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The Sir John Soane's Museum, Lincoln's Inn Fields

Antwerp: A Creative City




Sir John Summerson was one of the 20th century's best architectural critics. As a schoolchild I hoped to one day design at least one facade following the classical rules as set out in his The Classical Language of Architecture. I did meet him when writing a dissertation on Robert Adam and was warned twice in advance that 'he isn't an Adam man' and 'he's not all that keen on Adam, he prefers Laugier' which was all the more remarkable because by that time he had been curator of the Sir John Soane's Museum for over 30 years, which institution owned the Adam collection of drawings. Adam had been the most important architect of the second half of the 18th century in Britain whilst Laugier, a Jesuit priest, had built nothing.

Sir John's influence (and Le Corbusier's mention of him in Vers Une Architecture) placed Laugier high in the regard of architectural educators of the time, where he may still be and perhaps rightly, but it still would have been more fun and educative if the exercise had been set (as it had been to previous generations of architects) of designing at least one building in the classical style.

A single Leonardo drawing costs a museum many millions to acquire. If Sir John had directed his unquestioned critical abilities to writing a little more about some of the 8000 Adam drawings in his care, given their rarity outside the collection, the nominal value of the Museum's collection would probably now be many millions more.

In my first job on leaving university I was given the task of making alterations to the structure of the St Pancras station booking hall. An additional opening had to made onto the concourse so I designed an exact replica, with replica doors, to what was in the next bay. On the street side, a large opening had to be filled so I designed a replica of the stone Neo-Gothic windows. Obvious enough but to my astonishment the chief of the design office later called me in to give me a letter of congratulation that had been received from the Victorian Society. Only then did I fully twig that nearly all other alterations to the station had bodged in excrescences and newly cut rectangular openings for modern doors and that the design was going to be expensive. Fortunately, the railway soon recovered the cost, and more, by hiring out the booking hall and nearby platform from time to time as a film set until the later restoration of the whole station associated with the Channnel Tunnel link ended the use of the old booking hall and moved the tracks.

So, for instance, in Howard's End, everyone makes off to Paddington to catch a train whilst in fact it was shot at St Pancras with lots of dry ice to simulate steam as the booking hall was one of the few places with something close to an authentic Victorian station interior.

Le Corbusier was essentially right though - from the birth of modernism through to the beginning of the nineties, when the period of architectural pluralism in which we live started, the "styles" had nothing to do with "Architecture" as defined in his Vers Une Architecture (or Towards a New Architecture as it is universally known in the English speaking world). Anybody genuinely designing anything in a style - Classical, Neo-Gothic etc - was really making an excursion into a stage set. The building technology of the time did not allow you to efficiently design in a "style." To do so was a costly exercise cutting across the spirit of the age.

So which is the page of a manifesto that made the greatest effect on the 20th century? To me it is the following:

It is not expected that everyone will understand it anymore that everyone would understand a score by Bach. That is not essential.

The important thing is that one notices one is dealing with a good critic, a very good one in fact.

As T.S. Eliot wrote:

From time to time, every hundred years or so, it is desirable that some critic shall appear to review the past of our literature, and set the poets and poems in a new order..... Dryden, Johnson and Arnold have each performed the task as well as human fraility will allow.

Eliot avoids saying he is one such but he was.

In architecture, he had a contemporary doing much the same thing, Le Corbusier, a critic of a hundred years.

The Waste Land of 1922 and Vers Une Architecture of 1923 change the world for ever.

It is hard to think of someone who influenced the 20th century as much as Le Corbusier. Hitler and Stalin and Mao, probably, but in a very negative way. Summerson acknowledged that the revolution brought about by modernism was the greatest in the history of architecture.

Both Eliot and Le Corbusier were artists and critics of the first rank. To be so puts them in the frame of immortality alongside the likes of Newton, Mozart, Kant and Shakespeare.

Baudelaire and Coleridge were also of the first rank as both.

Critics of this first rank are rarer than artists of the first rank.

Having some experience of the art of which you are a critic is extremely important to someone seeking to be a first rank critic.

