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Outrage: ‘The anti-ornament hysteria is thankfully now at the bottom of the dustbin’

Elevations, bizarrely neglected, should invest buildings with significance

Two things in particular have stuck in my mind since I wrote an account of the life and work of my cousin Leonard Manasseh, who died earlier this year at the age of 100. The first was something that Elia Zenghelis told me: that when Leonard came into a jury at the AA, the whole atmosphere lightened and everybody’s work was the better for it. The second was an observation that Leonard himself made: that all the students in his own generation at the school knew how to design windows. That was a useful skill in the era when windows took over the elevations of whole buildings. In his own little house in Highgate there are squares and golden sections everywhere, with beautifully proportioned frames.

By the 1970s the importance of elevations had crashed at architecture schools. In my day, 1979-85, the emphasis went directly from the plan of a building to the three-dimensional ‘model’ of the whole. That’s presumably why RSH+P’s much fêted, Stirling-shortlisted, extension to the British Museum has no ‘front’ – just a blank ‘back’ facing the street: the eponymous ‘S’ and ‘H’ are my age. Yet the idea that the fronts of buildings are unimportant, or that they should be some kind of accident after everything else has been settled, is bizarre: it is a form of what is nowadays called cognitive dissonance. Nobody had ever thought like that before. Nobody had wanted it. Not even Pugin, who had invented the whole idea of functional planning.

And why should they? Buildings are visual markers of culture, which means that people see most of them from the outside. Nearly everything else they see is organised in some logical or historical way. You can trace a healthy and coherent line of thought, at least from WR Lethaby to John Outram, that claims that if you can go back into the ancient and sophisticated languages of symbolism, everyone will in some way understand them from the outside. Buildings may mean something to some people, but to everyone the key to what they mean is what they look like. Turning construction into theatre, as Pugin did, is what it is about. Not for nothing were the most influential books on architecture essentially images of a building from the street, from Palladio to Osbert Lancaster. If you cannot be bothered to stay up all night a few times to get the front of your building exactly right, then it seems unlikely that you ought to be an architect.

The anti-ornament hysteria I remember from my own education is thankfully now at the bottom of the dustbin of architectural history. For those lucky enough not to remember it, the thinking went like this: (1) Architecture was boring when it consisted of styles; styles were also in some way ‘right-wing’, because people like Albert Richardson admired them. (2) All ornament is either random bad taste, or it is derived from these historical styles: see (1) above. (3) Ornament can only be superficial, because no one has yet invented a form of it that relates to contemporary building materials; and (4) The front of a building is in danger of becoming mere ornament the moment you think about anything more superficial than function, so don’t do it because of (1), (2) and (3). It was like one of those nightmares where your worst thoughts go round in circles. Then Terry Farrell’s Clifton Nurseries in Covent Garden came along and blew all this rubbish out of the water.

There is a lot of conversation at the moment about whether an expensive five-year formal architectural education is actually delivering the goods. My own observation after nearly 25 years at it is that the good Part I courses are delivering intelligent and capable graduates, but too much Part II work is confused; complicated shapeless buildings emerge from complicated shapeless projects that almost never add up to enough. I think that Part II programmes should be specialist one-year courses that lead to a real MA rather than an MArch, and only as alternative to learning on the job. And I think the subject of ‘what the fronts of buildings look like’ is quite a big enough subject to sustain a designer for a year.

The good-taste people do design fancy facades nowadays. But that is not the same as investing them with significance. Beyond the work of the better contemporary neo-classicists, only a few architects design ‘elevations’: Charles Holland does; Proctor & Matthews does; Stephen Taylor does, as do others who are following similar traditions, for example Smith & Taylor; Red House, by 31/44 Architects and much in the press just now, has a stab at it. Geoff Shearcroft of AOC does great work on elevations with his Part II students. But we are only starting to get there.

Lead Image: The garden elevation of 6 Bacon’s Lane, Highgate, London, designed by Leonard Manasseh for his family. Source: RIBA Collections

This piece is featured in the AR’s September 2017 issue on Facades – click here to purchase a copy