Architecture school theory: instrumentality

A repeated message in current architectural writing is to warn against ‘means-end thinking’, or ‘instrumental thinking’. For example, we might decide that we want to live in a home that has a constant temperature of 22 degrees centigrade, or that ‘has a view to the south-east’, and with these ends in mind, we go about arranging them; we find the means, whatever those are. And this—it’s said—is a bad way of doing things. The warning extends to architectural types; to think of whole buildings as objects serving our purposes—a research facility, a learning resource centre, a shopping mall—is also to practice ‘means-end thinking’. The cost—it’s said—is twofold; the resulting construction will not be worthy of its inhabitants, and worse, we risk “spoliation” of the environment. Instead, architects should aim at a simpler, more direct relationship with places, with people and with customs of inhabitation. Not housing, schools, factories, but dwellings, and gathering places of the community. Not needs met, but people addressed—so to speak—‘in their fullest being’ (my phrasing). Here’s an example of the message, from Dalibor Vesely:

“Architecture has probably never abandoned completely its humanistic role, though in modern times this role has mostly been improvised. That approach may no longer suffice in a changing world increasingly dominated by instrumentally oriented expectations. To preserve its primary identity and humanistic role in the future, architecture must establish credentials on the same level of intelligibility as instrumental thinking, while at the same time it must integrate and subordinate the instrumental knowledge and the technical potential of human beings to their praxis. This is, in essence, my aim in broad outline …” (Vesely, ‘Architecture in an Age of Divided Representation’ (2004), p. 5)

We got here, as I hinted at before, via Heidegger. How? Heidegger’s core project is to provide an alternative to the traditions of metaphysics. Most people—and, you’ll be reassured to learn, four out of five living philosophy specialists, by their own self-reports—believe that there is a world of things with independent existence outside of the mind that experiences and recognises these things: this is realism; the world is real. Most people, but not all people. There is an alternate view, which is that the things of experience are things of the mind, and we should be sceptical of the existence of—or at least of the appearance of—what some might take to be a mind-independent world. There are several variations of this line of thinking in philosophy, sometimes termed idealism, or anti-realism, depending on the version, and all of them tending to have a sophistication which I can’t tackle here.

And there are complications. We also like to predicate of objects that we encounter in experience; for example, we say ‘I see the roof is shiny’ or ‘you’ll find the path is bumpy’ in the confidence that many things are shiny or bumpy: that those things are alike in those ways; they have properties. There is then a range of views about what properties are. When we predicate, do we refer to something somehow in the object, to something mental that groups objects together, or do we invoke something we might call a universal; something external to the mind, and whose location cannot be given?

Heidegger’s approach is to suggest that there is a difference between things existing—mere existence, we might say—and those same things having a certain graspable or connectable kind of being. Things—for Heidegger—have this special kind of being only when experienced by us with purposive engagement; he collectively terms such things ‘equipment’ and describes the special kind of being as ‘readiness-to-hand’ (zuhandenheit). As examples, Heidegger determinedly points to everyday objects, when we use a hammer—when we engage purposively with a hammer—the hammer is ‘equipment’ and has zuhandenheit. As a metaphysical position, this is not realism—in this picture the existence of things is in a certain way conditional on our experiencing them—but it is not idealism either; things retain a mind-independent mere existence. To put it in Heidegger’s terms, beyond our engagement with them, things continue to have ‘presence-at-hand’ (vorhandenheit) as things ‘in’ the world (as the desk is ‘in’ the room, and the room is ‘in’ the university). We may still relate to such things that are only ‘present-at-hand’, but our doing so is a sort of reduction; we come to consider such things, in our detachment, as objects, and ourselves as subjects. When we treat things as ‘present-at-hand’—as only objects of our curiosity—we achieve for ourselves only a less authentic way of being; full authenticity is only found in engagement, in connection with the ‘ready-at-hand’.

Which is all fine. In a way. The philosopher Rudolf Carnap, in a sharply critical piece of 1932 (‘The Elimination of Metaphysics Through Logical Analysis of Language’), argues for much tighter control of expression in philosophical writing than he sees in Heidegger (whom he names). For Carnap, a term such as ‘being’, in philosophical writing at least, must be understood only through its role as an ‘existence quantifier’; a thing x is (or is not)—this is the quantifier—and has property F (or does not have it). Existence is not to be predicated of something; there are not kinds of existence, or kinds of being. My intent is not to try to come to a judgement on this. For my purposes, what is more interesting in Carnap’s essay is what he follows with:

“The metaphysician believes that he travels in territory in which truth and falsehood are at stake. In reality, however, he has not asserted anything, but only expressed something, like an artist. [But] Lyrical poets … do not try to refute in their poem the statements in a poem by some other lyrical poet.”

