The Conservative Idea of Architecture: Conservation and Restoration
by David Hamilton (December 2011)
Progressives assume that I am opposed to change. I am not: I suggest change should grow out of what has developed through time not spring out of the blue, as it were, like incongruous eruptions ruining the ambience of whole areas. “You can not turn the clock back”, they moralise. What have clocks got to do with it? That harks back a couple of centuries to when God was seen as the watchmaker who had wound a clockwork universe up and left it to run.
Progressives still see the world as a machine. Le Corbusier thought of building houses as building machines for people to live in. His Villa Savoye is exemplary of his goal to create a house which would be a "machine a habiter," a machine for living (in). Houses that have grown out of tradition have a quality called “homeliness that is in softer interior angles and allows people to enjoy living in them by gathering in some rooms but having rooms to attend to personal business separate. Villa Savoye illustrates Le Couturier’s "five points" of new architecture and is a foundation of modern architecture, and the International style that came to dominate.
Even functional buildings can be awe-inspiring like the Houses of Parliament which was built for debating issues of state; but its design raised above mere function and conveys the solemnity and respect for the business of state. It is more than a square lump of concrete. (1)
There is an affective view of society as an organic arrangement that derives from Aristotle, the first Conservative. In Politics he spoke of the city as a natural community. It is an organic whole rather than a machine and the whole is harmed by destroying parts. In the architectural and town planning context, demolishing fine and beautiful buildings and replacing them with cold and ugly buildings, undermines the quality and identity of the whole town or city. Aristotle described men and women as political animals but, more accurately, they are communal beings and need to belong to a family and community. Contemporary architecture both commercial and domestic is helping break the bonds which create living communities.
Lock’s atomising view of society as an aggregation of independent, autonomous individuals has caused much self-deception because we are not abstract individuals but flesh and blood men and women who need traditional and historic communities; our culture once shaped by religion is now shaped by a Global ideology of Corporatism driven by oligarchs.
People like to describe themselves as individuals because it flatters their egos but in practice they need others: friends, to talk to and to share with, a family to return to when hurt or distressed and a a partner when they leave childhood behind and want children of their own. This is a natural stage in life as they want an external sign of their togetherness and they grow naturally into that state. Architecture is a part of that affective side of life. It is not a distant artistic activity like knocking up a couple of watercolours, it is central to our lives. These are emotional, affective experiences not products of reason.
Within the organism new buildings should be in keeping with the character of the places they are added to; the character, traditions and identity should be honoured and new buildings developed from that. This is applying practical thinking, instead of abstract thinking.
It is part of an understanding of the universe which values the numinous things over the cold and soulless.
The contemporary ethos is secular and nihilistic and people believe in nothing but themselves and self-gratification. We need a belief in service and self–sacrifice, belief in belonging to a greater whole; but what we have is self-fulfilment in things. Into this emptiness pours the gratifications of the selfish and to the powerful their own aggrandisement. This is secular nihilism. Those in authority feel they owe nothing to the past but contempt; the opinion formers and populariser's in the colleges and the media inculcate that negativity into the population. Contemporary architecture is part of that.
The incongruous developments all round St. Paul’s Cathedral undermine the whole and the local authorities knew this when they granted planning permission so we must assume they wanted to degrade St. Paul, a national symbol. If the authorities thought they could get away with it they would knock St. Paul's down for a shopping mall; but it brings in a lot of revenue from tourism.
Our towns and cities are being changed into something completely different without the consent of the people. Cityscapes are ceasing to belong to local people and being turned into futuristic muddles, disjointed from history and traditions with the character changed. This is imposed, but should be democratically voted for.
Restoration House in Rochester is two medieval buildings joined in the late16 or early 17c and is an example of a city mansion. King Charles I sojourned there on the eve of The Restoration, whence its name. It is Miss Haversham’s home, Satis House, in Great Expectations. It was left empty when the owner went bankrupt. The council were going to knock it down for a car park but thankfully a banker rescued it. During a development for apartments next door a Tudor wall was discovered. Immediately the developer demolished about 10m before they could be stopped by English Heritage who listed it as a Grade 2 construction. The developer had not undertaken an archaeological survey which was a condition of the planning consent. This saga is still going on.
