Tradition and the Arts

by The Editor

Graham Cunningham reviews the parlous state of contemporary art for the Traditional Britain Group.


Have you ever had those dark thoughts about what you would like to do to the idiot cognoscenti that have elevated a fad fashion brand like Damien Hirst to the status of artistic genius? I bet you have. That rag tag of pretentious collectors, useful-idiot journalists and incontinent money baggers; plus, sadly, those easily biddable types who will trot along to any old Tate Modern knickknack gallery theme park as long as it is billed as a tourist attraction.

One thing that has always struck me as particularly absurd about the avant-garde art world – all the way from the early 20th century ‘modernists’ to the current crop of ‘conceptual artists’ – is how, for all their no-holds-barred iconoclasm, they still take it for granted that there will always be a thing called an art gallery and an exhibition for them to play their self-consciously revolutionary games in. Why cling to this particular comfort blanket?  If there is to be a root and branch re-imagining of the meaning of creativity, why not ditch the art galleries? Why not ditch the very concept of “art” for that matter?

End of rant...for now anyway...because to my mind, there is a mercifully effective antidote to all this nonsense; you don’t have to go there if you choose not to. Unless you inhabit the world of the metrosexual academy and of media luvvydom, you can simply pay no mind to all those grossly overrated darlings of what has been called ‘sham art’ – from Picasso to Hirst and beyond. And should you chance to stumble accidentally on some nauseating BBC celebration of one of them or some slavering journalist hagiography, you can simply switch off or turn the page. And of course it is the overrating that is the real problem here; no reasonable person in a liberal society would have any major problem with Picasso’s way of painting nor with whatever it is that Damien Hirst gets up to, were it not for the insidious Academy mission to break down our philistine prejudices and enthrone these characters at the heart of our cultural history. The real genius of today’s ‘conceptual’ artists, their ‘cubist’ et al forebears and – as we shall see later in this essay – the architects of the ‘Modern Movement’ has been their instinct for self promotion; all of them, albeit through the agency of their academia and media acolytes, have, in their heyday, so completely rigged the artistic terms of reference that any criticism of them, however intellectually compelling, is rendered axiomatically philistine, small-minded and out of touch.

Happily for us though, in the big scheme of things, these mind bending missions ultimately fail. For all the relentless hype, ‘contemporary art’ is of far less significance to the great majority of people today than the looked-down-on commercial art of advertising and graphic design. This is deservedly so in my view, for this is probably where most of the natural talent now ends up. Contrast this with the most celebrated works of 20th century popular music which – love them or hate them – are the fruits of a vibrant culture that has become embedded in the consciousness of most of us. [The perhaps puzzling differences between the various art forms in terms of their impact on society at large would make a very interesting study: why, for example, poetry is now an esoteric and moribund backwater whereas the novel continues to be – at its best - as vibrant as ever. I am guessing – albeit on the basis of a brief internet search – that this subject is largely unexplored territory.]

And then there is architecture... which is the main theme of this essay. You can escape bad art, bad literature and even bad music but you cannot escape bad architecture. You may even, if you are unlucky enough, have to live in it.

Sometimes, when the sky has been grey for seeming weeks on end or when friends wax lyrical of their friends who have emigrated someplace where the sky is bluer and the spread of the political correctness virus supposedly less advanced - it is then that I am reminded just how much I love what remains of the traditional fabric of England. [I focus, in this essay, on England; Scotland, Ireland and Wales have their own traditions which, though similar in many ways, are quite different in others and would need a different essay.]

Even more than its green and pleasant hills and valleys, I love England’s built environment; its medaeval-to-1930s knitted tapestry of building types that still abounds in villages, market towns, provincial town centres and their better suburbs - and of course London – in spite of the ravages of mid 20th century architectural vandalism. This is neither merely narrow parochialism nor saccharine nostalgia; I can find architectural delight in many places on earth – from the picturesque Italian Renaissance hill town; to downtown Manhattan which can take your breath away; to the more beautifully engineered of the new Crossrail stations. Nevertheless there are some qualities to the English architectural tradition that are quite special, if not unique.

One example is the particularly strong tradition of landscaping; from the former great country estates, to the Victorian parks, to the Garden City Movement, to the humble domestic garden. And it has become a commonplace observation that much of England’s green and pleasant rural landscape is that delightful illusion – a substantially man-made creation that has aged so well that it seems to have simply grown like that.

A second example is the English suburb – perhaps quintessentially the Edwardian suburb. When middle class English people rave on, as they regularly do, about the unparalleled beauty that is Paris, I always wonder if they realise that, as you ripple out from its centre to the surrounding conurbation, you will find there, far more ugliness and less delight than in the case of the equivalently sized London conurbation. And Paris is, in this respect, more typical of the world’s great cities whereas London is the exception. It is pleasing to note that, in recent times, we seem to have rediscovered a pride in our capital city after decades of down-selling it to the rest of the world as just a Plain Jane grey town.