And I think the implication of egotism in Heidegger is right. Heidegger takes himself to be getting at something of crucial importance. His metaphysical picture is to give a foundation to sciences: “basic concepts determine the way in which we get an understanding beforehand of the area of subject-matter underlying all the objects a science takes as its theme, and all positive investigation is guided by this understanding”. Indeed, his metaphysics is meant to overturn wrong thinking generally; an incredible ambition. In a jarring passage in Being and Time he writes (my emphasis):

“It would be unintelligible for Being-in-the-world to remain totally veiled from view, especially since Dasein has at its disposal an understanding of its own Being, no matter how indefinitely this understanding may function. But no sooner was the ‘phenomenon of knowing the world’ grasped than it got interpreted in a ‘superficial’, formal manner. The evidence for this is the procedure (still customary today) of setting up knowing as a ‘relation between subject and Object’—a procedure in which there lurks as much ‘truth’ as vacuity. But subject and Object do not coincide with Dasein and the world.”

The construction “no sooner was … than it got interpreted” (admittedly here in translation) is surprisingly flat footed in the context of the—mostly—spare and measured aesthetic of Heidegger’s prose; I think it reveals a competitive motivation to his project. A big mistake has been made, Heidegger seems to say; it must not only be commented on, it must be reversed.

And so we get to building. There is also wrong thinking—Heidegger comes to say after an interval that includes a world war and the rise and fall of fascism in Germany—in the way which we build. And there is a better way to build; it can be done, he says:

“Let us think for a while of a farmhouse in the Black Forest, which was built some two hundred years ago by the dwelling of peasants. Here the self-sufficiency of the power to let earth and heaven, divinities and mortals enter in simple oneness into things, ordered the house. It placed the farm on the wind-sheltered mountain slope looking south, among the meadows close to the spring. It gave it the wide overhanging shingle roof whose proper slope bears up under the burden of snow, and which, reaching deep down, shields the chambers against the storms of the long winter nights. It did not forget the altar corner behind the community table; it made room in its chamber for the hallowed places of childbed and the “tree of the dead”—for that is what they call a coffin there: the Totenbaum—and in this way it designed for the different generations under one roof the character of their journey through time. A craft which, itself sprung from dwelling, still uses its tools and frames as things, built the farmhouse.”

By ‘dwelling’ and ‘entering in simple oneness into things’ Heidegger intends his own metaphysic of zuhandenheit: purposive engagement, craft; not our habitual subject-object, or means-end thinking. We may doubt the accuracy of Heidegger’s description; it seems touristic, we may say. What are these houses really like? What has been left out? But it’s the phrase “by the dwelling of peasants” that strikes. Are these real people? Who were they? How does he know of them? What does he know of them? What reports do we have of their thinking? Is the house itself taken to be evidence of that? If not, then what is?

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Let’s say that such a house, either as Heidegger describes it, or as we might find one, is evidence of the thinking—of the way of being, to put it in Heidegger’s terms—of its builders. If this is right, then it seems that to do as they did will be to be as they were, at least to a degree. Yet to do as they did asks us to take note of features of the house; these gables, those windows, those beams, etc. But which features are the correct ones to take note of? Are we sure that none of what we see was put into place by means-end thinking? The real history of Black Forest houses suggests that earlier examples were built with living rooms facing the hillside, and not facing out, over the valley, as we might naturally expect. At some time, a switch was made and later examples do have valley-facing living rooms. But why was this done? Can we be sure that no Black Forest farmers simply had the thought that it would be nice to look out at the valley and asked themselves what would have to happen to bring that about? I suggest that we cannot. (And, if this is what happened, I can see no way to respectably denigrate the motivation of those people: if it seemed good to them to have that end in mind, in a very similar way to how it might seem good to us to have it, then all power to them.)

Heidegger, of course, presents his example and then immediately disavows it:

“Our reference to the Black Forest farm in no way means that we should or could go back to building such houses; rather, it illustrates by a dwelling that has been, how it was able to build.”

So what should we build? We stand outside the craft tradition attributed to the Black Forest farmers. What is our own craft tradition supposed to consist of? We will know, Heidegger suggests, if we adopt the metaphysic of zuhandenheit. But note that the farmhouse—Heidegger’s example—now has no real role to play here. We can understand the hammer easily enough; the farmhouse is a much more complex affair. It is probably unsafe to assume that any of its features will guide us; we are instead reliant on first principles: Heidegger’s metaphysics, if we choose to go that way. Some architectural writers seem to work back from ‘Building, Dwelling, Thinking’—finding the picture there attractive—to some of Heidegger’s other writing, coming to support his normative demand—i.e. we should reduce our tendency to means-end thinking—assigning that demand extra weight ‘because Heidegger’ (i.e. it comes from authority) and only perhaps as a last step internalising a Heideggerian metaphysics. It might be better to work forwards: is Heidegger’s metaphysics convincing to you (is it better than alternatives; is it worse, even, than anything; is it—as Carnap seems to think—somewhere between psychology and fiction); if it is convincing, does it give any weight at all to Heidegger’s normative demand as applied generally, and if so, what does this mean for building specifically? If you find his metaphysics unconvincing (or just of no moral consequence), it is still open to you, as a designer, to pursue something we could call a ‘mindfulness approach’, or even a ‘psychology of Heidegger’. In this, we would pay careful attention to things of the world on the grounds that (occasional) simple, direct engagement with things of the world is a good, happy and productive thing. But contra Heidegger, we needn’t think that our mindfulness signifies any great truth. Heidegger objects:

“… this characteristic [of zuhandenheit] is not to be understood as merely a way of taking [things], as if we were talking such ‘aspects’ into the ‘entities’ which we proximally encounter, or as if some world-stuff which is proximally present-at-hand in itself were ‘given subjective colouring’ …”

We are not to give things subjective colouring, he says, except that we can; this choice is open to us.

And we can go further, again without internalising any particular metaphysics; we can agree that means-end thinking is often unsatisfactory, and sometimes destructive. Here, though, I think much more caution is needed. We do not live and work in a world made only by us, or by those near to us; we live in enormous societies with many technical specialisms. Some of these (many of them, even) apply to building. For example, someone has researched the role of radon gas in health, and found out that it collects in basements, and can be mitigated in a certain way; it is very hard to see the ‘means-end thinking’ that has been done here as anything other than beneficial. Similarly, someone has researched the performance of materials as applied to structures, or to fire resistance, with lessons for the way we build. Beyond individual buildings, someone has researched the effects of certain approaches to town planning, to transport planning, also with lessons for the way we build. Even as we retain traditions—if we retain them—we may choose to modify them: rationally, instrumentally. Or we may choose to abandon them: again, rationally, instrumentally. It is a big stretch to call into question or demote  all ‘means-end thinking’ (and still more of a stretch to insist that we all pay serious attention to the phenomenologically-grounded world view of one twentieth century writer): it surely depends on the means, and on the end.

Architecture school theory: introduction

So, what is architecture school theory? Take Scruton’s ‘Aesthetics of Architecture’, which I blogged about earlier. This is a book written by a non-architect, for non-architects (mainly), about architecture. From the perspective of architecture schools, it is almost counter-cultural. How did this happen?

In the UK, Oxford University has no architecture school at all (although Oxford Brookes does). Some schools of architecture are fully independent (the Architectural Association). The school I attended (the Mackintosh) is embedded within of Glasgow School of Art and has only a very slender link to Glasgow University. The state of formal academic writing about architecture reinforces the sense that there is little dialogue between (anglophone) architecture schools and humanities departments. However, some architecture schools produce architectural theory. Overwhelmingly, this draws on a so-called ‘continental’ tradition of philosophy. This is a category that recognises – perhaps tendentiously – an academic fissure that was opened by anglophone philosophers such as Russell and Moore in their rejection of the method of F. H. Bradley and other so-called ‘British idealists’, who themselves identified – more or less – as followers of Hegel. On the other side of this fissure stand figures such as Husserl, Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty and Sartre (with Brentano as a common influence). These writers share a focus on articulating conscious experience through introspection (‘phenomenology’). They are also ‘system builders’, making efforts to present complete (and therefore lengthy) philosophical descriptions; implicitly the reader is asked to consider the verisimilitude of the picture presented: this itself continues a tradition of Hume, Kant and Hegel, and is an approach mostly rejected on the anglophone (or ‘analytic’) side since Russell. All disputes fade with time; what I think is (slightly) interesting here is that anglophone architectural writers have made no efforts to bridge the gap: they continue on with Heidegger et al.

I suspect that, in part at least, this is because Heidegger himself is one of few philosophers to directly address architecture, mainly via his short essay ‘Building, Dwelling, Thinking’ (1951) (.pdf). If so, the situation is unflattering to architects, as if writing from other disciplines has to be flagged as ‘about architecture’ in order for architects to think of reading it. What then, should architects read? Architecture is something which people do that affects the world and the people in it. Architectural theory, then, has to be thought of as a guide to action; an answer to the question: what should architects (and planners, and designers) do? In answering this question, ethics and politics are the topics in philosophical writing that theory-minded architects ought to turn to first, with aesthetics following … possibly. These topics are richly represented in the analytic tradition. Introspective explorations of consciousness might feature, but it is hard to see any specifically architectural application for this line of inquiry. To state this another way: if there is something valuable in phenomenology, it is something of value to everyone, not just architects. At the least, it seems odd to steer it towards the practice of architecture, but this is what (the thing I’ve called) architecture school theory does. As I say, I think it has happened by accident.