Matthew Arnold was a critic of poetry, like Eliot, of absolutely the first rank but only a second rank poet. Nonetheless, his experience of poetic writing allowed his critical judgement to be almost unfailing.

F.R. Leavis, on the other hand, was an excellent critic of poetry but not of this unfailing judgement. He was not a poet.

Eliot, in trying to find an argument for being able to limit good criticism to good practitioners, and failing, comes to a somewhat different but important conclusion from the one he sought:

And the most important qualification which I have been able to find, which accounts for the peculiar importance of the criticism of practitioners, is that a critic must have a very highly developed sense of fact. This is by no means a trifling or frequent gift.

The conception of the importance of criticism is slipping from public consciousness but its return will be necessary as we move into territory where a new centennial re-ordering of perceptions may be necessary and upon us.

Advertising at least has the merit of usually giving product information. Marketing cannot be said to be as virtuous. It elides one fact into another; it frequently seeks to deceive. A society cannot live on the thought patterns of marketing. The more stressed it becomes the more it needs to seek after truth for a solution. For that it needs a sense of fact.

Arnold had a not dissimilar and characteristically high-minded take on it:

There are famous men of genius in literature, the Homers, Dantes, Shakespeares: of them we need not speak; their praise is for ever and ever. Then there are the famous men of ability in literature: their praise is in their own generation. And what makes the difference? The work of the two orders of men is at bottom the same - a criticism of life. The end and aim of all literature if one considers it attentively, is, in truth, nothing but that. But the criticism which the men of genius pass on human life is permanently acceptable to mankind; the criticism which men of ability pass on life is transitorily acceptable.

This criticism of life does not have to be confined to art. A strength to Keynes' writing was that it was a criticism of life, if somewhat imperfect, as all economic theories and musings are.

As economic theories being followed at present increasingly fail to ring true and economics slips behind art in being a seeker and finder of truth this brings us in a roundabout way back to Le Corbusier.

He deploys four arts in Towards A New Architecture - literature, drawing, architecture and photography. He appeals to the emotions. This is a manifesto that analyses what is wrong, bins the past, sets out the future and makes it happen.

No other manifesto does it quite as well. Marx, another manifesto writer, fails on quality in comparison to Le Corbusier on all four counts. In the 21st century class is no longer the dividing line; who owns systems and who does not is.

Astonishingly, thousands of architects, by inclination usually individualistic, have designed precisely to the aesthetic set out by Le Corbusier of their own accord.

As Eliot wrote:

Comparison and analysis.......are the chief tools of the critic.

Le Corbusier used them devastatingly.

When, at the Schools, they draw axes in the shape of a star, they imagine that the spectator arriving in front of a building is aware of it alone, and that his eye must infallibly follow and remain exclusively fixed on the centre of gravity determined by these axes. The human eye, in its investigations, is always on the move and the beholder himself is always turning right and left, and shifting about. He is interested in everything and is attracted towards the centre of gravity of the whole site. At once the problem spreads to the surroundings. The houses near by, the distant neighbouring mountains, the horizon low and high, make formidable masses which exercise the force of their cubic volume. This cubic volume, as it appears and as it really is, is instantly gauged and anticipated by the intelligence. The sensation of cubic volume is immediate and fundamental; your building may cube 100,000 cubic yards, but what lies around it may cube millions of cubic yards, and that is what tells. Then there comes in the sensation of density : a tree or a hill is less powerful and of a feebler density than a geometrical disposition of forms. Marble is denser, both to the eye and to the mind, than is wood and so forth. Always you have a gradation.

Emotion is important.

Architecture only exists where there is poetic emotion. Architecture is a plastic thing. I mean by "plastic" what is seen and measured by the eye.

If you are near a mountain it makes an emotional effect of you. You sense the mass in your own body. It also relates to your sense of balance. When you go near a great architectural mass, like the dome of St Paul's, it triggers a similar effect on you.

Towards A New Architecture is a primer, too, as to what is at the heart of architecture - mass, volume, light, the play of light, primary forms, surface, contour, line, enclosure, axis, rhythm and more. These may not always trigger primary emotions like love or hate but especially in combination these elements of architecture can trigger synthetic or composite emotions that are mainly associated with architecture.

