Architecture in crisis: Using the past to shape the future

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  • HABITATINTL. Vol.15,No. 3,pp.167-169,199l Printed in Great Britain.

    0197-3975/91$5.00 + 0.00 Pergamon Press plc

    Architecture in Crisis * Using the Past to Shape the Future

    MICHAEL J. KING Liverpool, UK

    In 1964 the American critic Bernard Rudofsky, in his seminal work Architecture without Architects, drew attention to the narrow definition of architecture as understood and practised in the Western world.

    Since then there has been a revival of interest worldwide in the proper understanding of what Rudofsky described as vernacular, anonymous, spon- taneous, indigenous, rural, forms of building which are now generally accepted as having architectural qualities.

    At the same time, during the period 1968-1989, there has in the UK been a revival of interest in historical styles in architecture and the contribution made to the quality of life in cities, towns and villages by the conservation of groups of vernacular buildings, which individually may have little significance but together contribute to an architectural experience. The concept of Conservation Areas, now enshrined in the Town and Country Planning Acts in the UK has, I suspect, increased public awareness of the social and economic benefits of drawing from the past to shape the future. There is also evidence that conservation policies can play an important role in aiding the economic regeneration of the core of older city centres.

    The reaction in favour of conservation is indirectly a result of the failure of British housing policies under successive governments since the end of the Second World War. The wholesale redevelopment of war-damaged city centres of towns like Coventry, Birmingham or Hull, together with the later clearance of Nineteenth Century artisan and workers dwellings under Environmental Health legislation and their subsequent rehousing, has only been well received by the ordinary citizen in a few New Towns, such as Runcom in Cheshire; and by popular opinion much post-war mass housing is now being demolished as an accepted social failure. At the present time, there is even a proposal to demolish the town centre housing in Runcorn by the architect James Stirling, which is still a place of pilgrimage by architects from all over the World!

    It would appear, from the current debate in the United Kingdom, that many ordinary people who have not had the benefit of any formal education in architecture or town planning have rejected the solutions presented by architects and have sought an alternative direction, which clearly seeks to identify with past styles in architecture and represents a major departure from the main stream of international thinking in architecture. The response of the architectural profession to this crisis of confidence between the people and the architects is for the majority of architects to fall back on eclecticism and mannerism in the current fad of Post-Modernism. The unfortunate result has been that a whole generation of architects trained in the Modern Movement have been unable to understand the Grammar of Ornament and the Rules of Architecture, which are no longer a central component in the education of younger architects. As a result

    *This paper was originally presented at the UIA International Symposium on Asian Cities and Architecture in Transition, Beijing, China, 27-30 November 1989.


  • 168 Michael J. King

    it is possible to see in parts of the new London Docklands Development and in the City of London the unhappy Post-Modernist pastiche which has caused even more alienation between architects and the public.

    In 1914 SantElia in his manifesto had declared to the Nuove Tenderize group:

    The decorative must be abolished, the problem of futurist architecture must be solved without thieving any longer from photographs of China, Persia or Japan, and without becoming moronic studying the rules of Vitruvius. The problem must be solved by strokes of genius, based on a scientific and technical experience . . . and I conclude in disfavour of Modism in the architecture of every style and nation.

    Richard Rogers, currently the most sought-after member of the avant-garde of English architects, whose Lloyds Building is one of the most remarkable buildings built in London since the War, makes interesting comments in respect of the failure of Modernity and explains the popular rejections as follows:

    The failure of Modernity is not that of architecture but of ethics. The crisis we now face is that our scientific and financial potential has outstripped our ethical and social resources. To live in harmony our tremendous advances in science must be matched by an ethically and culturally equivalent develop- ment. The scramble for profit and power must not be allowed to erode our civilisation and destroy our beautiful planet. Man has created art, philosophy and science. They are the most beautiful, most enlightened and most enduring achievements.

    It is hard in the light of the above quotation to understand why much of Rogers work, which is of so much significance to architects, is so little understood or liked by the public as a whole. What lies behind this apparent crisis in architect philosophy?

    I suspect that the problem is not one of semantics but more to do with human failure: the failure of architects to respond to new materials and innovation in a responsible and objective scientific manner in that much of what is described as High Tech in current architectural design has a temporary and short life span, not only in terms of the use of materials, but also in the detailing and design of the building fabric.

    With the exception of destruction through war or natural disaster, tra- ditional cities, towns and villages evolved through a natural process of growth throughout the centuries, each generation creating successive overlays of buildings and spaces, representative of the pasing years. It is precisely this evolutionary process, which cuts across time, culture and political events, which gives historic settlements their unique sense of place and give new buildings and spaces between buildings a contextual significance. The requirement to understand the significance of design within the context of existing settlements is at the heart of the current debate in architecture in the UK.

    I believe that the crisis is the direct result of following the wrong direction in the training of architects and that this has contributed to a loss of confidence in architects by both clients and the construction industry itself. In the interests of understanding modern technology, the training of young architects has aban- doned many of the traditional methods of teaching by which, for example, architects were taught to measure and draw historic prototypes, and the camera has replaced the need to teach architects to sketch, paint and communicate in three dimensions by means of sketch book and watercolour drawing. The emphasis placed on computer aided design and technological innovation has further distanced the architect from the traditional skills of the building industry and from craft skills in particular.

  • Architecture in Crisis 169

    HRH Prince Charles has met with considerable public support for his new book A Vision of Britain in which he sets out 10 principles we can build on. The book has been denounced by the architectural profession as naive and superficial. I, as an architect, do not agree with the criticisms and consider that the book sets down the concern felt by many lay people over the present state of British architecture. In the light of popular protest, there should be a reappraisal of the training of architects and a return to the traditional relationship between architect and builder. New ideas and ideas from abroad should be set against and judged in the understanding of the value of well tried and tested local materials and traditions before these traditions are discarded in favour of modern innovation.

    The philosopher Huizinga once remarked that

    the expectation that every new discovery or refinement of existing means must contain the promise of higher values or greater happiness is an extremely naive thought . . . it is not the least paradoxical to say that a culture may founder on real and tangible progress.


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