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That said, over the next few months I plan to write some posts here on architecture school theory, with the intent of setting out what seems useful in it, and what seems objectionable (or at least questionable). I hope to give a fair representation of it along the way. Or of a slice of it. There are a lot of words out there, and I haven’t decided how best to organise the task: reading everything is not feasible. Most likely, I will take a thematic approach, looking at topics such as representation (architects do drawings!) and what is now often called ‘place’. If there are connections between what is in architecture school theory and some of the advocacy for traditional architecture, or for modernism, I will try to sketch those out as well.

Arguments for tradition in architecture: 2

Watkin’s ‘Morality and Architecture’ (1977) is widely known. It has been described as a ‘polemic’. Its most favourable reading—its best hope, in fact—is as a call for some space for the practice of the traditional in architecture, and beyond that, for architectural aesthetics to recover priority. It does not succeed in this.

At the end of his book, Watkin writes: “a historicist emphasis on progress and the necessary superiority of novelty, has come close to undermining, on the one hand, our appreciation of the imaginative genius of the individual and, on the other, the importance of artistic tradition”. The book contains little argument. Watkin’s method is to take a succession of writers in turn—Pugin, Viollet-le-Duc, Lethaby, Giedion, Furneaux Jordan, Pevsner—and subject them to a sceptical debunking, generally in the form of ‘… and we see that he too has been captured by the idea of a Zeitgeist’. The book is short, so each of these figures in any case can receive only a short amount of discussion: Pevsner gets the most attention. Watkin frequently uses not only the term ‘Zeitgeist’ but also the more direct ‘Hegelian’; even so Hegel’s arguments are not presented or explored. Yet with the chutzpah dial set to eleven, Watkin also writes that “no one with a proper training in philosophy, intellectual history, religion, or the social sciences has turned a critical eye on architectural history”. At the same time, Watkin cites Karl Popper (‘The Open Society and its Enemies’ and ‘The Poverty of Historicism’), with apparently no sense that this in itself might be a serious warning off to anyone with “a proper training in philosophy”.

A practicing designer will also find Watkin’s debunking project to be dotted with statements that irritate. For example: “the so-called ‘human needs’ are defined arbitrarily, arrogantly, and with a complete disregard for the importance of tradition as a guide to the architect” (are we allowed to try to define such needs in a better, less arrogant way?), or “in fact [the use of glass] is generally an aesthetic urge disguised as a technological necessity” (why can’t it be both?), or “in itself [structural efficiency] is not particularly interesting except to the specialist or the structural engineer … most people take structural efficiency for granted” (they might take it for granted, but they might also enjoy it).

Watkin’s discussion of Pevsner ought to be the most rewarding part of the book: Watkin was a student of Pevsner, so we can hope to find an unmediated characterisation. Here, a sense of timescale might be helpful. Pevsner’s ‘Pioneers of the Modern Movement’ was published in 1936, when (what we’d most likely call) modern architecture was established as a focus of activity in many countries (except Nazi Germany, where it was subject to official repression) but actual built examples were still comparatively rare. By 1977 (the publication year of ‘Morality and Architecture’) another world war had occurred, many social institutions had been re-ordered, the Marshall Plan had taken effect, extensive physical rebuilding had taken place across Europe, and a number of prominent émigré architects (for instance, Gropius, Mies van der Rohe) had influenced a rapidly expanding American built environment. In 1936, the advocates of modernism were working to enlarge a cultural space for the practice of modernism. In 1977, Watkin feels able to write as if the practice of modernism in architecture threatens his freedom to enjoy classical architecture. ‘Pioneers …’ and ‘Morality and Architecture’ can be seen as opposed works of advocacy; the one calling for more modernism, the other calling for less of it.

However, Pevsner’s ‘Pioneers …’ is also a history. It is a slim, illustrated book that aims more at ordering and categorising modern and proto-modern buildings than at explaining or justifying them. We might, of course, object to the way in which the categorisation is done. We might say that a supposed example of proto-modern architecture is not any such thing, nor does it somehow contribute or lead to the development of modern architecture. Watkin does this. But this line of criticism, even if sustainable (and it is not), is fiddling around the edges. It doesn’t abolish the category of modern architecture: that remains. What is Pevsner’s normative argument about it? What we find in ‘Pioneers …’ is that Pevsner says that certain features of a building will be sufficient for it to count as ‘valid for our time’: specifically, a stylistic ‘coldness’ and a respect for the ‘anonymity of the client’. By ‘anonymity of the client’, Pevsner seems to mean the opposite of a patronage relationship between client and architect: with a modern building, the architect does not work for the satisfaction of any one individual; instead, he or she aims at collectivity, or universality. The architect does not necessarily know who will inhabit or use a building: the building is—at least to a degree—public. But what does Pevsner mean by ‘coldness’? Again, the word is used against its opposite: ‘warmth’:

“The warmth and directness with which ages of craft and a more personal relation between architect and client endowed buildings of the past may have gone for good. The architect, to represent this century of ours, must be colder …”

But there is no suggestion that the resulting built environment should be one that is stripped of ‘warmth’: implicitly, the result will have both. We are right—Pevsner seems to say—to prefer a world that also has modern architecture compared with a world that excludes or ignores it. It would simply be a mistake to miss—or fail to live up to—the possibilities and challenges of our era:

“[a] world in which we live and work and which we want to master, a world of science and technology, of speed and danger, of hard struggles and no personal security.”