Eliot puts it well:

The only way of expressing emotion in the form of art is by finding an "objective correlative" in other words, a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion; such that when the external facts, which must terminate in sensory experience, are given, the emotion is immediately evoked.

Eliot's 'auditory imagination' is about creating synthetic or composite emotions as Adam did using colour, form, materials and surface elements. Not that he could not use Le Corbusier's primary elements of architecture - note the exquisite use of these in the transition through the entrance hall, antechamber and long gallery at Syon House.

Soufflot's Pantheon, the reality end of the Laugier school of Neoclassical thinking, with its dome modelled on St Paul's, plays the mass game. One does get a strong, non-primary emotion from the masses externally but one tinged with unease. Windows had to be blocked cutting out the play of light offered by transparency through the building because the structural calculations were flawed. (The dome of St Paul's, on the other hand, was instinctively massively overstructured on the side of safety).

When Le Corbusier writes of Michaelangelo's conception for St Peter's being mangled by subsequent additions he is bemoaning the loss of the combination of all the elements of architecture in one building triggering synthetic (and primary) emotions on a plane not seen since the Acropolis.

Immense loss! A passion and intelligence beyond normal - this was the Everlasting Yea; it has become sadly enough a "perhaps," an "apparently," an "it may be," an "I am not sure." Wretched failure!

There was the confluence of the moment that was missed. Arnold explained its type well enough:

This is why great creative epochs in literature are so rare, this is why there is so much that is unsatisfactory in the productions of many men of real genius; because for the creation of a master-work of literature two powers must concur, the power of the man and the power of the moment, and the man is not enough without the moment.

Postmodernism did not call an end to modernism. It was a debased form of modernism with a little classicism thrown in. To this day, really good contemporary modernist design stirs the emotions; merely good modern buildings impress with their technical execution but leave the emotions largely alone.

Time, though, may soon be called on modernism. The centennial re-ordering may be imminent ninety years on from Le Corbusier's text (there is nothing special about a hundred years - Eliot's key criticism came about 60 years after Arnold's).

Take the opening two paragraphs of Towards A New Architecture:

The Engineer's Aesthetic and Architecture are two things that march together and follow one from the other: the one being now at its full height, the other in the an unhappy state of retrogression.

The Engineer, inspired by the law of Economy and governed by mathematical calculation, puts us in accord with universal law. He achieves harmony.

We no longer believe this.

The Machine Age already had its flaws in 1923. An unhealthy obsession with its destructive potential was growing submerged.

We have largely had enough of the Engineer's Aesthetic. It no longer has any superiority of rationality over Architecture. It leads to too many purely utilitarian solutions.

We no longer quite believe in the law of Economy. As it is practised by a nature which wastes nothing we can still believe in it but as handed down from a progenitor like Adam Smith for use to govern human relationships, not quite.

We no longer live in a world of scarcity but in a world of slightly more than sufficient. When someone says we must pursue a course because it is more efficient we can retort with growing conviction: 'but the world is no longer ruled by efficiency but by innovation'. A country awash with innovation will benefit more than one which pursues maximal efficiency. The latter will result in activity displaced to a lower cost place and dividends equivalent to the loss will not flow back.

The innovation of Michaelangelo would have been worth more than the efficient solution adopted.

We may even get the return of styles. As Summerson says:

Style is what immediately takes the eye, excites curiosity and creates a receptive mood.

In the world of slightly more than sufficient we may not get a rococo but we may get an Adam. New styles, of course.

The disappearance of pure modernism as a choice which our building technology can offer would be a pity.

As for the role of the architect, why dissent from Le Corbusier at his most high-mindedly Arnoldian? He was a great critic with a highly developed sense of fact so he must be right:

The Architect, by his arrangement of forms, realizes an order which is a pure creation of his spirit; by forms and shapes he affects our senses to an acute degree and provokes plastic emotions; by the relationships which he creates he wakes profound echoes in us, he gives us the measure of an order which we feel to be in accordance with that of our world, he determines the various movements of our heart and of our understanding; it is then that we experience the sense of beauty.