by Theodore Dalrymple (March 2013)
When I was a small boy adults used to say to me, ‘If you ask a silly question you’ll get a silly answer.’ This irritated my nascent sense of logic: for if I genuinely did not know the answer to my question, how could I possibly be expected to know that it was silly? And could anything be silly in the absence of knowledge that it was? This was my childish equivalent of Socrates’ or Plato’s doctrine that no one does wrong willingly: a doctrine that does not accord with my clinical experience as a doctor, let alone with my experience of life. But at the time, the accusation of silliness seemed to me worse than merely wrong: it was unjust. I did not appreciate at that age that there could be such a thing as a responsibility to know, even if one did not.
One of silliest questions I have ever heard, and heard often, is why some or many countries are poor. This is to get everything exactly the wrong way round, as if Man were born rich and had somehow to achieve poverty. Of course, it is possible for those who were formerly rich to become poor, for example by improvidence or the spoliation of others; but immemorial poverty requires no explanation. It is wealth that needs explaining, mankind not having been born in marble halls with a silver spoon in its mouth.
I once bought a slender volume entitled Why Bad Dogs? This set out to explain why some dogs barked incessantly, bit the postman, wouldn’t walk to heel and so forth. I am such a dog-lover that I find it difficult to put myself in the place of those who dislike dogs, but still I wondered whether the question asked by the title was the correct one. Dog-lover as I am, I am not the Rousseau of dogs; I do not think that canine nature, untouched by association with humans, is good; and if I were writing the Social Contract for Dogs, I should not begin ‘Dogs are born good, but everywhere they bark.’
Clearly it is important to frame one’s questions correctly if one wants a real answer: often one does not, for the interrogative is not always used simply to obtain information but also to confound and irritate, as every child knows. The other day I came across a book published in 1937 by A R Powys, one of the Powys family that produced so many writers, mostly unread today, though some were well-known in their day and John Cowper Powys still has his devotees. His brother, A R Powys (1882 – 1936), was an architect and preserver of ancient buildings who also wrote essays on architecture, and one of them in the book that I came across, From the Ground Up, was titled Origins of Bad Architecture. This is a question that has long troubled me, so much so that my wife says I have become something of a bore on it. Whenever I see an eyesore in otherwise beautiful surroundings, which is often, I remark upon it, whereupon my wife, who agrees that the twentieth century was an urban aesthetic disaster, tells me I should clam down (eyesores make me angry) because what is done is done, and working myself up about it will do the landscape no good and will do me harm.
But is the origin of bad architecture the right question to ask, as if it were in the nature of architecture to be good unless some disturbing factor intervened? First, however, I cannot forebear from remarking on the frontispiece of the book, a photo of the author. He is a most distinguished-looking man, of a kind that one does not, or at any rate that I do not, see today. If the face is the window of the soul, then this man was aesthetically fastidious, sensitive, inquiring, honest, upright and truthful, a man whom one would feel it peculiarly disgraceful to deceive in even the smallest matters. One cannot imagine him for a moment writing what he did not believe to be true (and therefore he was not a true modern intellectual) or telling a lie. That he was a man of exceptional probity is confirmed in the introduction to the volume written by his most famous brother, John Cowper Powys, admittedly not an entirely unbiased source:
Nothing in his life was at random. Nothing was wanton or wilful. In dress, in ablution, in food, in drink, in the minutest arrangements of his time, of the objects around him, of his rooms, of his garden, of his household utensils, in lighting a fire, in opening a bottle, in whittling a stick, in driving a nail, in hanging a picture, in washing a dish, in chopping a log, in cutting a loaf, he would always follow a carefully considered method of his own, for which when challenged… he would bring forth a most confounding and irrefutable weight of elaborate justification.
Such integrity in everything that he did is perhaps slightly intimidating to us lesser mortals who have it not, but it nevertheless has the enormous merit of not taking anything in life for granted, in paying close attention to every small thing, of finding purpose everywhere, and therefore of avoiding the blight of modern life, namely meaninglessness and boredom. These are much underestimated factors in the promotion of social pathology in our societies, and explain the restless, constant and self-defeating search for entertainment or distraction, or that for all-encompassing ideologies or self-absorbing causes among people of rather more intellectual disposition. The integrity of A R Powys, I say, is inscribed on his face, though here I must add a small caveat: physiognomy is not an exact science, though we all practise it, and when I first saw a picture of Mr Madoff, him of the century and a half prison sentence, I confess that I saw in him just the kind of calm, thoughtful and honest man to whom I should have liked to entrust my money, such as it is.
The integrity of A R Powys notwithstanding, is the question he asks, that of what makes for bad architecture, the right one? Should we not rather be asking, ‘What is good architecture?’ and then, when we have decided this question, examine in what ways bad architecture habitually departs from the answer we have given?
This Powys specifically denies. Indeed, it is his position that theorising about the principles of good architecture, especially when it is believed that they have been found, is one of the sources of bad architecture. I am not sure he is absolutely right in this: Palladio, Vitruvius and Alberti all theorised about architecture, not without a certain practical success. But they were a long time ago, and the theorists of his time were a lot less trustworthy: they had a deeply destructive impulse or instinct, perhaps strengthened by or even originating in the catastrophe that was the First World War. If that – the war – is what our civilisation wrought, it is time for something completely new and different.