After writing this, Pevsner continued with his life, as one does. By 1958, he had founded the Victorian Society and had made a major contribution to the Architectural Review’s Townscape campaign, which advocated a humanised modernism with—as Tim Benton writes in his review of Draper’s ‘Reassessing Nikolaus Pevsner’ (2004)—“picturesque asymmetries and a touch of robust popular culture”. But these later activities were in no sense a recantation: in his 1960 revision of ‘Pioneers …’, Pevsner adds:

“… today’s reality, exactly as that of 1914, can find its complete expression only in the style created by the giants of that by now distant past. Society has not changed since, industrialisation has expanded, anonymity of the client has not been overcome, anonymity of architectural design has increased. The whims of individual architects … cannot be accepted as an answer to the serious questions which it is the responsibility of the architect to answer. Whether his answer ought to differ from that of the pioneers of 1914, and in what way it ought to differ, it is not for this book to decide.”

Does Watkin’s charge of historicism then stick? No. There is no suggestion in Pevsner that modern architecture is the necessary outcome of previous development; that a historian of, say, 1851, or even 1909, could have foreseen something like Gropius and Meyer’s model factory of 1914. And this is what historicism is. Pevsner’s historical method, by contrast, is conventional. To read a building as having a feature that reappears in a later building, possibly transformed, is just to note that the potential for transmission of an idea exists. A more exact history might confirm (or disconfirm) that this transmission happened: perhaps through documented evidence of a building visit, some correspondence, or some other interaction. The search for exactness extends the same activity. And the activity here isn’t historicism, or prediction; it is just the writing of history, as when Pevsner describes the role of Hermann Muthesius (1861-1927):

“By pronouncing … ideas still unfamiliar in Germany, Muthesius soon became the centre of a group of congenial spirits. Of paramount importance … was Alfred Lichtwark (1852-1914), art historian and director of the Hamburg Gallery … in the lectures which he delivered between 1896 and 1899, and  which are full of praise for England, he pleaded for practical, unadorned furniture … for wide horizontal windows and ‘floods of light’ …”

What, then, should we think about Pevsner’s normative claim: that certain features of buildings are sufficient to make them ‘valid for our time’? He does not justify it: the call for ‘seriousness’; the call for stylistic reflection of public (‘anonymous’) use, of the technological, is no more or less than an appeal to our sensibility, aware, as we likely are, of the features and opportunities—and the difficulties—of our own era. Let’s recall Watkin’s task—as I’ve characterised it—of making space for traditional style. Defeating Pevsner’s ‘historicism’ or “the Zeitgeist Pevsner wishes to establish” is redundant to this task: there is nothing to defeat, and nothing—in Pevsner—to block stylistic co-existence. Nor does Pevsner’s advocacy prevent designers from assigning priority to aesthetics: on the contrary, Pevsner’s writing readily—if not routinely—turns to a sense of the aesthetic, of the experiential. Of Hoffman’s Palais Stoclet (relevantly, a large private house) he writes:

“[it] is a work of exceedingly spirited composition, its exquisitely spaced openings and light walls are a joy to the eye, and the high uninterrupted window of the staircase is again present; but the artistic attitude is here far from sachlich (rightly, no doubt): a charm and playfulness are expressed in these facades which are alien to most of the outstanding buildings in the new [i.e. modern] style …”

There is no need to move Pevsner out of the way for any traditional or other stylistic revival; the effort is misdirected. Nor is a positive case for a traditional architecture made along the way. Through sheer inaccuracy, ‘Morality and Architecture’ is —if anything—an obstacle to its own cause.

(Above: plan of the Stoclet House, Brussels)

Arguments for tradition in architecture: 1

‘Aesthetics of Architecture’ (Scruton, 1979) is presented as an introduction to “the subject of aesthetics [for] those who have an interest in architecture”. It also advances a theory of aesthetics, where the designer’s stylistic choices are connected to individual flourishing; some stylistic choices, it is argued, will support such flourishing while others will hinder it. But the book is more than this. Like the contemporaneous ‘Morality and Architecture’ by David Watkin it is a defence of traditionalism in architecture, seeking to carve out a space for the practice of traditional design. Its illustrative photographs and drawings are mostly of pre-modern designs; its arguments take aim at modernists. Here is what is being missed, Scruton seems to say; you are not wrong to like it, and here also are reasons to resist the arguments of those who might try to reorient your taste. Since the book has the flavour of advocacy, the reader develops the sense that the arguments of prior philosophers included in the narrative are there not so much to inform as to be made use of: their talk of Hegel can be countered by our talk of Hegel, since he also said such and such. In this, ‘Aesthetics of Architecture’ differs (slightly) in its aim and in its tactics from Watkin’s ‘Morality and Architecture’, which simply finds objectionable a (supposed) Hegelian tradition in art history and does not attempt to recruit some other part of Hegel (or any part of any other philosopher).

