Architectural Ivory Tower Blocks

Goethe famously wrote that architecture is frozen music. It is a compelling metaphor but if architecture really was music then we would all be able to choose to inhabit an urban environment composed entirely of buildings of beautiful, picturesque or sublime quality.  With all other art forms, you can seek out what is good and shun the rest.... but escaping bad architecture is much more difficult. You may even, if you are unlucky, have to live in it.

If architecture is frozen music, how then might one characterize the architecture that was the concrete ‘muse’ of most European architects in the early post war era and still survives today as the urban environment for millions, especially in poorer areas? Step inside a UK architecture school to pose this question and you might get a shock. Particularly if your question relates to the so-called ‘fathers’ of the International Style in general and Le Corbusier in particular (he of the tabula rasa concept of urban renewal in which everywhere “must” be “totally rebuilt” using only concrete) and their legacy for the UK residential housing stock.

Architectural treasures are to be found across the globe and (in a Western context) from St Petersburg to Manhattan but I have a particular appetite for seeking out the finest frozen music of my own nation that still abounds despite the ravages of mid 20th century architectural vandalism. If UK property prices are any indication of perceived aesthetic value then the mature English suburb is highly prized architecture indeed. But try taking any of this as inspiration for your UK architecture school design project and you can expect an aesthetic dressing down from your tutors.  

To be fair to the profession, I would come to the defence of much of more recent public and commercial architecture in the UK - most of it by architects that the public has never heard of but also by famous ones like Norman Foster. (It is Foster’s verbalisations that irritate me, not his buildings.) Granted there are also the misconceived and perversely misplaced alien ‘carbuncles’ complete with impenetrable pseudo-intellectual rationales – the Liverpool Ferry Terminal Building, for example, (‘angular fun’ we are told) or Drakes Circus in Plymouth (just don’t go there!). And the recent past has not been such a bad time either for the UK built environment more generally, all things considered. It is important to remember that building - like art and music - never has been of a uniformly high standard and the search for some aesthetic final solution leads inexorably to something out of the set of a sci fi B movie. The aesthetic and build quality of mass speculative housing – typically‘traditional’ brick-clad boxes with pitched roofs laid out along residential roads and cul de sacs - may fall short of one’s ideal but it is probably as good now as in the 1930’s and certainly infinitely better than the 50’s to 80’s. 

Between the pre-war past and the reasonably benign present we had the Blitz – by which I mean the three decade long blitz - as the bombs of Modernism, social engineering and megalomaniac town planning rained down across poor war-weary Europe. At least it’s over now? Well, yes and no. Certainly the arrogant certainties of utopian collectivism mercifully crumbled in course of the 70’s. Almost everyone now understands that to give architects and town planners licence to decide wholesale what society’s ‘needs’ are and then dream up megalomaniac schemes for the wholesale satisfaction of these needs is akin to kitting your small child out with a set of power tools and a bag of cement and setting him loose to decide what your pride and joy home needs. Wiser people, of course, never stopped understanding this in the first place but their warnings were drowned out at the time and dismissed as ‘reactionary’ and insensitive of the supposed brave new 20th century zeitgeist.

Almost everyone now understands that the Le Corbusian legacy was entirely malign, even if they have never heard of the man himself. Everyone, that is, except in the ivory towers of architectural academe; its luminary authors of revered set texts and in the more high brow professional journals. I had first-hand experience of this at architecture school in the 1980’s. In my school, the status of ‘Corb’ (as we were encouraged to affectionately call him) as your ultimate architectural hero was, quite simply, a given and dissenting from this position was risky. Such is the power of group-think which universities are, sadly, no less prone to than anywhere else. To be fair, nobody was still plugging the megalomania aspect of their hero; his knock-down-the-centre-of-Paris side. All those undeniably God awful tower blocks for ‘rationally’ housing ‘the people’ that sprang up all over Europe in his name? Well, we were assured, they could not be blamed on ‘Corb’; it was just that his more pedestrian architectural acolytes hadn’t properly understood what he had meant. Anyway, all must be forgiven on account of him being such an innovative ‘genius’.  

The mind-boggling power and reach of the totalitarian intellectual mindset in academia in the middle decades of the 20th century is hard to overstate. The literature - in the field of architecture alone - is as vast as it is dispiriting; the pompous, vacuous theorising, the ‘we must totally and utterly’ manifestos, the arrogant, ivory tower intellectuals casting themselves as champions of ‘the people’.

Unless you have - as I was at architecture school - been force-fed the Le Corbusier mythology, you might well struggle to comprehend just how bizarre is the basis of his iconic status. The man himself - according to a fairly typical 1988 assessment in the architectural literary canon - "ranks with Darwin, Freud (and) Einstein among major figures who have ever affected the world to which we belong.” 