Rochester High Street, has wide pavements and old-style lamp posts. It is unique for the absence of the usual High Street retailers. The shops are small and not attractive to national retailers so it has a large number of traditional shops and many are family-owned and offer a personalised service to customers. Rochester High Street is an educational contrast to the mess made of both Chatham and Gillingham High Streets. Gillingham does have a conservation area in Brampton with some fine Georgian houses in Mansion Row; but the changes to Gillingham since the 1970's are depressing.
The old Theatre Royal in Chatham High Street was smothered in polythene and scaffolding for a long time but once the bulldozers had finished it had gone.
Nearly opposite the Old Theatre Royal is a repellent nine-floor Tax Office. This overlooks the river and blights the view. Another monstrosity is the Pentagon shopping centre which holds within its confines, Mountbatten House: another ugly multi-storey building. This hideous thing blocks the view of the river from the top of Chatham Hill. There was a rumour that the same type of bricks used to build Mountbatten House were to be found in the extensions erected on houses owned by councillors. It was empty for a long time after it was built and one wonders why it it was given planning permission.
The centre of Chatham has been carved up by a one way system and many shops are empty as they cannot compete with the out of town shopping centres.
The numinous is a feeling of, or a need for, the sacred, the holy, and the transcendent. This need is the basis of a the yearning for beauty, awe, grandeur in public buildings; in housing schemes it manifests as a need for community, neighbourhood and its concomitant, mutual support. It is in this numinous aspect of life that people seek community and through this identity, a sense of belonging, a connection with their origins and thus happiness. In practice these ideals fall short but they are worth striving for, and give life meaning in what is being made into an empty world.
In Tewkesbury there is a row of restored timber framed buildings on Church Street which were built in 1480. These house a museum named after local writer and early conservationist John Moore, and an open house that people can walk around and get the feel of how a Tudor family lived. The rest, though, are private dwellings and thus a living tradition. This is continuity in practice.
Our cathedrals provide a strong sense of continuity: a thread through history which locates us in space and time. It is well to keep an image of the beauty of cathedrals in mind when viewing Global skyscrapers. The character and identity is in the whole but the parts convey the same. Take the cloisters of Gloucester cathedral where great beauty is created by the beautiful fan vaulting that was developed in the 1300s by the masons. These were completed no later than 1412 and their beauty still transcends and mystifies us. We stand fascinated before it. It provides a spiritual experience in itself. The numinous quality is in the decoration and ornamentation, which was done in the service of something higher, something sacred and transcendent – God.
A commenter remarked that under my ideas the Eiffel Tower would not have been allowed. That maybe so--you can not allow for every possible occurrence, but, there would not be this widespread ruining of the characters, histories and identities of towns and cities throughout the world; the deculturation caused by standardised international buildings. (2)
For a conservative, conservation includes not only the natural environment but also the social community which needs traditional culture as a spine to hold it together. Conservatism is not a body of theory but a disposition to maintain the culture and community of one's society. It is a temperament with an an appreciation of the numinous things in life from religion to meaningful buildings.
Roger Scruton dismissed the organic as a metaphor but language originates in metaphor as we try to describe the world around us and because objects have no intrinsic names. To say the world is a machine is also a metaphor. There is a discernible Traditional Conservative approach to town planning and architecture that we are developing.
American conservatives tend to be more abstract than their British counterparts because their origins were in the dawn of the Liberal era. Brett Stevens of Amerika.org has original views on architecture and conservation which is an American variant but part of the same general movement. (3)
Tradition develops with additions but these should be within pre-existing parameters and should be harmonious and balanced. Contemporary schemes demolish whole areas and break the tradition by not fitting into their surroundings and make whole areas disjointed muddles. This adds to the deculturation of local people who cease to feel they belong. This not the “shock of the new.” This is the dissociation of communities by incongruous building.
When architecture grows from tradition, local people, especially the young, are better adjusted and happier. Conversely, there is a syndrome of social, cultural, political and environmental pressures that are dissociating people from their communal identity, severing them from traditional civilizing structures that their ancestors could take for granted and leaving them feeling out of place and angry towards their social environments.
