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In search of authenticity part one by Peter Blundell Jones

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ARCHIVE: Here is the first essay in Peter Blundell Jones’s seminal four-part series In search of authenticity from 1991. The other three essays will be published later this week

In the autumn of 1990 and the first two months of this year Peter Blundell Jones hosted a series of lectures at the South Bank Polytechnic under the general title ‘In search of authenticity’. The speakers were Colin St John Wilson, Ian Ritchie, Peter Smithson, Mark Whitby, Peter Salter, Peter Ahrends, Robin Evans, Giancarlo De Carlo, Eva Jiricna, Richard Reid and Florian Beigel, while the final discussion was chaired by Peter Davey. In this and three further articles Blundell Jones tussles with some of the difficult issues raised. This is in no sense a summary of the series; rather an exploration inspired by it.¹

Authenticity is an emotive word. Ask a group of architects to lecture on it, and some boldly nail their colours to the mast: Ian Ritchie has since made it his rallying cry;² Florian Beigel, who once ran a series entitled ‘Sincere architecture’, stood firm; Smithson even went so far as to declare it a biological necessity. De Carlo found it in a response to genius loci and cultural history, St John Wilson in the connection between aesthetics and ethics. Others were more doubtful; perhaps authenticity lies less in the architecture, more in the eye of the beholder. Ahrends, although one of the most socially committed of the speakers, had grave doubts about whether it can be attained, and whether ABK is even trying to attain it. Evans found the word easier to apply to a pizza where clear reference can be made to the Italian original, but considered it too problematic to be useful in architecture. He illustrated his point elegantly with an analysis of Le Corbusier’s Ronchamp and the rich mythology that has arisen round it: authenticity is clearly a teasing problem there. Most dismissive of all was Reid, who sees architecture as a constant borrowing and rehashing of past elements, thus inevitably impure: those who think they escape the cycle are kidding themselves.

The relativity crisis has been with us for a very long time, and Modernism was supposed to be responding to it, so we should perhaps by now have learned to live with it

It is a word that crops up frequently in the Modern/Post-Modern debate. Simon Reynold’s recent review of Frederic Jameson’s book³, for example, links it directly with Modernism: ‘In art modernism’s themes of authenticity and meaning give way (under Post-Modernism) to pastiche and a fascination for the surface image; emotional effect is superseded by free-floating euphoria and sublime vacancy.’ The implication is that authenticity is no longer obtainable, since we no longer share a common view of the world. God is dead, and with him died any kind of truth or certainty. Modern communications have splintered and fragmented experience further. We are condemned forever to live in separate subjective worlds, and meanings are no longer shared. 

This view, to which we shall return in the concluding article could be a gross exaggeration. After all, the relativity crisis has been with us for a very long time, and Modernism was supposed to be responding to it, so we should perhaps by now have learned to live with it. Relativity may invalidate authenticity as an absolute state just as it dethrones other absolutes, but not as a relative state. For example we all know what is meant by calling a brick wall more authentic than a plasterboard one covered in brick wallpaper. This can stand for the time being as a starting point, and will be taken up in the subsequent article.

An alternative recent usage of the word authenticity – suggestive in a different way - is found in the text to a cartoon published in Private Eye: ‘We are the London Consort of Surgeons, and we perform authentic operations with original instruments.’ The reference is to music, and the humour depends on the observation that in some other areas of life and experience, such authenticity is not desirable. Even within the realm of music, though, authenticity remains problematic, as experts argue about the correctness of instruments or techniques, and the interpretation of scores. We can never be quite sure how the music sounded in its day, and even if we get the sound right, the context and the expectations of listeners have changed It has clearly altered our perceptions. For example, to be brought up on a world of music has taught us a lot, increasing insight and appreciation. It has definitely proved worthwhile. 

Architectural equivalent

Log houses at Skansen, Stockholm

Log houses at Skansen, Stockholm

Log houses at Skansen, Stockholm: the first open-air museum, opened in 1891

What would be the equivalent in architecture? One obvious parallel is the open-air museum, where farmhouses are reconstructed as precisely as possible and preserved in a fixed state, to endure forever. A strict authenticity is certainly the aim, but within distinct limits. Much trouble is taken to get the material and details right, but the whole context has changed, becoming almost theatrical. We know we are visiting another world, not living in it, and we also know that nobody lives or lived there, at least since the move into the museum. In the best examples such as Stockholm’s Skansen4, the guardians are dressed in period costume, and one can eat a traditional meal at the inn. Paradoxically, this is the complete opposite of the practice with Japanese temples, where the use and context remain the same, the ritual carries on, but the building is periodically renewed down to the last peg, allowing continuity of form but a total change of material. 