Thus far, I have referred to English architecture up to the 1930s. Then came the Second World War. And then came the Blitz; the three decade long blitz as the bombs of ‘modernism’, social engineering and town planning rained down on our poor war-weary land.

The only saving grace about this period in our architectural history - devastating and in some ways irreparable as it undoubtedly was – is that Britain did eventually recover from the madness that was the ‘Modern Movement’ in general and Le Corbusier worship in particular - he of the tabula rasa concept of urban renewal in which everywhere ‘must’ be ‘totally rebuilt’ using only concrete. The - from our perspective - mind-boggling power and reach of the totalitarian intellectual mindset in the first half of the 20th century is hard to overstate The literature - in the field of architecture alone - is as vast as it is dispiriting; the pompous, vacuous theorising, the ‘we must totally and utterly’ manifestos, the arrogant, ivory tower intellectuals casting themselves as champions of ‘the people’.

Unless you have - as I was at architecture school - been personally force-fed the Le Corbusier mythology, you might well struggle to comprehend just how bizarre is the basis of his fame. The man himself, according to a fairly typical 1988 assessment in the architectural literary canon, “ranks with Darwin, Freud (and) Einstein among major figures who have ever affected the world to which we belong.” His manifesto Vers une Architecture (1923), according to the preface to the 1946 edition, “probably had as great an influence on English architectural thought as any one publication of the last fifty years”.  Now here are a few snippets of the great man’s thinking:
“the plan must rule, the street must disappear” (especially all those Parisian street cafes)
“never undress in your bedroom”
 “we must create a state of mind for living in mass production housing”,
“man must be built upon this perfect agreement with nature and probably, the universe.”

......Come again??

The fallacious nature of all such prescriptive moralising about architecture was laid bare in David Watkin’s seminal work:  Morality And Architecture, first published in 1977; a ground breaking scholarly analysis of its whole history from Pugin, to Le Corbusier and to Pevsner.

Almost everyone now understands that to give architects and town planners licence to decide wholesale what ‘society’s’ ‘needs’ are and then dream up megalomaniac schemes for the wholesale satisfaction of these ‘needs’ is akin to kitting your small child out with a set of power tools and a bag of cement and setting him loose to decide what your pride and joy home needs. Wiser people, of course, never stopped understanding this in the first place but their warnings were, as we know, dismissed and drowned out at the time as ‘reactionary’ and insensitive of the supposed utopian, collectivist, brave new 20th century zeitgeist.
 And it should be cheerfully acknowledged that - in the context of what preceded it - the recent past, has not been such a bad time for the built environment in Britain, all things considered. The aesthetic and build quality of mass spec housing – typically  ‘traditional’ brick clad boxes with pitched roofs laid out along residential roads and cul de sacs - may fall short of one’s ideal but it is probably as good now as in the 1930’s and certainly infinitely better than the 50’s to 80’s. It is important to remember that building, just like art and music, never has been of a uniformly high standard and the search for a ‘final solution’, aesthetically speaking, leads only to the nightmare from which we have only relatively recently emerged.  
I would come to the defence of much of the most recent contemporary public and commercial architecture too, most of it by architects that the public is unlikely to ever hear of but also by the famous like Norman Foster. It is Foster’s verbalisations that irritate me, not his buildings. Sure there are also the misconceived and often perversely misplaced alien ‘carbuncles’ complete with impenetrable pseudo intellectual rationales – such as the Liverpool Ferry Terminal Building (‘angular fun’ we are told) or Drakes Circus in Plymouth.

We may be living in relatively sane times, architecturally speaking, but it is still important to keep in mind the salutary lessons of the not so distant past whilst, at the same time, not unduly dwelling on it. At least it’s over now? Well, yes and no. Certainly the collectivist totalitarianism itself finally crumbled in the 70’s (or at least is in long-term remission!) But two related - and cancerous - aspects of the faux radical mindset have survived in our schools of architecture:
one is the idea that the architect aspiring to greatness must also aspire to novelty.
 the other is the idea that building design has sociological, psychological and macro-economic dimensions which the architect – simply by virtue of his being an architect – is competent to judge.

Almost everyone now understands that the Le Corbusier legacy was entirely malign, even if they have never heard of the man himself. Everyone, that is, except a majority of tutors in our schools of architecture. I had first-hand experience of this at architecture school in the late 1980’s.

