Black box Geoffrey Scott’s Renaissance apologia advocates a fresh outlook on architecture, says Felix Mara
As a schoolboy growing up in the suburbs of north London, I sometimes inspected the small architectural section in my local library. There was Osbert Lancaster’s Sailing to Byzantium, Wittkower’s brilliant Architectural Principles in the Age of Humanism and a curious book by Geoffrey Scott: The Architecture of Humanism. Later, as a student, I found this book hard to approach, but after a spell in practice I was ready for the task and quickly dispatched it.
Scott was a London-born scholar and poet who joined the art historian Bernard Berenson’s Florence circle as his librarian and secretary in 1907, and also knew Edith Wharton and Vita Sackville-West. Published in 1914, The Architecture of Humanism defended Renaissance architecture, savaged by Ruskin, citing qualities seen as humanistic, since they involved parallels with the human body like the spring of an arch, an empathetic interpretation also advanced by Berenson.
Scott’s apologia of Renaissance architecture, which he argued had ended with Nash, involved a gentlemanly assault on four ‘fallacies’ in 19th-century architectural criticism. As Mitrovic observes, many of these targets were destined to become fundamental Modernist dogma. Scott’s first, ‘The Romantic Fallacy’, is, for me, the book’s central message. He argues that, from an architectural perpective, the problem with Romanticism was its preoccupation with subjects that are historically or geographically remote or ‘natural’. He thought these preoccupations militated against Renaissance architecture’s universalising foundations and its pursuit of a man-made world, free of nature’s unpredictability and malevolence. But what made me sit up and listen was Scott’s contention that Romanticism pre-empts design by focusing not on form itself, but on the extraneous meanings and concepts it symbolises.
Taking its cue from Berenson and Pater, Scott’s attack on ‘The Mechanical Fallacy’, which sees materials and technology as the drivers of architecture, anticipates Scott-Brown’s phrase ‘physics envy’. His criticism of ‘The Ethical Fallacy’ defends ornament and the way Renaissance architects concealed masonry joints behind paintwork with false joints and strengthened domes with visible tie-rods. Architects drawing inspiration from truth to materials will correctly argue that Scott had to set up these fallacies to defend Renaissance architecture. Likewise with ‘The Biological Fallacy’, which involves the belief that architecture, like nature, follows patterns of evolution; those intent on keeping up to speed may find concerns with teleology academic.
Scott’s focus on empathy, rather than details of proportioning systems or the orders is consistent with his marginalisation of the cerebral. For Scott, the essence of Renaissance architecture is its diversity and emphasis on the macrocosm. ‘Architecture’, he says, ‘is a combination, revealed through light and shade, of spaces, of masses, and of lines.’
Scott’s references to race and taste have dated and Banham considered The Architecture of Humanism ‘outside the mainstream of architectural thought’: interesting, since Banham eschewed the mainstream and highlighted Renaissance architecture’s self-contained aesthetic realm in his final essay, A Black Box (1990). Denys Lasdun, a self-confessed formalist with little time for anything academic or hidebound, read Scott’s book avidly. As for me, there are days when the view from the top of a double-decker bus is just a sequence of period styles and others when every facet of every building vividly stands out, and that is the point of Scott’s book.
Rory Olcayto is away