Those who react to the alienness of contemporary buildings often resort to discussing architecture in aesthetics terms, but it is more than that; it embodies our history and represents where our forebears were born and raised which links local people to their roots; contemporary planning and architecture atomises communities. Our town and city centres are being changed from the welcoming places of historic buildings, into cold, unwelcoming areas. Historic buildings draw one into the culture and community but contemporary buildings repel and push people out dissociating them from the community.
Initially, the modern person was optimistic and had a sense of release from prejudices but this has left people bereft and with a sense of loss. They respond by forming artificial communities like gangs and prey on other people. Modern rationalism and architecture are part of what had liberated people from closed societies but the eradication of old restraints through a vision of a society where the parochialisms and animosities of a world founded upon kinship, village, and church would be abolished, brought loss of culture and community which caused feelings of depression and futility.
History is expressed in traditional architecture: Ghent town hall is on the site where the town's representatives and guild's men met in separate houses until they needed more room for their business when a large town hall was built in 1484. This in turn was considered too small and from 1518 until 1535 a new and much bigger town hall was constructed in late-gothic style. (4)
In 1540 Ghent refused to pay taxes to Charles V for his war with France so he subjected the town to reprisals. One third of the town hall had been erected and it was only from 1572 that they could resume building the town hall. The architectural style had changed by then and several renaissance-style parts were added until the beginning of the 18th century. In 1750 a construction in Louis XV-style was added as the seat of the 'chamber of the poor', then in the early 19th century the staircases in front of the hall were altered for a visit by Napoleon. The building embodies significant events in the town's history.
Throughout the 19th century several renovations were carried out. The original furniture of the various rooms is either still there or is held at the Bijloke museum of Ghent.
I recall an occasion when a Swedish man asked me for directions to Shrewsbury Station. He had been too much with “Bacchus and his pards” but unable to be “charioted” by them wanted to catch a train back to Leeds. I had difficult time convincing him that Shrewsbury station was a railway station - he was convinced that it was a cathedral.
The station is copybook example of appropriate building. It was opened in October 1848 for the first railway from Shrewsbury to Chester. And the architect was Thomas Penson of Oswestry. The building is unusual, in that the station was extended between 1899 and 1903 by the construction of a new floor underneath the original station building, rather than on top.
The style was imitation Tudor, and had carvings of Tudor style heads around the window frames to match the Tudor building of Shrewsbury School which is now used for Shrewsbury Library on the other side of the road. They took care that it fitted in and did not ruin the ambiance of the area as contemporary buildings do. The main building of the station is a Grade II listed building.
A view I have proposed is the rebuilding of certain awe-inspiring and important traditional buildings that have been wantonly demolished. One example is the once grand Euston railway station in London. The proposed new station is appalling and even more grotesque than the last one whereas the original was redolent of grandeur and respect for the tradition and culture it was being added to. It should be restored to what it was. (5)
A short stroll along Euston Road brings us to St. Pancras station which nearly got demolished in 1960s but, luckily, escaped and was renovated in the 2000s at a cost of £800 million. It is adjacent to Kings Cross station and near to the stunningly decorated St. Pancras Renaissance Hotel. These restorations show how respect and pride in the community can be revived. (6)
Berlin Castle is being restored. It has a beautiful baroque-style façade which incorporates the Schlüterhof and the "Kings Lodgings" in the Renaissance-part of the building at the Spree-site. This is the modern age so this is to be converted into a first class hotel with finance from the private sector but it is being recreated not completely lost.
The palace is intended to be the main tourist attraction in Berlin. Dresden Church has been rebuilt as have other historic parts of the city.
Progressives argue that the building of St. Paul’s Cathedral departed from the usual style of churches at the time and caused an uproar. That misses the point which is that was one building by a highly respected architect but the contemporary situation is the character of whole areas being changed by international oligarchs with unelected town planners and local councillors who are elected by a minority of eligible voters changing our urbiscapes into something else. That is not a strange new building but the transformation of London into something different and by imposition not democratic means.
