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EH chief: 'Have architects fallen out of love with history?'

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English Heritage’s chief executive Simon Thurley has questioned whether today’s architects still care about architectural history

Thurley, the author of the book the Men from the Ministry about the organisation’s predecessor the directorate of Ancient Monuments and Historic Buildings, has criticised the lack of architects currently within English Heritage.

He claims this absence marks a step-change from the make-up of the original Ministry, which was staffed mainly by those with an architectural education, and challenged the modern architect for being too obsessed with creating new ‘icons’.

Thurley writes in this week’s AJ: ‘Whereas the majority of the original men from the Ministry were architects, now, their successors are more likely to be academics and historians, myself included. Why is that? Have most architects fallen out of love with history? Are they really more interested in designing the icons of tomorrow?’

He concludes: ‘It would be great to re-engage architects with this nation’s great architectural history.’

John Tehan, a director at London and Stamford-based Smallwood Architects, agreed with the EH boss. He said: ‘Thurley is right in what he says. Most in the profession now leave engagement with the historical context with increasingly myopic and partisan specialists from other spheres. In return, most attempt to design in a vacuum of the limits of their own imaginings, where the thousands of years of trial, error and refinement are ignored and the basic workings of a machine are fanatically admired.’

Alireza Sagharchi, chairman of the Traditional Architecture Group (TAG), added: ‘Architects and peer groups of the profession see their daily endeavours as a struggle against heritage and history that curtails their creative urges.

‘The absence of teaching of philosophy, critical theory or in some cases any history before the Modern Movement, in the curriculum has produced a generation of Architects who are ill equipped and lack the confidence in dealing with what the past generation has left them be it Modernist or Traditional.

‘In protection of architectural Heritage, we have abandoned the field to those who practice a cult of veneration of history and have no vested interest in the built environment and often confuse history with heritage. On the other hand the profession applauds architects who peddle transient technology as a vision of Progress and only see issues in the context of style’.

Architect Ian Salisbury, a building conservation specialist, said: ‘Thurley asks a question that strikes at the pertinency of architectural education. That schools are now producing architects who have astonishing skills in the art of architecture but less in its science is widely acknowledged, but less is said about the lack of recognition in the teaching of our profession that social and cultural phenomena are to a large extent determined by history. 

‘Architecture is the most contextual of all the arts; to ignore that is to allow our profession to sink into barbarism. ‘That has been the mischief in our profession, and it has been with us for decades. The training of architects is too homogenised: it lacks the variety, breadth and depth that is needed to allow us to exercise our skills as polymaths. Architects with an encyclopaedic knowledge of precedent tend now old and few, and they are not being replaced. Academics and historians have taken their place as teachers – in in the widest sense; but practitioners that argue for change and improvement are impoverished if they are unable to engage in their work with that wealth of knowledge that informs brilliant solutions.’

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