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Don't look back in anger

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In the wake of the backlash against Modernism, we should not forget its public-spirited philosophy, says Douglas Murphy

It’s full-on déjà vu time in architecture at the minute, and the culture wars seem to be back in full swing.

A series of broadsides against the state of architecture in today’s world have been fired, this time coming from a newly emboldened traditionalist faction. Steven Bingler and Martin C Pederson in the New York Times recently claimed architecture had a ‘disconnect …both physical and spiritual’, and advocated a return to traditional design based on naturalgeometry, which is apparently ‘tied to our own DNA’.

This was echoed in the UK by Prince Charles in the Architectural Review, also waxing lyrical about traditional geometries ‘so rooted in our own connection with Nature’s patterns and processes’. Later, Justin Shubow went off on one in Forbes, blasting ‘Modernists’ (is anyone a Modernist nowadays?) and a whole swathe of straw men for ignoring the ‘common man’ and their apparently innate preference for Classicism.

So far, so preposterous. But in the UK this resurgence has coincided with a sudden surge in the fortunes of the traditionalists, with some bright spark in the government inviting ‘God’s Architect’ Quinlan Terry and the nincompoop philosopher Roger Scruton to develop plans for housing, with the emboldened Terrys now producing a design for a Classical redevelopment of the Hyde Park Barracks site in a typically overblown ‘Royal Stalinist’ manner. But it is a mistake to think that this is simple style wars stuff, scholastic architectural navel-gazing or, god forbid, a question of taste. No, there is a genuine battle for ideas underlying all this, and while the conservatives seem to be in formation, their enemies are in disarray.

For years now, however, plenty of voices have been relentlessly criticising the ‘iconic’ paradigm of architecture and its pseudomodern periphery – and not only those voices coming from the reactionary right, for whom all things modern are socialist burps from the mouth of hell. There are many more sophisticated architects who deeply care about the order of cities and their hierarchy, which the last generation of loudmouthed buildings have tried to reduce to gibberish.

There are also more critical positions, where the icons are indeed symbols, but symbols of the vacuous dominance of financial capitalism over culture, and the almost total elimination of architecture’s ability to contribute to matters of social importance, not to mention its being wastefully in denial of its use of energy and natural resources. But at the same time, there are signs that things might be moving. A whole generation of architects raised on the individualism of the baby-boomer era are beginning to retire from the scene, and the ego-architecture of figures such as Zaha Hadid, once thought a radical enfant terrible, is increasingly viewed with amusement, if not yet derision. Public disgust at housing crises and urban inequality is steadily growing, as is the appetite for real action on climate change (in which buildings are such a contributory factor).

And while the UK still feels relatively calm, it is experiencing the shocks of global instability through processes such as the London housing bubble. Frankly, at this point it’s not at all clear what the political (and thus of course professional) landscape will look like in the coming years, whether the status quo can maintain itself, and whether further crises will be averted or plunged into.

We shouldn’t forget that there is very little that architects themselves can do. We need the work, and we can’t pick our clients, so perhaps the best that can be hoped for is that the ideas are there and ready for when the opportunity arises to implement them – that we’ll live to see the mood change and the opportunity to create more useful work.

But rather than moving to some transcendent traditionalism, restoring timeless spiritual order to a deeply conservative society, it would be better to remember that architecture still has plenty of ideas left over from more ambitious times, and in particular the much reviled 60s and 70s.

The problem in many ways is that architects have internalised the ‘death of Modernism’ narrative far too strongly. The reasons why architecture was created in the way it was during the post-war era are frequently lost in the self-flagellation that still marks the profession after the fiascos of system building and the apparent social failures of mass housing. The public spirit and the focus on issues other than developers’ profit are forgotten; the era remembered somehow as a time when implausibly powerful architects inflicted their arrogant whims upon a reluctant public.

But if we look back to the architectural culture of the early 1970s we can see much that is pertinent. Massive urban regeneration was ongoing, which may have been flawed in so many ways, but frequently provided housing for ordinary people of a quality not matched since. Rapid changes in technology were enthralling and worrying in equal measure, presenting opportunities for a complete change in the production of architecture. Like now, there was an apocalyptic background mood, as the first intimations of ecological crisis emerged into mainstream consciousness. Unlike now, however, there was also a certain maturity, a sense that these were problems that had to be addressed one way or the other. It’s all too easy to miss, beyond the groovy vintage styles of the time, how progressive the ideals behind it were, at the very least compared to how things look now. This world did not fail so much as it was defeated, and in subsequent years public housebuilding such as that produced by Camden Council was eliminated. The promise of early High-Tech architecture, as produced by the very young Rogers and Foster, declined into a style forairports and office blocks. Environmentalist design such as that preached by Buckminster Fuller became a marginal, hippyish pursuit.

But before the backlash set in, these issues were all at the forefront of architectural thinking, as they should be now, and we would be far better reevaluating this period than falling for some reactionary hogwash about sacred geometry.

  • Douglas Murphy is a journalist, architecture critic, academic and designer
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Readers' comments (2)

  • It is interesting to note that all the all the proponents of a new classical revival are men. Surely in a world of feminism and climate change it is unthinkable to yearn nostalgically for an architecture that represents the autonomy of a male elite. Also this should not just be a discussion of formal style but of the values that underpin it. What happened to sustainability?

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  • Henry Lyle:

    Your post is profoundly incorrect, and shows that you have no real understanding of the reality or motivations of the "classical revival". This is the best you can do? A charge of sexism against advocates of traditional architecture? You surely have run out of ideas.

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