Here is an exegesis of Scruton’s aesthetic theory. We have a capacity to exercise certain judgements over a certain range of things that is universal: all reasoning persons may make such judgements; they are not a feature, say, of the psychological regularity of humans. An aesthetic judgement (giving the answer, say, to the question: ‘is this beautiful?’) is to be counted among these judgements. Are there (physical) objects we might make that are guaranteed to be judged as beautiful? No: every aesthetic experience is unique; we cannot say that everyone will feel or react in the same way to a certain experience, since that (exact) experience is not shared. In understanding aesthetic judgement, we would do better to turn our consideration away from experiences, and towards the critical faculties of those who undergo aesthetic experiences; are these individuals well equipped to make aesthetic judgements? Are they ‘cultivated’? Here, Scruton does not intend any kind of elitism; his view is that every person should be allowed to develop such faculties: “the kind of outlook … which would best reward aesthetic attention”. Indeed (argues Scruton) we have an obligation to support this development, since the exercise of a critical aesthetic faculty is essential to the self-realisation of every individual. Such a faculty comes about through engagement with a public world which “[bears] the marks of human action”, where such marks are not alien and unfamiliar, but consonant with prior aesthetic judgement. A critical aesthetic faculty is developed over time; through habit, through repetition in experience, through familiarity. There is therefore moral force to the call for the practice and maintenance of artistic tradition; only this will properly support the critical aesthetic faculty of individuals, and through it, human flourishing.

Designers who have worked to develop qualities of figurative repetition and self-similarity in their output—things that might be called harmony—might see something in Scruton’s idea of a critical aesthetic faculty that comes alive through repetition in experience. In this creative mindset, what presents itself as beautiful can be analysed as containing the same thing repeatedly; a proportion here is repeated in a proportion there, but transcending monotony through scaling, or material or colour change, or some other transformation. The embrace of consonance can be extended to context: the designer also reflects the proportions of neighbouring objects (i.e. buildings) in their own contribution, aiming at a greater whole, assembled collaboratively, and over time. This attitude is naturally friendly to artistic tradition; the greater whole is a long term, possibly generation-spanning project; as such it requires tradition.

But which tradition? Scruton—in the text at least—conscientiously leaves this question open, as if to say only that at least some tradition in architecture is to be followed. However, he does tentatively advance as essential two features found in classical architecture; mouldings (i.e. smooth unrelieved surfaces should be avoided) and facades (a building should have an obvious public face demarcating the boundary between the exterior and the interior). And the book itself, as noted above, favours pre-modern illustrative examples; of these, classical and baroque buildings are the majority. This seems hopeful, as if we are to be suggested to a correct conclusion through visual immersion. The reader can easily imagine a broader editorial selection, where Corbusian villas sit comfortably alongside Palladian villas (as in Colin Rowe’s well known analysis of proportional similarity in the work of these two architects), and with the modern examples giving visual support to Scruton’s argument just as effectively as the classical examples. Or perhaps, if mouldings are essential as Scruton says, we would be pleased to see examples from an alternative modern tradition that features mouldings; one of Frank Lloyd Wright’s textile houses, for instance.

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And is a person’s critical aesthetic faculty really so fragile as Scruton seems to say? We can agree that experience is necessary to the development of a mental faculty; why wouldn’t we believe that a given mental faculty is as well—or perhaps better—developed when that experience is heterogenous? Analogously, music is often taught as a progression through a canon; hence a developing piano player starts with Bach, Clementi, Mozart, early Beethoven; only later exploring, say, Villa-Lobos. The aim is security in a skill that takes time to acquire. Yet some modern composers have deliberately intervened in this process: Bartok’s ‘Mikrokosmos’ is a large collection of piano pieces for players of all skill levels, and features alternative tonalities, scales and rhythms throughout. Nobody thinks Bartok subverts musical education in this way, or that players raised (partly raised, in all likelihood) on ‘Mikrokosmos’ will be deficient in skill or sensitivity. Similarly, we can question Scruton’s call for stylistic adherence; the repetition of the familiar. Will we fail to develop as individuals if we sometimes experience the unfamiliar? It looks doubtful.

