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In search of authenticity part three: Social authenticity

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ARCHIVE: Here is the third essay in Peter Blundell Jones’s seminal four-part series In search of authenticity from 1991

In the introductory article of this series, which was inspired by a set of lectures held at the South Bank Polytechnic, Peter Blundell Jones defined social authenticity as concerned with ‘the cultural role of architecture in supporting human institutions’. Here he takes the issue further, examining the role of buildings in framing social life and experience.

The question of authenticity is prompted most strongly, perhaps, by those Post-Modernist works of recent years in which appearance is starkly at odds with content. Whether the style is the widespread Post-Modern eclectic, or neo-Georgian like Quinlan Terry’s Richmond Riverside, the divorce of form from content is much the same. Speculative office buildings are particularly vulnerable, with little in the programme to suggest a legitimate architectural expression, but many other building types suffer equally. With the demise of Modernist morality, architects have succumbed all too easily to the temptation to dress up their buildings in borrowed raiment of all kinds, often with the encouragement of clients and planning committees.

The commonly heard criticism of such buildings is that they are stage-sets, meaning of course false or unreal, and clearly used in a derogatory sense. It seems a clear enough accusation until one realises, on further reflection, that there are occasions when it is quite acceptable for a building to be a stage-set. Gunnar Asplund’s masterly Scandia Cinema for example, was created as a deliberate fantasy world intended to encourage the suspension of disbelief desirable for involvement in a film. Perhaps exceptions could be allowed in a specifically theatrical context, but acceptance of this kind of thing does not only occur in a theatrical context. In the second article of the series we introduced the example of the Baroque church, loaded with illusions and tectonic fictions, which we nonetheless do not condemn as inauthentic. Is this not also a kind of stage-set? And what of the fairground, with all its false solidity and mock grandeur, yet which we accept without a qualm?: this was the example brought up by Peter Smithson.¹

Life as theatre

The theatrical metaphor can be applied to architecture even more extensively. Erving Goffman employs it to great effect in his analyses of social life and interaction.² Almost every place of public interaction has its formal and informal sides, its frontstage and backstage. At the garage, frontstage is the clean office with neatly dressed personnel and tempting brochures: backstage is the dirty workshop where people in greasy overalls do unspeakable things to your car, and which you are not meant to see. Every shop, every office, has these relatively more public or private areas just as all officials in public life can be seen as acting out a role and putting on a performance. Goffman even extends this theory to the simplest meeting at home, when the house holder spies on the approach of a visitor from an upstairs window, then hurriedly puts his or her clothing and surroundings in order before assuming a public face and opening the front.

If these things can be regarded as theatrical, how much more theatrical is a court of law or parliament in session.

The law court is a rigidly structured space which helps define the roles of the principal actors: giving the judge precedence, for example, by placing him or her on axis in the highest seat. The spatial arrangements, furniture and uniforms all help legitimize the legal process by establishing roles quickly, then constantly reaffirming them. This display, though it may be called theatrical, reminds everybody what is going on, makes a tradition apparent, and also intimidates as a demonstration of power.³ It is mistaken to see this as superfluous to the greater reality of the legal process: it is part and parcel of that process, making it visible and guaranteeing its continuity, for it is a process which depends above all on precedent-on what happened last time.

Architectural origins in the social drama

Framing a social drama is a crucial role for architecture, perhaps its most ancient role. Traditionally, following the example of Vitruvius, architectural theorists have seen the beginning of architecture in the construction of a shelter. The anthropological record of technologically primitive peoples suggests a different pattern, however. Australian Aborigines have almost no buildings to speak of except the most makeshift and expedient shelters formed by throwing a few branches together. Yet for their most important ritual, the circumcision ceremony at which the essential knowledge and mythology of the tribe are passed on, they create a special arena. This is of a specific shape and size, and oriented with a number of definite locations for actors in the drama.4

The enactment of mythical stories about the dream time heroes could be seen as the original form of theatre. In an oral culture with few enduring artefacts, and with no records, books, or museums, this played the essential role in passing down knowledge, indeed almost the whole burden of culture, from one generation to the next. It may be that a performance of Hamlet has a little of the same role for us5, but clearly it is not so vital or essential. With the explosion of human communications and recording media, theatre has been reduced from a central to a marginal role. In bourgeois life, it has also become an entertainment, its original purpose trivialised. Hence the derogatory use of the terms ‘theatrical’, or ‘stage-set’.