Evidence of decay

With the open-air museum both use and context are changed and the clock is stopped at a certain moment, even if the objects can be said in some measure to be authentic. Perhaps, then, a greater authenticity can be found where there is no intervention, and the passage of time is allowed to make itself felt. Smithson suggested the example of the derelict airfield left over from the Second World War.5 The crumbling buildings both show what they were and display their age, while the period to which they refer is still warm in recent memory, and thus thoroughly known to Smithson’s generation directly, though these buildings have become almost as familiar to those of us born post-war through the war films made in the 1950s. The feeling of authenticity depends on knowing the context: in comparison, for example, we have but hazy and inaccurate notions of how medieval cathedrals were used and experienced.

Perhaps, then, a greater authenticity can be found where there is no intervention, and the passage of time is allowed to make itself felt

The ageing of buildings is something we are also intensely reminded of by Peter Salter, who designs for decay and uses materials that spoil or dissolve.6 For several projects he has proposed steel which rusts away, and in his Tokyo folly he used earth walls. This is more than allowing for a little inevitable weathering; it is the acceptance of a timescale, a limited life with a changing face. His example throws up a strong contrast with the work of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe or Norman Foster, who clearly make no provision of this kind, and expect (or at least imply) that the work should stand unblemished for eternity. Perhaps the Japanese temple solution is the way for them: the resurrection of the Barcelona Pavilion, and the Sainsbury Centre re-cladding already suggest it.

Holiday fantasies

Port Grimaud

Port Grimaud

Port Grimaud. Holiday village in the south of France inspired by the model of Venice

The open-air museum makes an illuminating comparison with the holiday village of Port Grimaud type.7 Here fishermen’s cottages, harbours, alleyways, streets and squares are created in the image of traditional villages to accommodate the growing tourist market. Some examples are clearly more authentic than others, in the limited sense that they follow local planning habits and construction details more closely, and that they get closer in their formal language to the original. Some might even be taken for the real thing at times. However, the life in such ’villages’ bears little resemblance to that in the traditional ones on which they are modelled. Holiday flats are only occupied for short periods even with timeshare, so the population is constantly changing, allowing limited contact only. Further, unlike the traditional village there is little interdependence on exchange of services, so little opportunity to build up any kind of community, even if an architecture hinting at community values proves comforting. Such hints, of course, depend on the visitors having a nostalgic view of what a traditional village is. When all such memories pass out of the public consciousness, the meaning of the holiday village will change. 

Heaven and hell

Portmeirion, Clough Williams Ellis’ fantasy village in North Wales now seems to have been ahead of its time, post-modern before Post-Modernism. A picturesque creation borrowing from a variety of sources, it was never intended to seem authentic, but perhaps rather more charming and dreamlike, a place to escape the cares of the world. That this heaven can also become a hell by inverting the reading was neatly demonstrated by the use of Portmeirion as the set for the cult television series The Prisoner, where the hero is caught in a web of lies and illusions without reference to any substrate of reality, and whenever he thinks he is about to escape or to find some certainty, finds he has returned to the beginning. As Portmeirion prefigured Post-Modern architecture so this series prefigured the nightmarish Post-Modern world described by Jameson8 and others, a world quite devoid of authenticity.

Genius loci

At first sight, Giancarlo De Carlo’s housing at Mazzorbo in the Venetian Lagoon9 seems not unlike Port Grimaud. But it is not a holiday village, nor does it follow slavishly the local vernacular in its forms. Through a process of consultation with the local people and analysis of existing buildings and spaces on the islands of Mazzorbo and Burano, De Carlo extracted what seemed to him the essence of the local architecture, and based his new development on it. He followed the pattern of canals, streets and squares, the calle and campo, and gave high priority to the surface treatment of these public spaces. He also followed the local type of three-storey terraced house with entrance at street level, and a roof terrace, finding new ways of articulating the facades in sympathy with the traditional ones. He reinterpreted the local tradition of painting rendered walls, using the same bright colours that appear on their boats. Most importantly, he reproduced the threshold condition which marks the link between public and private realms in a manner special to these islands. The result is evidently architect’s architecture, with a consistency and formality beyond that of vernacular building, and it belongs visibly to the 1980s, but it is deeply imbued with many qualities specific to the place, and therefore seems to belong. It is in many ways more authentic than Port Grimaud, for it is a reinterpretation of selected traditions rather than a direct borrowing; also the adopted features are structural rather than superficial, substance rather than mere style. And of course, unlike Port Grimaud, it is a real residential community, not a tourist haven; indeed, the people limit rather than encourage tourism.10