Is there a way forward for Scruton? Yes, I think so, although it doesn’t necessarily lead to an outcome he’d like. By making community—one where both designers and users of buildings operate within a tradition—of central importance, Scruton makes an argument that looks somewhat Hegelian, and indeed Scruton acknowledges this connection in his text. For Hegel, the self can realise itself only within a community (and I take the term ‘community’ to stand adequately for ‘spirit’, or ‘geist’). However, Hegel also claims that for this realisation of self to properly succeed, the community of which the self is a member must also undergo a process of self-realisation, through critical self-examination. The community progresses and eventually arrives at a well-founded—and inevitable, so long as progression occurs—modernity. So Scruton might propose that the traditional architecture which he favours simply is modern. It just is the outcome of the critical self-examination undergone by our community.

After all, it worked for Hegel. If Hegel can confidently use the term modernity, as he did, in the context of the architectural designs of his classicist contemporaries such as, say, Schinkel, why cannot Scruton hold that the description ‘modern’ still applies to classical architecture today? (A perspective of Schinkel’s design for a palace on the Crimea is shown above.) Beyond simple distaste for the second part of Hegel’s scheme as I’ve sketched it above, I suspect Scruton’s reluctance to do just this stems from it not passing a laugh test. Far too much has to be discounted or ignored; the evidence has piled up on the wrong side and in alarming quantities. And it opens a door that Scruton wants to hold shut. A modernist—as conventionally understood—can point to the very extensive architectural design work and literature post-Hegel, and, more importantly, post-Schinkel. Look at all this re-evaluation, the modernist can say. Look at the nineteenth century ‘battle of the styles’. Look at the continued attempts in the twentieth century to find a resolution. Look at what’s happening now. Look at the possibilities. There’s your geist in action. This well-rehearsed rhetorical line of modernists of the Pevsner era is surely just what Scruton wants to steer the discussion away from. Uncharitably, we can say that he takes the part of Hegel that he finds useful, and discards the part that will probably only help his opponents. More charitably, we can say that he seeks to highlight a part of Hegel that modernists might overlook; the implication in Hegel that designers should consider the ways in which the built environment might affect the self-realisation and development of individuals.

Dog legs

The urban ‘dog leg’ is an under-used arrangement, I reckon. Here’s a nice one in Durand Gardens, Stockwell: note the house wedged into the angle.

It’s a delight to walk around this corner: there is some rat running but the acute change in direction does seem to deter drivers. And the people at Space Syntax insist that their urban planning ‘rules’ can be OK with the occasional dog leg, even though they restrict sightlines. My ideal design for green belt (or, I suppose, suburban) housing (see these earlier posts) also features dog legs:

This is deliberate: it’s a way of making a ‘lazy grid’. This in turn supports a subtle hierarchy of streets, where straighter roads are (slightly) higher in the hierarchy than more meandering routes. (Tree planting (or absence of), street width and presence of public transport route also factor into the hierarchy.) The dog leg inflection is good for siting an entrance, typically in this design to the lobby of a ‘multi-family’ building where a degree of footfall can be expected. Below is a sketch of one of these conditions.

This dog leg isn’t deep enough to completely block through visibility, and everything is well surveilled: there are no blank ‘end of terrace’ frontages, as deprecated in e.g. Secured by Design. The geometry here is all orthogonal and may seem quite rigid (then again, look at Mayfair’s estates) but this is an ideal design and it’s assumed that a real site, with real topography, existing streets to connect to, extend, etc., would cause things to move around a bit.

 

Style and politics

Gavin Stamp’s recent death – noted here and here – made me think about something he said when I was a student of his at the Mackintosh School in the early 90s. He showed the class a slide of Paul Troost’s Ehrentempeln and said (words to the effect of): ‘this is compelling architecture; don’t reject it just because it was built by the Nazis’. I want to consider this a bit. Take two statements as follows:

Statement 1

Knowledge of the political beliefs of a building’s patron or of the political system under which the building was commissioned should not inform any value judgement about that building’s architectural style.

Statement 2

In context of a given political system, nothing is to be said about the rightness or wrongness of choosing one building style over another.

Statement 2 looks like a corollary of Statement 1, but is not. And it is false. Where a designer accepts the norms of a political system, he or she (implicitly or explicitly) accepts an obligation to design, by preference, in a certain way, or ways; the menu of styles does not remain open. This may be true even as nothing is said in everyday political conversation, under a certain system, about architectural style, and no laws or guides exist concerning architectural style. Why? The obligation comes about because certain stylistic choices may have consequences which do fall under the scope of political conversation, and which are touched by extant law and guidance. Call these practical consequences. For example, the compositional conventions of a certain style may tend to produce buildings with areas of wall without windows, or with very limited fenestration, affecting enjoyment of the interior, yet occupants may have limited freedom to move to space with better daylight. The style has a practical consequence. And this consequence may conflict with, for instance, a prior political commitment to extend to all persons equal dignity and comfort.