The development of traditions

In recognising the theatrical nature of a law court, it is perhaps a mistake to regard it as derived from the stage in its limited, modern form. Rather, both may be derived ultimately from the more essential kind of social drama described above. It would also be a mistake to regard either as static traditions, for human rituals are in a state of perpetual evolution.6 British institutions which we like to think of as enduring from time immemorial were largely developed in their current form during the Victorian period, when Britain enjoyed the unprecedented wealth and prestige of world power.7 At the beginning of the nineteenth century important legal cases were held in the open air at Westminster, while the House of Commons met in a converted chapel. By the end of the century, however, Britons could look proudly to George Street’s law courts and Charles Barry and A. W. Pugin’s Houses of Parliament as the proper embodiments of law and government. With a skill and sensitivity that seems extraordinary today, social procedures that had evolved in somewhat haphazard surroundings were given more precise definition, allowed to crystallise out into the permanent form of buildings, and in the process both celebrated and legitimated. Settings help define roles, providing both a symbolic and a physical frame, but for this to work the setting must be in harmony with the beliefs of the people using it.

The sustaining ritual

The Aboriginal circumcision ground would be almost invisible to an outsider, who would certainly have no idea where to sit, yet it works for the Aborigines who recognise the spatial pattern and obey it. In the same way, Members of Parliament do not sit just anywhere they like, but respect the government and opposition benches and speaker’s chair. If they had temporarily to meet in some other chamber, they would presumably improvise the same kind of spatial order. In any ritual setting there is an interaction between the organisation of space and rules about its use, usually by tacit agreement.8 Perhaps social authenticity in buildings depends on just such interaction: a test for it is to ask what constitutes the sustaining ritual for the building. If you cannot identify one, the building may be in trouble. A ritual, for the purposes of this argument, is a repeated group activity structured both spatially and temporally.9

Moving a little down river from our previous example, it may be instructive to look at the London’s South Bank arts complex. The theatres, cinemas and concert halls clearly have sustaining rituals of the strongest kind, involving large numbers of people in relatively formal dress concentrating on the same event at predetermined times. Many of these rituals are of relatively recent origin- the symphony concert from the last century, the cinema from this- and both are still developing. The Royal Festival Hall and Queen Elizabeth Hall were both pioneering examples of the concert space. The pubs and cafes are sustained by eating and drinking rituals which are somewhat ambiguous in terms of grouping,10 but certainly encourage a sense of gregariousness.

Much more difficult to justify in terms of sustaining rituals are the outdoor rooms.11 The riverside terraces allow celebratory views of the city and can be a grandstand for river events when there are any, but other spaces are really problematic. The dark and echoing voids between the pilotis became, for a time, an obstacle course for skateboarders, but now they belong to the homeless, not on grounds of suitability, but simply through providing shelter without pressure from any other purpose. Equally useless is the promenade architecturale over the top of the Hayward Gallery, leading nowhere, and offering nothing on the way. The poor press generated for so long by the exterior of the South Bank arts complex may be due as much to the lack of sustaining rituals, as with the shabby appearance provocative of more immediate disdain. 

Space and representation

Buildings sustain rituals through their spatial organisation, and this is not only a question of location, but also of visual expression of that location. In complex buildings with many rooms, the ritual relationship between parts may also be embodied and expressed. In a school, for example, the territories occupied by different age groups may be given clear spatial definition, coming together in a common space understood as representing the whole institution. Florian Beigel, talking about gregariousness, raised the example of the central hall of a school at Lorch by Behnisch and Partners: a space which is both foyer and assembly hall, becoming a universal focus.

Taking the argument further, the internal arrangement of rooms may be observable on the outside of the building, thus creating a form accurately representative of the content This is the argument put by Pugin in his book The True Principles of Pointed or Christian Architecture when he discusses the question of propriety. He compares Magdalen College Oxford, in which he claims that ‘ … every portion … had its distinguishing character and elevation’, with ‘Modern collegiate buildings’ in which ‘all is concealed within one uniform mass, unbroken either in outline or in face, undistinguishable from other buildings which surround it’. ‘As to its purpose,’ Pugin continues, ’it might be taken for a barrack hospital or a lunatic asylum.12

The identification of rooms in facades is clearly not the whole s tory. Otherwise it would be enough, as James Gowan once wryly remarked, merely to write the names of the rooms on the facade: that way there would be no ambiguity. It is doubtful, too, whether many strangers would correctly identify the various parts of Magdalen College just by looking a tits external forms. But with a building in daily use, the pattern of internal organisation must be earned and known by users just so that they can find their way around. They are also likely to become conscious of the relationship between outside and inside, so they can tell when standing outside the building where the various rooms are . This is not a matter of conscious aesthetic judgement, but of the unconscious absorption of patterns of spatial order. The body knows how it moves about in a familiar setting, as we discover when we go down the stairs with the lights out. The foot does not search for an extra step, even though the eye cannot tell how many there are.