The result is evidently architect’s architecture, with a consistency and formality beyond that of vernacular building, and it belongs visibly to the 1980s, but it is deeply imbued with many qualities specific to the place, and therefore seems to belong

Un-Real architecture

Richmond Riverside is office development rather than holiday village, but as with Port Grimaud, the story told by the buildings is greatly at variance with their role and content. The reality is comprehensive redevelopment for profit, providing office space to let to unknown users. This is a fairly standard kind of brief with little content to express, and therefore tends to get dressed up in these Post-Modernist times with every kind of decorative treatment. What.is different about Riverside, however, is the use of a specific historical vocabulary, accompanied by an earnest claim from the author that it is authentic – Real architecture.11 The preferred justification is two-fold: first the validity of real solid brick walls and slate roofs; second the use of Classical architectural language, supposedly universal and eternal, and therefore never anachronistic. Terry even manages to trace the source of his architectural language back to the Bible, neatly squaring his architectural with his religious fundamentalism.12 For those of us taking a more relativistic view. The historical models which Terry copies belong to particular times, places and technologies.13 They have particular stories to tell, both about how they were made, and about the lives lived within them. Their use for other purposes in a later age may be accomplished by conversion, in which case the disparity between use and image makes visible the layers of history, enriching our reading of the city. The artificial creation of old buildings for new purposes subverts this process, however. It is not only functionally inappropriate, but suggests a life that was never lived, a false history, like the confidence trickster who gives himself bogus qualifications. It does violence to the public memory and devalues the historic examples it copies. On this basis, Riverside can stand for the inauthentic, and the kind of authenticity which Terry believes in can be dismissed as a delusion.


This brief enquiry was intended to raise a range of questions and to demonstrate the complexity of the issue. Most of the above examples are concerned with the question of memory, with the demonstration of some kind of continuity through time. One can analyse them in terms of the different attitudes they take towards the four realms in which they might claim to operate: one, truth to the material object; two, truth to form or arrangement; three, truth to place or context; and four, truth to use and the meaning of use. Thus the open-air museum, follows the first two and violates the third and fourth; while the Japanese temple violates the first but follows the other three. De Carlo’s Mazzorbo, a new place to which the first category cannot apply, makes selective claims about the third and fourth. Most other examples, like Port Grimaud or Richmond Riverside, can only claim interest in the second, and the claim is of doubtful validity. In many ways the purest example is the derelict airfield: this allows, without artifice and thus with total honesty, the steady disintegration of all four. The irony here is that eventually, if no one intervenes, nothing remains; then there is no memory. Intervention involves artifice, for like memory, there lurks throughout the foregoing debate the notion of responsiveness - the building’s attempt to respond in some way to the technological means and the purpose it serves. Two subsequent articles will address these issues: the first, tectonic authenticity, will deal with notions of truth to materials, structural logic and processes of construction. The second, social authenticity, will deal with the cultural role of architecture in supporting human institutions. A fourth and final article will then attempt to tackle shifting realities, returning to the politics of Post-Modern despair, and the increasing problem of the alienation of people from buildings.


  • 1 Reference is made to the content of the lecture series, but I would not wish, deliberately or accidentally, to saddle any of the contributors with prejudices they do not hold: all views otherwise unattributed are my own.
  • 2 Blueprint no. 75, 28.3.91 p28
  • 3 Fredric Jameson, Post-Modernism or the cultural logic of late Capitalism, Verso 1990, reviewed in the Observer.
  • 4 The oldest open-air museum, set up in 1891
  • 5 South Bank Polytechnic lecture of 26.11. 90
  • 6 South Bank Polytechnic lecture of 10.12 90
  • 7 The replica fishing village near St Tropez designed by Franco is Speorry in the late 1960s, much talked about in the early 1970s and later widely imitated
  • 8 See note 3
  • 9 Discussed in detail by De Carlo in his South Bank Polytechnic lecture of 28. 1.91, and also described in Architectural Review, July 1987 p21
  • 10 For example, there is no hotel on either island: one is definitely made to reel an intruder there
  • 11 The tilte of an exhibition by Terry and fellow Classicists at the Building Centre 1987/88
  • 12 See Architectural Review February 1983.
  • 13 For a more ex tended argument, see my article on Riverside in Architectural Review, November 1988 p87.

This article was originally published in AJ vol 194, no 19, 30 October 1991. If you would like us to republish other essays from the AJ archive online, please email your suggestions to mary.douglas@emap.com

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