Paul Finch muses as to how architecture’s development could have been different had Prince Charles embraced Mies
Given the impending centenary of October 1917, I have been reading with interest Historically Inevitable? Turning Points in the Russian Revolution (Profile Books, 2016). Edited by Tony Brenton, a former British ambassador to Moscow, it comprises a series of historical essays which present counter-factual interpretations of the events that shaped the rest of the 20th century.
Note the question mark in the book’s title. What if the Germans had decided not to send Lenin to Russia in that sealed train, part of its war effort in pursuit of European domination? What if the train had crashed and Lenin failed to arrive?
Historians tend to be sniffy about counter-factual narratives. If it didn’t happen it doesn’t count. On the other hand, if we are to learn anything from history we surely need to make an assessment of what caused what. That may give us an indication about the best course of action. Given current circumstances, that seems rather important.
The lazy assumption that royals are bound to prefer traditional design is undermined by the example of Prince Philip
But if historical inevitability is open to question, what about its design counterpart? Does it make sense to think about inevitability in the context of architectural history? The unelected Michel Barnier’s threat that he is going ‘teach us a lesson’ about what happens to countries that leave the EU is a good example of someone who assumed that ever-expanding permanent membership was inevitable, and that history can never be reversed.
It is fun to imagine what might have happened had Prince Charles had the same architectural preferences as his sainted architect cousin, the Duke of Gloucester. In 1984, the prince makes a speech at Hampton Court in which he praises the high social and economic aspirations of Modernism. He welcomes the Mies tower in the City of London, and in particular the grand new London square which will accompany it.
He goes on the praise the National Gallery on its selection of ABK as architect for its Trafalgar Square extension. He calls for a renewal of high design standards for public sector housing stock, and pledges to help the RIBA over its initiatives on energy conservation, urban regeneration and conservation with a contemporary feel. Not impossible to imagine.
The lazy assumption that royals are bound to prefer the traditional as opposed to contemporary design is undermined by the example of Prince Philip, though he has had the good sense to work quietly in the background rather than shouting the odds during democratic planning processes.
However, there is a sense in which the underlying nature of architecture itself implies forms of inevitability. For one thing, it is pretty much guaranteed that changes in technology will find their way into architectural design. The invention of the lift in the 1880s surely made it inevitable that we would begin to create taller structures. If you can design it you probably will, unless there are compelling reasons not to.
At a more profound level, since architecture is a reflection of the needs and desires of clients, as well as the aesthetic and technical impulses of architects themselves, one can write architectural history as a reflection of the history of everything else.
‘Do men make history or does history make men?’ was the old-fashioned way of asking students to ponder the nature of inevitability. A good response is to reject the binary nature of the question. Post hoc ergo propter hoc has never seemed entirely convincing. Did Lenin make Stalin inevitable? Or Mao? Was Hitler an inevitable consequence of the Treaty of Versailles? I prefer to think not, though there is a strong case to be made that dictators of any political persuasion have a penchant for mass murder.