The status of ‘Corb’ (as we were encouraged to affectionately call him) as your ultimate architectural hero was, quite simply, a given and dissenting from this position was a seriously bad idea if you wanted to pass the course. I am fairly reliably told that things haven’t changed much since my time. Such is the power of group-think and universities are sadly no less prone to it than anywhere else. To be fair, nobody was still plugging the megalomania aspect of their hero; his knock-down-the-centre-of-Paris side. And all those undeniably God awful tower blocks for ‘rationally’ housing ‘the people’ that sprang up all over Europe in his name? Well, we were assured, they could not be blamed on ‘Corb’; it was just that his more pedestrian architect followers hadn’t properly understood what he had meant. And anyway all must be forgiven on account of him being such an innovative ‘genius’.

Le Corbusier’s muddle-headed ramblings are so easy to dismiss as self-important drivel - like shooting fish in a barrel. So the question is: how does a man of such limited intellect and control freak personality characteristics as Le Corbusier continue to be such a hero of the architectural academy? The answer, I believe, lies in the nature of the architectural profession and is also the reason why the disastrous architectural group-think of the mid 20th century is a latent problem that could conceivably re-emerge one day, albeit in some modified form.

What really matters to your average architecture student is drawing. They love drawing; it is what drew them to the profession and many are indeed very talented at it. Le Corbusier himself was arguably very talented at it. But they are not sociologists, not psychologists and not economists and never will be because, for the most part, they are not sufficiently or deeply interested in these disciplines. Which is fine and just as it should be until that is, the idea is implanted in them that they have some kind of social mission to fulfil.

Actually there is an ancient and eloquent definition of an architect’s mission: Vitruvius’s famous aphorism - Firmness, Commodity and Delight - still stands, in my view as a sufficient theoretical basis for any architectural project. But on my course, a required part of a student’s design presentation had to include a rationale – often post hoc and invariably half-baked - of how the form, massing and materials of the design were expressive of such imponderables as the psychological ‘needs’ and ‘aspirations’ of the users and the wider ‘community’ which the building was to serve. I wish I could recall some of these comically glib and shallow rationales, for they were in abundance but, of course, the memory has a natural tendency to consign trash to its trash can. But the students were simply reciting a bogus language of the modern architectural academy in which buildings might be ‘fun’, ‘thought provoking’, ‘democratic’, ‘inclusive’ and so on.

To be fair again, awareness of architectural tradition was, by the late 1980’s, once again recognised as an important aspect of an architectural education – at least in theory. Of course, by then had come a visceral reaction in society against crass modernity – especially tower- block-utopia – and conservation and nostalgia were fast becoming the new vogue. But, in architecture school speak, respect for tradition does not mean quite what you might imagine; it might mean, for example, that you still propose to insert some manifestly alien infill development into the gap in a row of period terraced houses - perhaps even the proverbial upended shark, at least metaphorically if not literally. But crucially now, instead of bragging of your iconoclasm, you would go to verbose lengths to demonstrate that you were merely respectfully ‘reinterpreting’ the traditional forms. Architects now ‘must’ reinterpret tradition, with must being the operative word. I have known of architects who feel compelled to stick supposedly ‘contemporary’ bits onto what are, in all other respects, traditional pitched-roof, brick-walled dwellings, for no better reason than their belief that this somehow lifts them above the level of mere speculative housing and into the more rarefied realm of ‘contemporary architecture’. There is of course nothing wrong with innovation per se; it is the knee jerk compulsion to innovate, or ‘reinterpret’ - as a kind of moral imperative, that is the malign 20th century aesthetic legacy.

Perhaps the greatest of the ‘modernist’ fallacies was their lumping together of all building types into a single mould. Many people, including myself, are quite happy to be dazzled by steel and glass in their airport or railway station but not in their own home nor in their residential neighbourhood. A person’s relationship to their home is a unique and complex psychology, well beyond the grasp of crass architectural theorising. If an individual desires to inhabit a dramatic spaceship of steel and glass, that is fine – providing that is, that they don’t insist on plonking it on your cherished avenue of period Edwardian villas. I am fond of the print on my wall of Frank Lloyd Wright’s rendering of Falling Water and though I have not seen it in the flesh, can imagine it being someone’s dream home. For the great majority of the British, however, that is emphatically not what they aspire to; their dream of domestic bliss is located in some-or-other variant of an archetypal pitched roofed dwelling house – and it is this that deserves to be ‘respected’. To insist that the aesthetics of dwelling ‘must’ be ‘modernised’ to suit some perceived advancing zeitgeist is almost as absurd as proposing that fairytales or life’s simple pleasures ‘must’ be modernised; that maybe even sexual desire be modernised. Come to think of it though, I do believe there are some in our society today who may indeed be advocating something along those lines!

Graham Cunningham May 2014   



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