“We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us.” – Winston Spencer Churchill
“A house is a machine for living in.” – Le Corbusier
Why is architecture important?
Architecture is the most public form of art there is. When a building is constructed it is built for all to see; one has no option but to see it, to live with it and formulate an opinion on it. There is no such thing as truly private architecture. To this extent, then, architecture defines the parameters of the social sphere and sets the aesthetic tone for the cultural landscape in which we all live. But architecture is also a concrete expression of the state of a society’s soul, an expression of its overall health. The garb that society wears, the buildings that it chooses to call ‘good’ are an expression of its inner life, whether it admits it or not. As Roger Scruton suggests, architecture is the greatest public expression of aesthetic judgement; we are, as Kant says, ‘suitors for agreement’ and architecture is an example of preparing things for others, for the community. What, then, is the state of things in the 21st Century? How did we get to the point where architecture is designed to jar with its surroundings and ‘shock’ the average man? Where should we be going? These are some of the questions which must, in part, be answered in order for us to gain a clearer perspective on the architecture of the New Century.
Where did it all begin?
Of course, the ancient Greeks were the primary source of classical architecture, the Parthenon in Athens being the summit of their creative prowess, but the Western tradition owes a great deal to the work of one man. Around 15BC, Marcus Vitruvius Pollio wrote a famous treatise on architecture entitled De Architectura. In this ten-volume work, Vitruvius laid out three defining principles of architecture: durability, utility and beauty. This way of thinking about architecture endured as the core principle of all construction right up until the advent of the Industrial Revolution in the 1760’s. This marked a perception-shift in the purpose and meaning of the built environment to some architects and to the schools which instructed them. However, for a good many years after 1760, architectural endeavour continued along much the same lines as it ever had. It was many years before the utility of the factory became the ‘beauty’ of the home, but the principle of mere utility as an end in itself had begun to assert its ascendency.
Architecture in Britain and Europe moved in phases of change but each age of architecture was marked by a return to, or rediscovery of founding principles. The great endeavours of late antiquity, in the twilight of the Roman Empire, were marked by the transmutation of classical principles into the Christian heritage. After the empire collapsed and men abandoned their beautiful villas for cruder dwellings, the Church was busy rediscovering and re-applying ancient principles to churches and monasteries. Just as men were forgetting the bathhouse and the vaulted ceiling, the Church showed them the cathedral and the flying buttress. Gothic architecture was the true flowering of this enterprise, as Augustus Pugin rediscovered to our great benefit in the late 19th Century.
Many styles grew out of the Gothic and Classical endowment. But diverse and dizzying in their differences as they were, the styles prevalent in Europe, from the Acropolis to the Crystal Palace, all shared a unique ability to express beauty; to be settling (as opposed to ‘unsettling’) features of the human environment. All of these building styles were part of a living tradition, paying their ancestors the compliment of recognising their wisdom and existing as truthful expressions of universal principles of beauty. From a Greek temple to Georgian town house, one could draw a clear line of descent. Then, at the turn of the 19th Century, came the break.
What went wrong?
Early signs of the paradigm shift can be detected in the buildings of Louis Sullivan in the United States. It was he that first enunciated the principle that ‘form follows function’ and to modernists this became a rallying cry, the credo of their movement. To them (though not to Sullivan) this meant discarding ornament and objective standards of the beautiful. Let us return to the principles of Vitruvius: durability, utility and beauty. Whatever Sullivan would have said in defence and whatever modernist architects protest, it remains a fact that they have exalted one of the three principles above the others: utility. ‘Form follows function’ is merely a neat way of saying that all architecture must take account of only one real principle; that of utility. ‘Utility to the exclusion of durability’; one can see this evidenced in the remarkably short lives of the concrete tower blocks built all over Britain in the post-war period and ‘utility to the exclusion of beauty’, a fact one can observe in the average suburban environment of Britain (and much of the West). It would be exhausting to list here all the monstrosities concocted in the minds of the Bauhaus and their acolytes.
Le Corbusier, the Swiss-French architect who rose to prominence in the 1920’s, along with the Bauhaus school of art and architecture, has had perhaps the most destructive influence on Western architecture of all. Le Corbusier is to architecture what Freud is to psychoanalysis; namely a very great curse, an icon of infamy whose shadow the world would do well to escape. What is worse is that the true believers in Le Corbusier’s manic vision are not confined, as they predominantly are with Freud, to the West. The man himself, designing buildings in places as far from Europe as India and Brazil, spread his contagion of ugliness far and wide across the earth to such an extent that to be modern, to design modernity as a concept into the fabric of any new settlement or in the ‘improvement’ of the old, was to tread the concrete path of Le Corbusier. The followers of Le Corbusier spread his philosophy of architecture to the furthest reaches of the planet, allowing such luminaries as Oscar Niemeyer of Brazil or Norman Foster in Britain to deface their own countries with their egotistical presumption to mastermind ‘urban planning’.
The Bauhaus insistence on functionality and the use of materials commonly used in the construction of industrial complexes has really meant one thing: the elevation of utility to the negation of beauty. Indeed, the Bauhaus school which was founded in 1919 in Weimar, had a vision of a totality of art that was a synthesis of modern technology, industrial utility and mass production. In short: ugliness. This was the brutalisation of the communal landscape, often imposed by the architect and applauded by an ultimately ignorant intelligentsia. The Bauhaus and those that have followed them, barring an exceptional few such as Antoni Gaudi, have performed a great trick; a repetition of the old story about the emperor with no clothes. Very few people really thought their creations superior to previous architectural styles but unless one pretended to ‘get it’ one was cast as an unreformed reactionary. They convinced those people that mattered (i.e. not those that would have to live in and beside their works) that such buildings were the new frontier, an architecture fit for the atomic age.