Some European countries have preserved whole medieval towns. Sighisoara is a deeply impressive fortified town in Transylvania, Romania. The town with medieval houses is very important for European culture and history. (7) The defence system was built by medieval guilds consisted of a wall of 930 meters in length, fourteen defence towers and five artillery bastions. Nine towers, two bastions and a part of the precinct wall have been conserved. The Clock Tower became the symbol of the town.
The Council held their meetings there and the local archives and treasury were housed there. The Venetian House, named after the stone window frames built in imitation of Venetian Gothic, are from the 10th century. The Vlad Dracul House, the former Paulini house, seems to be the most ancient civil stone construction of the city. The House With Stag called after stag head fixed to the corner of the building, is a construction specific to the Transylvanian Renaissance and dates from around the 17th century.
This town links Romanians with their origins and affirms their identity. It makes them feel more Romanian. The experience of looking at the Shard, in London, is excitement but that is temporary and on the surface; the experience of looking at say say, Manchester Town Hall, is much deeper. It can range from pleasure or delight to awe and even deeper contemplations of our whole identity and place in our history.
Tallinn in Estonia has a new part and old town which has winding cobblestone lanes, iron street lamps, Gothic spires and medieval markets. It was built between the 13th and 16th centuries when it was a busy member of the Hanseatic trade league. It has colourful, gabled houses, half-hidden courtyards and grand churches. This is within a mainly intact city wall and peppered with guard towers. It links local people to their roots and consolidates their identity. (8)
Freedom Square (Vabaduse väljak) is living continuity of their history. It is from the final days of the Tsars and through Estonia's first period of independence in the Old Town it was a national symbol. It is a focus of civic pride and a popular public meeting place.
Dubrovnik on the Dalmatian coast has had tragedy: although it was badly damaged by an earthquake in 1667, its Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque churches, monasteries, palaces and fountains, have survived; it was damaged again in the 1990s in the war with Croatia and Serbia but is now being restored under the auspices of UNESCO.
Other European master-works and old towns were rebuilt as they had been before they were destroyed such as The Cloth House in Brussels and the old town in Warsaw. We need to begin this process here not to correct war damage but to repair the ruination wreaked by local councils. (9)
Birmingham has never recovered from Manzoni's depredations in the late 50s and I don't think it can without restoring some of the historic buildings that were demolished in the late 50s and early 60s. The old library with its round reading room and The Woodman pub to name but two.
A walk round Gloucester is a mixed blessing: some outstanding buildings of historic import are undermined by having repellent square blocks of concrete that pass for shops interspersed between them. I'm sure demolishing the hideous ones to restore the historic buildings would in turn restore the character and ambience of the city as a whole.
Newcastle seems chopped up. There is little harmony and balance left. This great city like Birmingham had people imprisoned for corruption in rebuilding their cities with buildings that have none of the qualities of grace, charm, grandeur of those they destroyed. A priority in Newcastle should be to rebuild Eldon Square that was demolished for a run-of-the-mill shopping centre.
World-famous historic cities like York and Cambridge have modern shops. Cambridge built the large Grafton Centre outside the city so the two can co-exist; Bristol has Cabot Circus.
In Europe grand and magnificent buildings are part of the identity and history but are also beneficial to the economy because they are also great tourist attractions. The primary motive is economic but the recreated buildings have a beneficial effect because it strengthens local community and identity. The local authorities in Coventry have realised that destroying this once beautiful medieval city for the temporary attraction of shopping malls was a mistake. Well, time to start rebuilding them. They did move several old buildings into one area called Spon Street but they need to restore many of the better ones to the rest of the city to give it some balance.
It would improve the city to demolish most of the concrete shops and offices they have. I had a meeting with the Conservation Officer of Coventry City Council three years ago but he dismissed my idea of rebuilding the many traditional buildings they destroyed -- he might think differently about it now.
Our Culture, What's Left of It: the Mandarins and the Masses Theodore Dalrymple, 2005
The Quest for Community Robert A. Nisbit, 1953
Rationalism in Politics Michael Oakeshott, 1948
If you enjoyed this article and would like to read more by David Hamilton, please click here.