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Historical perspective is essential

editorial

Colin Stansfield Smith must be the only Gold Medallist to appear in Wisden. The former Lancashire player's lecture at the Royal Fine Art Commission last week contained only one cricketing reference (he felt like a batsman facing Curtly Ambrose armed with a stick of rhubarb). But the delivery was reminiscent partly of some of his own bowling - fast and accurate - and partly of the sort of languid reflection brought on by hours in the pavilion waiting to bat. In any event, it was a stimulating address in which a series of fundamental concerns were brought to the surface under the title 'Dodos, Dinosaurs or Doves; Architecture Past, Present and Future.' Speaking as a member of a nearly extinct species (county architects), Stansfield Smith sent down bouncers over the failure to properly combine the public and private sectors in the pursuit of a balanced architecture in which funding and research were used for the benefit of all.

The theme which most interested me, however, was a reflection on the way in which the twentieth century, until very recently, thought about nineteenth-century architecture (where being rude about Board School architecture was de rigueur, for example). Those quintessential Victorian words, 'institution' and 'asylum', represented a dark and foreboding atmosphere of repression and savagery. Our view changed as the architectural merits of these old buildings were exploited for sunnier uses.

What, our lecturer asked, would our twenty-first-century successors think of some of this century's architecture? Possibly not much. Those claims for functionalism, of the importance of planning and the social programme, of the power of technology - too often ending in abject failure or intellectual volte-face. Objective problem-solving had descended into subjective styling, and technology had provided imagery rather than performance. But, concluded Stansfield Smith, to reject the aspirations of this century's radical architecture would be as mistaken as our own rejection of everything Victorian. Dinosaurs, after all, could become doves.

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