‘The history of architecture,’ wrote A.W.N. Pugin in 1843, ‘is the history of the world.’ To judge from the three books under review, present-day orthodoxy is something very different. In looking at British architecture of the 19th and 20th centuries, the authors deal, not with the global issues envisaged by Pugin but with the careers of famous (and, in one case, not-so-famous) architects. The history of architecture, we are asked to believe, is the history of the individuals whose names appeared on architectural drawings.
The justification for this biographical approach to architecture is not at all clear. Buildings are’so obviously social, not only in production and use but also in meaning, that it seems almost wilfully perverse to treat them just in terms of the architect who designed them. If we look, for instance, at Akroydon, the model housing scheme built in Halifax around 1860, we see an intriguing conflict over architectural style, generated by the contradictions of social reformism. Colonel Akroyd, the woollen manufacturer, saw his housing scheme as a means of promoting home-ownership among the working class (the Halifax Permanent Building Society, founded in 1852, was involved in the venture), but he was also attached to the idea of the old English village, with a contented working population subservient to and dependent on ‘the master’. Akroyd wanted the houses to be gothic in style: ‘this taste of our forefathers,’ he said, ‘strengthens home and house attachment [and] entwines the present with the memory of the past.’ But the social connotations of gothic cottages clashed with the independence of would-be house owners, as Akroyd recounted: ‘The dormer windows were supposed to resemble the style of almshouses, and the independent workmen who formed the building association positively refused to accept this feature of the Gothic, which to their minds was degrading.’
What does this incident tell of the meaning attached to gothic? How did this conflict work out in the built form of Akroydon? In vain we look for answers to questions of this sort in the new study of the principal architect involved. Sir Gilbert Scott. David Cole looks at 19th-century architecture as if from the drawing-office of the architect: commissions appear (their source and significance is not questioned); the architect provides a design, supervises construction and moves on to the next job. The story is one of clients, briefs, technical difficulties and costs, with continuity provided by the architect’s rise to fame – a combination of office register and personal diary. The account of Akroydon gives the flavour of Mr Cole’s narrative:
Scott’s debut as a town planner came in 1855 when Colonel Akroyd, the Halifax manufacturer, commissioned him to build Akroydon. Scott’s preoccupation was wiih the style of the buildings, and he was unskilled at relating them to each other. He laid out a double row of cottages separated by a rear access path, surrounding a large grass square. This was an improvement on much contemporary work, but showed insufficient thought over the problem. Scott’s former pupil. Crossland carried out the work but Scon also designed All Souls’ vicarage nearby.
Scott began the Vaughan Library at Harrow School in 1861 ...
When he died. Scott was regarded as one of the leading architects of the time. When Sir Edwin Lutyens died, he was mourned, not just as the greatest English architect of his day, but as the greatest English architect ever. To the Modern Movement, however, Lutyens was an architectural and social reactionary, to be excised from the history book, and it is only in the last few years, with the Modern Movement itself falling into disfavour, that he has again become of interest to the majority of architects. Daniel O’Neill’s study of Lutyens Country Houses is a response to this renewal of interest and, as such, works admirably; it is perceptive in its discussion of the buildings and balanced in its judgments – no mean feat, considering the abuse and the adulation which still surround the subject. The book, however, remains firmly within the biographical interpretation of architecture: the aim, we are told, is to highlight the ‘salient characteristics of [Lutyens’s] work at each stage of his career’. The result is that the buildings are discussed as if they were the work of Lutyens alone. The owner of the house appears briefly in the role of client, to set the process in motion, but then disappears, and the building process is scarcely mentioned at all; in trying to understand these buildings, we can, it seems, ignore owner and builder (to say nothing of intangible realities, such as ideology or social distribution of wealth) and need refer only to the mind and intentions of the architect. Accordingly, the social relationships (master to servant, husband to wife, family to outsiders) which, as Mark Girouard has shown, were crucial in determining the form of the country house are omitted altogether. Mr O’Neill is not interested in the life of the building after construction is completed, but only in its architectural conception and birth – a miraculous feat of monogencsis, it seems – achieved by the architect alone. Throughout, the image is of the architect as artist, and the building is treated as though it were as much his personal creation as a picture is that of the individual painter.