The meaning of use

We learn the world as active participants, and, in consequence, the meanings of very many things are deeply bound up with their uses. This is neatly illustrated by the humour of Jacques Carelman’s surrealist drawings from the Catalogue of Extraordinary Objects. If we see a toothbrush dipped in excrement, we find it more disgusting than a pencil so treated, because we know what a toothbrush is for and imagine using it, not by conscious intention, but as an empathic reaction. In the same way a chair asks to be sat upon, and produces an involuntary shudder if studded with upturned razor blades. To turn this example positive, a built-in seat at the entrance to a building tends, through unconscious invitation, to suggest hospitality, even if it is not sat upon.

Such meanings, established by experience, work through the reading-in of projected experiences, and this empathic reaction may be released by something which is merely reminiscent of the original experience, without providing it in full. For many years, electric heaters which mimic glowing coals to give an atmosphere of cosiness have been popular. Clearly, users do not think that they have an open fire, nor do they expect others to be taken in: there is a tacit agreement to allow this object to stand in as the focus around which tea is taken or conversation held. Yet it is important, in appreciating the substitute, to be able to refer back to the original: in a society with no experience of the open fire, it would be meaningless. We also have to admit that it is a poor substitute-yet how far back is the original experience? The gas-powered fake is more realistic than the electric one, yet a real open fire in a centrally heated house is still decorative and inessential. Given an open fire that is the real and only source of heat, is it not more authentic placed in the centre of the room, where all can gather around as in medieval times, rather than being confined to the wall by that relatively modern device, the chimney?

These examples can be ranked in an order of authenticity which clearly relates to their functional role, but the progression also shows a pattern of evolution in which the meaning of a use, once vital, moves from fact to fiction and gradually decays. Such is the case very often in architecture and in the design of smaller artefacts. Once the memory weakens beyond a certain point, the original meaning is forgotten, and unless a new one is found, the object or that feature of it dies out. 


We began with the notion that social authenticity resides in ‘the cultural role of architecture in supporting human institutions’. Buildings can be physically coercive, as is the case with prisons or the late Berlin Wall: more often they merely serve a supporting role in framing social dramas, suggesting and encouraging certain uses while discouraging others. But this is architecture’s most essential role, and in order to perform it buildings must mesh with the beliefs and expectations of users. When they fail in this regard, they are likely to seem alien.

Viewed in this way, all buildings could be called stage-sets, yet this is a broader use of the term than the derogatory usage mentioned at the outset. For when we dismiss a building such as Richmond Riverside as a stage-set what we are really saying is that we are not prepared to go along with the story it is telling. To put this another way, within the view that all buildings are stage-sets, it is the set for the wrong play. It suggests an eighteenth and nineteenth century world of gentlemen’s town houses when in fact it is late twentieth century offices. Architecture must grow and change with society. I leave the last word to Peter Ahrends: ’The true (authentic?) measure of a modern work lies in its intention (not necessarily its complete success) to propose, perhaps only in small measure, a vision of what life might become.’13 


  • 1 In his lecture in the authenticity series at the South Bank Polytechnic, 26. 11.91
  • 2 Erving Goffman, Presentation of the Self in Everyday Life and later writings.
  • 3 This observation is made dispassionately, and does not signify approval!
  • 4 Described in detail in my article ‘The sustaining ritual’ in AR November 1990, p93: my source was M.]. Meggitt’s Desert People.
  • 5 See, for example, Clifford Geertz’s essay ‘Deep play: notes on the Balinese cockfight’ in Geertz, ed. Myth, Symbol and Culture.
  • 6 A point strongly made by Victor Turner, Dramas, Fields and Metaphors.
  • 7 See Eric Hobsbawm, ed. The Invention of Tradition, particularly the essay ’The British monarchy 1820-197T by David Cannadine.
  • 8 The space does not have to be purpose designed, but it must accept the rules; thus a pavement lends itself tohopscotch for children through a tacit agreement which ties a new meaning to the order of its stones.
  • 9 I am using the word ritual in the broad (and technically justifiable) sense employed, for example, by Mary Douglas in Purity and Danger (l966) and other writings, rather than in the narrow sense more customary in lay life. Douglas argues at one point that even the man dining alone who uses a butter knife is still involved in a ritual activity, because his behaviour derives its meaning from a social context.
  • 10 For a ritual analysis of meals see Mary Douglas ‘Deciphering a meal’, Implicit Meanings, 1975.
  • 11 The life of exterior spaces continues to present one of the great unsolved architectural problems of our time. Before the era of the car, the streets and squares of historic cities were teeming with life, concentrated to a pedestrian scale. The sustaining rituals of the average street would be numerous: regular trips to the shops, deliveries, tradesmen and lamplighters, producing complex social interaction.
  • 12 A. W. Pugin The True Principles of Pointed or Christian Architeclure, p43-46.1
  • 13 Lecture at the South Bank Polytechnic, 14.1.91.

This article was originally published in AJ vol. 194, no.19, 1991 Dec. 4, p. 22 - 25. 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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