Statement 2 does not follow from Statement 1 because the statements are temporally opposed: Statement 1 is retrospective; it concerns value judgements made about what has already been built; the practical consequences of the designer’s choices are assumed to have been felt, or to (at least) be irretrievable. The viewer assesses the aesthetic value that can be drawn from what now is, in the physical remains; the building is treated as a monument. Statement 2, by contrast, is forward looking. The designer is faced with choices; the practical consequences of those choices may still be felt, or avoided (if negative). The designer should make the right choices.

So, even as we reject Statement 2 – as I feel we should – we are free to accept Statement 1. But should we accept Statement 1? There is strong feeling about certain architectural styles, especially certain derivatives of classical style developed in the 20th century. For example, the recently proposed improvements to Munich’s Haus der Kunst (1933), also designed by Troost for the Nazis, were publicly criticised: the choice to remove trees hiding the main façade was condemned with the implication that the building is considered by some to be beyond enjoyment. Troost’s Ehrentempeln (monuments to Nazis who died violently in a coup attempt; the interior of one of the pair is shown below) were demolished by US forces in 1947.

An instance of a style can be rejected: it seems reasonable to say that the Ehrentempeln – these particular buildings – if kept, would have memorialised that which should not be memorialised. But this does not reject the style. And there are implications for disavowing the style of these structures. Architectural ideas freely cross borders and polities. Compare Asplund’s Woodland Cemetery (below) with Troost’s Ehrentempel.

Beyond the resemblance, if there is a historical connection between the two, it may be traced to Muthesius and Europe-wide efforts to forge effective partnerships between design and industry; in the English Arts & Crafts movement and the similar Deutscher Werkbund (of which Troost was a member). It is surely incoherent to reject an aesthetic where it shows up in a deprecated polity and embrace it where it shows up in a healthy one.

 

 

 

 

Building in the green belt: 3

One archetype of desirable urban life is found in the urban village. This conception of place in the city owes much to Jane Jacobs but is also seen in i.e. Abercrombie’s 1943 analysis of London’s neighbourhoods. The urban village typically has two faces: the high street face, and the ‘countryside’, or park face. I argue that both are fundamental. Ideally, both are found close together: they allow the village to be understood and enjoyed as a village. On the one side, shops, eateries, small business, primarily indoor social gathering spaces. On the other side, green open space, room for exercise and outdoor socialising, play, escape. In between: homes (and institutional support, i.e. schools). In the urban village, everything local of value is walkable.

Northcote Road, Battersea, lies at the centre of an attractive and popular urban village. A quick look at the street layout of this neighbourhood shows that it closely tracks the model described above. Northcote Road itself is the high street. The countryside face of this village is – jointly – Wandsworth Common and Clapham Common, two decently sized urban parks. The perpendicular streets in between – Wakehurst Road for example – represent some of the most desirable streets in London for dwellings of this type and scale.

The block highlighted above is 270 m by 60 m; dimensions which – along with the simple grid topology – permit the walkability of the neighbourhood. In addition, Northcote Road, although narrow, carries buses for most of its length; it is a Connector that becomes a High Street (in Transport for London’s street hierarchy), with both movement and ‘place’.

Similarly, the idealised green belt typology which I sketched out in the previous post (here) takes its place in an ‘urban village’; this time, a green belt village. Although by definition not a central district, it is not treated as suburban: it remains urban. It makes up a neighbourhood with a similar topology and scale to Northcote Road, Battersea. There is a ‘lazy’ grid topology with blocks with a slightly smaller perimeter (170 m x 95 m).

Trams are routed along the central connector, which generates enough footfall and ‘place’ to support commercial spaces. This street could take on the specific character of a street such as Northcote Road; however, other precedents are available. For instance, shown below is a view of a main road in the Vauban district of Freiburg:

The character of the high street in my ideal model neighbourhood is probably closer to Vauban than Battersea. As the sketch below shows it is wider, at 36 m, and contains pavement seating, pavement, segregated cycle lanes (on both sides of the street), and a roadway for light vehicular traffic and trams. (Trees from the intersecting local roads are visible, but the high street is not planted as an avenue as this is bad for commerce.)

What really matters here is the basic hierarchy of connector to grid to green space. If everything of value in the neighbourhood is to be walkable, there must be quick access to not only amenities such as high street shops but also to transportation for non-local journeys. The planning principle followed in the model is to keep foot journeys to under 800 m at a maximum. Below is the furthest possible foot journey form dwelling to tram stop, at 630 m:

The reverse of this journey represents the furthest distance from dwelling to park. The model is also car-free, with exceptions made for pick-up and deliveries: this means that the streets can be driven but the only parking provided is in a neighbourhood multi-storey parking structure. Again, this is easily reached on foot; the route shown below is 500 m:

In the next (and probably final) post in this series, I’ll look at the sorts of planning principles that can bring additional variety and character to a new neighbourhood that is set out functionally along the lines described here.