All architecture before the late 19th Century exalted beauty as an end in itself. Modernist architecture, on the other hand, exalts in buildings which are a ‘means without an end’ as Roger Scruton says; there is nothing transcendental about them. To misappropriate a Peter Kreeft quote ‘they no longer aspire to represent the true, the good and the beautiful’. One might say this is all a product of a decadent Western-based society and leave it there, but the pagans in the last throes of their depraved demise achieved beauty. It is telling that even the excess of modernity is barren. For in the final analysis, even our opulence is ugly.
A Case Study: Britain since the war
Britain is the perfect example of the debasement of architectural beauty which has been perpetrated across the world since the end of the Second World War. It is perfect because it has not suffered, as have China and the former members of the Communist Bloc, from state-planned construction (at least, not on a similar scale). Britain has managed to achieve its ugliness without the dead hand of central planners; she managed to create Communist living quarters where there were no Communists.
The Modernist movement first arrived in Britain in the 1920’s and 30’s but the era in which it truly thrived was from the 1950’s onward. The Art Nouveau and Art Deco styles, ugly and beautiful in equal measure, gave way to the awful visions of the urban planners. Tenements were levelled to make way for fresh concrete sky-cities, a vision of the future to inspire the post-war generation, a step toward utopia. The people were sold a lie. Some architects did genuinely believe that they were providing decent and affordable housing for the poor. In fact, they were caging people in miserable and isolated cells suspended in the sky by fast-crumbling concrete slabs. And the greatest problem of all is that they were ugly. Scruton points out that these buildings which ‘were created with an emphasis on utility soon became useless’. If a building is ugly, then, once it outlives its first purpose as all buildings must do, nobody will wish to find another use for it and it will stand there empty, a ghastly metaphor for the emptiness of the modernist promise.
During this barbarous attack on traditional architecture, which gained its head in the hedonistic 1960’s, even buildings such as the sublime St. Pancras Hotel were threatened with demolition by the vandal tendencies of the architectural ‘elite’. Other great national monuments such as the triumphal arch at Euston Station were thrown down, or St. Luke’s Hospital, or William Blake’s house in Soho demolished to make way for a block of flats.
Even the excuse that these concrete demons were ‘new’, that a ‘new style’ was needed for an era of hope and ‘progress’ is unsatisfactory. Many of my own mistakes, for instance, have been ‘new’ things; yet they remain just that, mistakes. And have architects learned from the mistakes of the past century? Have we made new buildings fit for man in this, the twenty-first century? No, because we have not looked back to that style which was fit for man in the 10th Century, or even in the 20th. And not just ‘fit’ for man in the sense of habitability, but fit for man in the sense of beauty.
The State of Things Today
We now appear, in Britain as in the rest of the world, to be repeating the mistakes of yesteryear. In London, for instance, there has been a recent explosion in the number of skyscrapers and other plate glass monoliths, wholly at odds with the ancient aesthetic of the city and ultimately standing for vulgar egoism and functionality rather than communal values and beautiful usefulness. The Shard is just the most obvious among many; a dagger of glass plunged directly into the heart of the city. This lack of appreciation for first principles and for beauty in harmony with durability and utility, has also coincided with a major housing crisis in Britain due mainly to mass immigration and the breakdown of the family. Furthermore, due to the non-Conservatism of the Conservative Party under Mr Cameron, the political will to prevent this rape of Britain’s countryside and architectural heritage is not in evidence. Indeed, it is under the Conservative Party that we are seeing an unforgivable assault on our Green-belt land and on the traditional communities of the countryside. All this in order to accommodate the mistakes of government ministers in the past fifty years. However, this new assault on beauty is not being perpetrated by the mad visionaries of the Modernist school, it is being carried out by greedy landowners and mindless architects without the will to build differently. This is not being executed on principle, it is being executed in ignorance of any principle. To the modern architect and town planner, there is no way of doing it differently. Modernism has triumphed but nobody seems to care, not even those that ape its tasteless austerity.
In the 1960’s the destruction of beauty was founded on the principles of modernism and the brutal substance of concrete. After this, in the 1980’s and up until our own time, this ignorance and wilful disregard of the need for beauty in the built environment has been founded on the ‘principle’ of postmodern vacuity and the harshly functional materials of steel and plate glass. Again we are seeing in Britain and China and in any country one cares to think of, the creation of a whole class of buildings that are merely functional, that having outlived their original function will necessarily lie empty and will eventually be destroyed. These buildings bear no relation to history, to the need for the transcendental in everyday things, they are made up of ugly and disjointed parts. This is no way to carry on.
What must be done?
We must rediscover the principles of past architecture, those principles that made every architect a genius. There can be little place for the ego of an architect in the new century. He must resist the temptation to impose his own desire to make a mark on the environment which others must inhabit. The guiding principles of architecture that have stood the test of time must be taken up once again. By marrying the new materials, methods and machines of the 21st Century we can do true justice to the achievements of previous generations. Beauty and ornamentation must again become words of common currency, not terms of scorn thrown about by the arrogant elite that currently have the whip-hand in the architectural world. Prince Charles is something of a champion of this cause in Great Britain, with his ‘Poundbury’ project and the saving of the Chelsea Barracks; let us hope others come forward to take up this worthwhile fight.
Great architecture, big or small, can make where we live wonderful. Great architecture can transform lives and encourage the rediscovery of the community in our atomistic societies. In order to progress we must return to the right road, not carry on blindly down a path to a hideous dystopia. We must remember, in the end, that utility without beauty is futility.