The so-called ‘failures’ in the eyes of the architectural cognoscenti actually make the foundation for contemporary architecture
This centenary of the foundation of the Bauhaus is a good moment to rid ourselves of the influence of a school from which a tiny number of cranks waged a successful campaign to turn the great majority of architects into losers and failures. Since that time, or at any rate since Walter Gropius reinvented his own history, architecture has been presented as an unfolding series of triumphs as one great genius after the other pulled his conceptual rabbit out of a hat (as James Stevens Curl and Jane Stevenson have recently reminded us, the cult figures of Modernism were all male, very male, as was the language used to describe their works and to attack their opponents).
Learning from the Gothic Revivalists, the Modernists, in time, adapted much of their dogma: the idea that the architect of a non-conforming building is an enemy who must be destroyed, that sentimental references are worthless rubbish, that designers who deviate from the cult’s current concept are effete or unmanly. The idea that history died. The idea that ‘concepts’ trump everything else. Only the experience of working in practice, or engaging with historic environments or landscapes, has tempered the bizarre, anti-cultural effect of this alternative universe of conceptual rabbits, which still prevails to an astonishing degree in most architecture schools.
‘Ugly buildings can be loved as ugly children are. We are complicated and vulnerable creatures’
Real life, on the other hand, is full of conflict, disappointment, mystery, disaster and loss. The heritage of architecture history offers something for all of these – the intriguing incompleteness or inadequacy of many buildings, their inexplicable iconography or layouts, the crash of 17th-century styles that the Edwardians loved so much so that a Baroque fireplace might find itself alongside a massive timber lintel in a new ‘Tudor’ mansion or cottage, and the sad feeling of being bereft when a familiar building is demolished. We know from the enthusiastic members of Britain’s wonderful architectural amenity societies that we cling on to dear things, maybe only because they are pretty. Ugly buildings can be loved as ugly children are. We are complicated and vulnerable creatures.
And we have faced explicit architectural violence deployed against the faint-hearted. In 1962, London’s Euston Arch was smashed up in front of those who wanted to retain it – demolishing, defacing and defiling things that losers find beautiful is a recurrent theme in British architectural and social history. Something deep in our puritanical psyche, something really sadistic, lies behind the continued assaults by the evangelical clergymen of the Church of England on their buildings: whitewash, demolitions, the removal of fabulous Victorian craftsmanship and its replacement with cheap chairs and nasty carpets, the arrival of forward-standing altars that look like some kind of perfunctory barbecue arrangement.
Indeed, there was a sense in my own architectural education from the late 1970s that it had been decided somewhere ‘upstairs’ that all of the fine things that had attracted me to architecture in the first place constituted some kind of moral indecency. Our university city was full of fabulous buildings from all periods, yet we were directed to design things that actively avoided any reference to any existing building, unless this was one of a handful of Modernist exemplars or the local cheap-and-nasty imitations of them designed by the friends of our tutors. Pick up a gable, a porch, a hall, a chimney from any old building at all and try to do something with it – and you were marked out as a loser. Yet every architect I know has strong and mixed feelings about the historical periods, liking some aspects of some styles and not others; there are plenty, for example, who love British Baroque but detest Palladianism. It is the layering of these passions, these interests and these pleasures, this sense of remaking and recreating the past, that produces buildings of real quality.
‘We were directed to design things that actively avoided any reference to any existing building, unless it was one of a handful of Modernist exemplars’
You need only look around to find examples of buildings that have gone on drawing themes and forms, mostly material and constructional ones, from the depths of English history. Skene Catling de la Peña’s 2015 Flint House in Waddesdon, Buckinghamshire (AR March 2016), is essentially medieval, or earlier; so too are houses in the same material by Cowper Griffith and Guy Stansfeld. Stephen Taylor’s Craddock Cottages in Surrey and Lucy Marston’s Long Farm in Suffolk, both brick, are also medieval in contrasting ways, one inexplicably twisted, the other proudly horizontal. Proctor & Matthews’ early Hall House in Norfolk is Tudor, and so is their recent estate at Horsted in Kent. Charles Holland’s House for Essex (AR September 2015) makes a very good stab at the mid-1830s and 31/44 Architects’ Red House (AR November 2017) is straight out of Ruskin. James Macdonald Wright and Niall Maxwell’s Caring Wood in Kent (AR online July 2017) goes back to the world of the Arts and Crafts movement and remakes it. But where is the conversation about this in our schools? Why is no one talking about it? Why did we let the bullies win?
This piece is featured in the AR February 2019 issue on Failure – click here to purchase your copy today