So here are a few snippets of the great man’s thinking: 

“the plan must rule, the street must disappear” (especially all those Parisian street cafes) 

“we must create a state of mind for living in mass production housing”, 

“man must be built upon this perfect agreement with nature and probably, the universe.”

......Come again??

The fallacious nature of all such prescriptive moralising about architecture was laid bare in David Watkin’s seminal work: Morality and Architecture (1977); a ground breaking scholarly analysis of its whole history, from Pugin, to Le Corbusier and Pevsner. 

The Modernist utopian, collectivist fallacy may have eventually been debunked in the course of the 1970s but – in addition to the ‘Corb’ hero worship - two related and cancerous aspects of the faux radical mindset have survived intact in our schools of architecture. One of them is the idea that an architect aspiring to greatness must also aspire to novelty.  The other is the idea that building design has sociological, psychological and macro-economic dimensions which the architect – simply by virtue of his being an architect – is competent to judge.  What really matters to your average architecture student is drawing - but they are emphatically not deep-thinking psychologists, not economists and not sociologists and never will be because, for the most part, they are not really that interested in these disciplines. Which is fine and just as it should be until, that is, the idea is implanted that their drawings represent some kind of implicit vision for mankind.  If architects are in need of a statement of their mission they need look no further than Vitruvius’s ancient and eloquent aphorism - Firmness, Commodity and Delight – which still stands as a sufficient theoretical basis for any architectural project. But a required part of any architecture student’s design presentation, these days, mustinclude a verbal rationale – often post hoc and invariably half-baked - of how the form, massing and materials of the design are expressive of such imponderables as the supposed psychological ‘needs’ and ‘aspirations’ of the users and the wider ‘community’ which the building is to serve. I wish I could recall some of these comically glib and shallow rationales from my own student days but, of course, the memory has a natural tendency to consign trash to its trash can. The students were, in any case, simply reciting the bogus language of their tutors - in which buildings might be said to be ‘fun’, ‘thought provoking’, ‘democratic’, ‘inclusive’ and other such nonsense. 

In a similarly glib fashion, tradition was, by the late 1980’s, once again recognised as an important aspect of an architect’s education – at least in theory. Of course, by then had come a visceral reaction in society against crass modernity – especially tower block utopia – and Conservation was fast becoming the new vogue. In architecture-school-speak, however, respect for tradition does not mean quite what you might imagine; it might mean, for example, that you still propose to insert some manifestly alien infill development into a gap in a row of period terraced houses - perhaps even the proverbial upended shark, at least metaphorically if not literally. But crucially now, instead of bragging of your iconoclasm, you would go to equally verbose lengths to demonstrate that you were merely respectfully ‘reinterpreting’ the traditional forms. Architects now ‘must’ reinterpret tradition, with ‘must’ being the operative word. I have known of architects who feel compelled to add ‘contemporary’ sticky-on-bits (onto what are, in all other respects, traditional pitched-roof, brick-walled dwellings), for no better reason than their belief that this somehow lifts them above the level of mere speculative housing and into the more rarefied realm of ‘contemporary architecture’. There is of course nothing wrong with innovation per se; it is the knee jerk compulsion to innovate, or ‘reinterpret’ - as a kind of moral imperative - that is the malign 20th century aesthetic legacy. So beware of architectural academics espousing ‘tradition’.

You might think architectural academia’s saving grace is its very isolation from the real world and note that most practising architects ditch much of its baggage when faced with the need to make a living. Partly true - but the persistence of this quaint reverence for octogenarian ‘Modernism’ is symptomatic of a much broader malaise – the persistence (in large measure) in our academic institutions of the kind of cultural Marxist/social engineering assumption currently manifest in Jeremy Corbyn and his devotees.  

Of all the Modernist fallacies, perhaps the greatest was lumping together all building types into a single mould. Many people, including myself, are quite happy to be dazzled by steel and glass in their airport or corporate HQ but not in their residential neighbourhood. A person’s relationship to their home is a unique and complex psychology, well beyond the grasp of crass architectural theorising. If an individual desires to inhabit a dramatic spaceship of steel and glass, then that is fine – providing that they don’t insist on plonking it on your cherished avenue of period Edwardian villas. I am fond of the print on my wall of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Falling Water and can imagine it being someone’s dream home. For the great majority however, their dream of domestic bliss is located in some-or-other variant of an archetypal pitched roofed dwelling house – and it is this that deserves to be ‘respected’. To insist that the aesthetics of dwelling ‘must’ be ‘modernised’ to suit some perceived advancing zeitgeist is almost as absurd as proposing that any of life’s simple pleasures ‘must’ be modernised; that maybe even sexuality be modernised? Come to think of it though, I do believe there are some in our society today who may indeed be advocating something just along those lines too.

Graham Cunningham March 2016