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Rearguard action

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REVIEW: Morality and Architecture Revisited By David Watkin. John Murray, 2001. £13.99

What an extraordinary life Morality and Architecture has had. First presented as a lecture in 1968, it became a book in 1977.

Now a new prologue on the philosophical background and an epilogue on the critical reaction turn it into Morality and Architecture Revisited.

It is as old now as was Pevsner's Pioneers of Modern Design - its principal target - when the young David Watkin first drew attention to the similarities between Pugin and Pevsner, which he felt had generated so baleful an influence on architecture.

Watkin was indeed one of the first to draw attention to Pevsner's failings and inconsistencies. Yet his own were highlighted in a coruscating review of Morality and Architecture by Reyner Banham in the Times Literary Supplement (17 February 1978). Since republished in the collection of Banham's essays A Critic Writes, its criticisms are still valid and elegantly expressed.

Rather than its academic expose, though, Banham's review is notorious for its cheap jibe that 'Watkin comes close to that kind of vindictiveness of which only Christians seem capable', which Watkin quotes with masochistic relish in his epilogue. That was mild compared with Bruno Zevi's flinging of terms such as 'shit, muck, vomit and spittle', in which the organisers of a conference on 1930s Neo-Classicism, at which Watkin gave a paper, were apparently 'wallowing'.

Joe Mordaunt Crook's comment that the book would come up against 'the Lib-Lab gerontocracy' recalls the political scene of 1977 and hints at what gave rise to this critical reaction. The Right was poised to break out of enclaves such as Peterhouse (alma mater of one Michael Portillo); the Left desperately clung to precepts whose failures were increasingly apparent.

In architectural history, Mark Girouard's Life in the English Country House would shortly eclipse Pevsner. Then came Prince Charles.Watkin was on the winning side, or so it appeared, until the recent 'assault on what was identified in every field of endeavour as the 'forces of conservatism'', which apparently allows Foster and Rogers '[to] totally dominate the architectural scene in 2001'.

Here lies the reason for the book's reissue.

But architectural history has evolved enormously in the past quarter of a century. No one would seek to re-establish the simplistic link between morality and architecture that Watkin exposed; nor are the boundaries between progressive Modernism and tradition so clear-cut.

Watkin can even bring himself to concede that Rogers has 'some sensible ideas on planning and traffic', though this change is equally notable in academic circles through historians as diverse as James Stevens Curl, Gavin Stamp, Adrian Forty and Mark Swenarton.

Watkin occupies an ambiguous position here. In The Rise of Architectural History, he praised amateur dilettantes over academic ascetics such as Pevsner and his sponsorship of Timothy Mowl's inaccurate little book Stylistic Cold Wars: Betjeman versus Pevsner, appears to strengthen that line. However, he has himself produced one of the greatest works of professional architectural history in Sir John Soane: Enlightenment Thought and the Royal Academy Lectures, an endeavour that would defeat someone who did not have the resources and intellectual milieu of an academy behind them.

There is, indeed, a curious parallel between Watkin and Pevsner. In Pioneers of Modern Design and Morality and Architecture, both published influential (and to some extent necessary) polemics while they were in their 30s. Later came more substantial works: Pevsner's Buildings of England, which Watkin accepts as 'an amazing triumph of energy, productiveness (sic) and erudition in English architectural history', and Watkin himself on Soane. The artificial longevity of Pioneers ultimately did Pevsner no good: it remains to be seen whether Morality and Architecture will have the same effect on Watkin.

Jeremy Melvin is a writer and teacher

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