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May 2012, 1383. Volume CCXXXI

Catherine Slessor

In the quest for genuine regenerative change, the past is always present. Read this issue here

The novelist LP Hartley famously wrote: ‘The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.’ Architects have an ambivalent relationship with the past, equally capable of fetishising it or discarding it when it suits them. The Modernist era was especially notable for its evangelistic purging of the past as a reaction to the suffocating physical and intellectual clutter of Victoriana. In this thrilling shock of the new, a generation of architects were urged to let in light and air and decisively break with history. Anyone who witnessed Patrik Schumacher’s recent AR Future Frontiers lecture might have felt similar Year Zero intimations.

Yet we jettison and marginalise the past at our peril, as Peter Buchanan persuasively explains in The Big Rethink this month. In the quest to evolve new forms of architecture, we often lose sight of deeper meanings and connections forged and refined over time.

The outcome is a shallow and short-term perspective that sunders architecture from its fundamental social and moral purpose. Architecture is not fashion where tastes oscillate with the seasons; rather it has a deep and complex relationship with society and must take an unfashionable longer view.

The idea that ‘new’ architecture can draw on and integrate the most fruitful lessons and achievements of earlier epochs is the key to genuine transformational development, as opposed to mere change. Buchanan describes this process as ‘transcend and include’ and it implies a profound shift in architectural thinking, ‘consistent with a key idea in Integral theory… which is that evolutionary development involves not only change or forward progression but also the selective integration of earlier phases of development’.

A deeper understanding of the past is crucial to the recovery of meaning in architecture and the wider regeneration of culture. In this, the study of vernacular and historic precedents assumes renewed importance. Historic architecture has an enriching representational or rhetorical dimension. And in the quest for a more inclusive vision of sustainability, the intuitive wisdom of vernacular architecture shows how we might develop a more considerate rapport with nature, culture and climate. With a limited but widely understood range of typologies, both the historic and the vernacular succeed in cultivating a reciprocity between buildings and landscape.

As past meets present, generations of experience are now being refined by current techniques of computer modelling, an example of technology in the service of wider ambitions, rather than an end in itself. In this issue, Perkins+Will’s new university campus in Luanda draws on both vernacular precedents and Angola’s fertile seam of tropical Modernism. The archetypal college quad is reinterpreted for a modern African context as part of a recognisably contemporary architecture that resonates with place and history.

The past may be a different country, but we still need to go there.

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