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)

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