The problem of bad architecture is more acute in Europe than anywhere else in the world, in large part because Europe has such an immemorial tradition of great and, more to the point, good vernacular architecture. The aesthetically bad is much more painful to behold in proximity to the good than it is when everything around it is bad. Then it is like a wound to the eye. That is why, if anyone wants to study bad architecture, he should go to Paris.
A strange choice, you say! Is not Paris the City of Light? Is it not the most beautiful city in the world, with the possible exception of Venice? Quite so: that is why it is so essential to study what has been built there in the second half of the twentieth century, for there is no modern architecture in the world worse than French. Go to the Tour Montparnasse, thou architect, consider its ways and be wise (or to the Centre Pompidou or Musée du Quai Branly, for that matter).
It is true, perhaps, that modern architecture in France has passed its nadir (one certainly hopes so, for no nadir was, if I may be allowed a neologism, nadirer than the French), but even now it cannot rise above a glassy, saurian, impersonal elegance indistinguishable from the same kind of building in Manila or Santiago, and towards which it is, and will always be, impossible to feel any individual affection or warmth. This architecture is for the cold-blooded, for ‘communication’ rather than for speech.
I have asked architects and architectural historians why it is that we in Europe are incapable of building a single charming house, let alone an entire urban environment that is other than a visual nightmare. The answers they have given are various (none has dared deny the premise of the question).
They say that we cannot use the methods, materials or designs of the past. This seems to me inexact. I can quite see that, for economic and social reasons, it is impossible to use the methods and perhaps the materials of the past. A bricklayer or stonemason now commands too high a wage for his manual labour to make it possible for houses or other buildings to be built on any scale in the old fashion. The bricklayer or mason himself expects to live at a standard of living not so very different from that of the person for whom he is building.
But design, at least in Europe, is another question altogether. There is actually no reason at all why old designs cannot be reproduced, albeit with mass-produced materials. Indeed, in London recently a housing authority did precisely this; it copied precisely the elegant early Victorian buildings (still of Regency inspiration) of three sides of a residential square in restoring the fourth side. It did not use Victorian methods, but it used Victorian designs, with triumphant result, far, far better than any residential architecture of the recent past.
Why was this expedient never thought of before? Why instead was so much ugliness – and ugliness on a new and inhuman scale – constructed not merely faute de mieux or as a necessary evil in the unfortunate circumstances, but with the proud ideological rodomontade of the entire architectural profession, a rodomontade in which even now it has not ceased to indulge? (No profession likes to face up to its crimes, of course.)
The reason, I suspect, is not merely economic, for even where no expense is spared the result is usually catastrophic. The reason is much deeper.
Modern man’s religion is progress: what comes later must be better than what went before. And there are clearly whole fields of human endeavour in which this is so. No one, I suppose, would wish to be operated upon by surgeons using the methods of 1830. (Even in medicine, however, it is sometimes worth remembering that the very latest is not necessarily the very best, and the supposition that it is has occasionally led to disaster.)
But aesthetics are not science: aesthetics do not show the same inbuilt tendency to improvement. From the aesthetic point of view what comes after is not necessarily better than what went before, and is often worse, even much worse. Particularly in an age of progress, however, men are reluctant to admit that they cannot do better than their forebears; to admit it is to admit the heresy that beauty’s arrow, unlike that of time, does not fly in one direction only. A return to the pattern or design of the past – dismissed as pastiche, the worst of all architectural crimes, far worse than destroying an immemorial townscape – would indicate a deficiency of imagination, inventiveness and originality, all the qualities that make the artist, at least in the romantic conception of the artist. And architects, in their own conception, are above all artists: artists, moreover, when it is widely believed that the purpose of art is to challenge, to question, to transgress, never to celebrate, to harmonise, to console, to give meaning.
How different from the spirit of A R Powys, of whom his brother writes:
The bulk of his life’s work lies where he would have had it lie, in the silent and unapplauding masonry and timber ofthe irreplaceable buildings he saved from ruin…
He draws attention to his ‘self-effacement,’ a characteristic that architects today – like almost everyone else – rejects as treason to the self.
Le Corbusier, writing of the years pre-dating the First World War, said that there was no architecture of the time, that architecture was dead. He used this as a pretext and justification for his own purely destructive and megalomaniac impulses. But what he said was simply not true, as the most casual inspection of Paris will inform anyone with eyes to see.
Recently I stayed in Paris for three weeks, in an apartment block built in 1905, precisely the time of which Le Corbusier wrote so contemptuously. It was in an arrondissement that was once unfashionable but has since gone up in the world, in no small part thanks to apartment blocks such as the one in which I stayed. My block was elegant and obviously owed something to art nouveau; it was not great architecture in the way that the Parthenon or the Taj Mahal are great architecture, but it was highly civilised, pleasing to the eye, functional and helped to create one of the most agreeable urban environments the world has known. Needless to say, it was in keeping with what already existed around it.
The reward of the architect, now otherwise completely forgotten, was his name, carved in small letters, on stone facing, together with that of the builder: the same as on other, equally elegant and agreeable apartment blocks. He understood, as so many architects today do not seem or want to understand, that egotism is a deadly sin in architects, the deadliest in fact, and that A R Powys’ happy mixture of pride and modesty was very necessary. And the pride must be in the work, not the person.
Theodore Dalrymple's latest book is Farewell Fear.
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