials – for the RIBA Journal. The more, the better. There is no particular dividing line between what counts as serious architectural research, and what does not, and this has been recognised by most people professionally involved with it, from the appointment of Mark Girouard, as Slade Professor at Oxford in 1975 from a background in Country Life, to the rejection of the use of metrics – counting footnotes, essentially – by the recent Architecture, Built Environment and Planning sub-panel of the Research Excellence Framework.

The point about architecture culture which is not obvious, perhaps, to outsiders is that this breadth of writing and the hybrid nature of it are so important to the context in which formal architectural research takes place that they are themselves part of the creation of architecture. An argument could thus be made that writing for these varied audiences is a form of ‘research through practice’, the route for acquiring the now necessary PhD increasingly adopted by designers and artists who want to teach in universities, the research in this case being the observation and analysis of the built environment and the practice being the different types of dissemination.  But architectural writers and practitioners in universities have to watch out. They tend to get asked to suit themselves to the prevailing academic fashions imported from elsewhere. The amenity society annual journals now employ a system of peer review because if they did not, academics would not choose to publish in them; thankfully, editors try very hard to avoid any stifling effect on their articles. The last thing anyone who enjoys the current marketplace in architectural writing wants is for architectural historians in universities to be sidelined into being minor specialist historians, acceptable only if they publish for what might be called point-scoring peer-review journals. They will end up in History departments, detached from the creative, multi-faceted world of architecture.

Nan Fairbrother, 'New Lives, New Landscapes' (1970)

Nan Fairbrother, ‘New Lives, New Landscapes’ (1970)

All of this comes to mind at the moment because I have recently re-read Nan Fairbrother’s New Lives, New Landscapes, published by the Architectural Press in 1970. This is an astonishing piece of writing, a bestseller and also, over time, highly influential. Fairbrother, originally a physiotherapist, wrote first about family life during wartime and came later to landscape design. The book is her manifesto: she starts from a Loudonesque argument that all unbuilt land must be planned and managed. Her particular target are brownfield sites on urban edges, and she divides these into categories in order to deal with them. In the final section she proposes detailed solutions which in the meantime have become commonplace. But none of this does justice to the book. Although realistic and unsentimental about farming, her words are punctuated by wonderful bursts of humanity: the memories of a day out in the country from her Coventry slum home; the fun of children scrambling over walls, of courting couples; her fabulous vision of silos and power stations as if they were church towers and castles. It is all energy, excitement and beauty. Otto Saumarez Smith has put his finger on it: ‘for her the countryside is there for everyone’s enjoyment’. Think about that observation carefully. From the overall sweep to the clarity of detail in her writing, she was to my mind the most important writer on public landscapes since Loudon himself.

Nan Fairbrother, 'New Lives, New Landscapes' (1970)

‘Slum alley - or fashionable Mayfair mews?’ asks Nan Fairbrother of these two photographs; ‘Environment, like landscape, is the interaction of habitat and people, and the people in the first picture are in trouble.’

It is, essentially, a piece of ‘research through practice’ of breathtaking force and the fact that Fairbrother was not an academic, and was not much bothered by footnotes, obviously does not diminish it. She cannot be patronised as a clever practitioner with empirical ideas; the book was as important to the creation of landscape thinking as would be an academic thesis by a philosopher to the discipline of philosophy. Hers is the model: there is no architecture culture, academic or otherwise, without work with this life in it.

AR History Editor Tom Wilkinson and the author are planning a wide-ranging conference about ways of writing about architecture to be held in July 2016.

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