That confusion with art history has much to do with the deplorable condition of architectural history can be seen clearly in A Revolution in London Housing. Following its creation in 1889, the London County Council launched the first major public housing programme in the country. This programme transformed notions about the scale and quality of public housing, setting new standards for working-class housing and, at the Boundary Street estate in Shoreditch, creating a new image for urban housing. Largely undertaken by the Council’s Works Department (established in 1892 as the first direct labour organisation in Britain), the housing programme was a hotly contested political issue, and it was sharply curtailed when control of the Council passed to the Conservatives (or Moderates, as they were called in London) in 1907. The subject is, therefore, both of major historical importance and of considerable contemporary relevance. Yet in dealing with this housing revolution, Susan Beattie is concerned almost exclusively with the attribution of the various buildings to the individual members of the Architect’s Department. Her interests lie with the architects whose ‘initials... appear on most of the surviving contract drawings’: with finding out who they were, where they trained, which architects they admired and what other buldings they designed. Once again, the result is that most of the major issues involved in the architecture of these schemes pass by unnoticed: the reader is left with a series of visual analyses of individual buildings, interspersed with short biographies of the architects responsible for their design.
What emerges most forcibly from these books is the inadequacy of the biographical approach to architecture. Again and again, architecture is removed from the social realm and made into a purely individual affair. Yet what is fascinating about architecture is that it embodies, in the single material form of the building, a range of disparate (and frequently contradictory) elements: the building must perform, at the same time, on a number of different levels. St Pancras station and hotel was the outcome, among other things, of the commercial rivalry of industrial capital (in the form of the railway companies) and of its power in relation to the population whose homes were demolished in order to clear the site; of the technical capabilities of the building industry at that time, and of the contractual system under which they were mobilised; of the revulsion of the intelligentsia against the social effects of industrialisation, and the translation of this feeling into architecture; of the functional and structural requirements of a railway terminus, or, more accurately, what these were thought to be; and of the aesthetic preferences and design capacities of Sir Gilbert Scott’s office. Yet the authors of the books under review would take only the last of these factors for consideration, and would treat the building as though the others did not exist. They would not ask how these different factors were brought together in the building – how did the form of the building reconcile myths about the world with the material realities of the world? – but would ask only about the architect.
To reduce architecture to the career of the architect is not only to ignore many of the factors that determine the form of a building: it is also to presume that the individual who signed the drawings was, alone, responsible for the design. Leaving aside the question of the responsibility of the individual for the ideas that he or she holds (a traditional liberal assumption that would be widely questioned in the social sciences), this presumption is manifestly absurd in the case of major architectural practices and complex buildings. A former pupil of Gilbert Scott’s, T.G. Jackson, recalled:
There are many amusing tales which show the slight acquaintance he had with what came out of his office: how he admired a new church from the railway carriage window and was told it was one of his own; how he went into a church in process of building, sent for the clerk of works, and began finding fault with this and with that till the man said: ‘You know, Mr Scott, this is not your church; this is Mr Street’s; your church is farther down the road.’
It may well be asked why if the biographical approach to architecture is so inadequate it should be so predominant in historical studies. Probably the most important reason for its popularity in recent writings is that, although architectural history is generally recognised as a legitimate subject, it is underdeveloped as an academic discipline. Nowhere in Britain is architectural history taught as a degree course in its own right: as a result, it remains, to an extent unimaginable in the other humanities, a field for what 19th-century architects would have called ‘amateurs and intruders’. Books on architectural history (witness those under review) are generally written by architects, art historians or gentlemen: accordingly the intellectual basis of the subject consists either of the everyday perceptions of those who design or commission buildings, or of the academic procedures developed by and for another discipline. Thus we get architects’ architectural history (the study of Gilbert Scott), and art historians’ architectural history (London housing): in the one case, the assumption is that ‘architecture is what architects do,’ which leads to an inventory of the architect’s commissions; in the other, buildings are treated as though they were pictures, to be attributed, and subjected to visual analysis. In neither case is this a form of architectural history that could be called an academic discipline, for it has neither a theoretical (as opposed to a descriptive) definition of what it is studying, nor methods of study that are adequate for its subject.
A decade or so ago it was thought that these deficiencies in architectural history might be met by borrowing the theories and methods of another discipline – namely, linguistics. Semiology, it was proclaimed, would provide the model for the academic study of architecture: Barthes and Saussurc became the luminaries; ‘discourse’ and ‘signification’ the key terms. But this was simply to repeat what had happened a long time before in relation to art history: again, concepts and procedures developed by another discipline were taken over and applied to architecture, and, not surprisingly, it was eventually found that they did not fit. In part at least, it is as a reaction to this semiological episode (which rarely produced insights to match the pretensions of its vocabulary) that we see architectural history returning to the relative safety of an empirical and biographical approach. Such an approach, as I hope to have shown, cannot be regarded as satisfactory. It is only by developing its own theory and its own methods that architectural history can generate a real understanding of its subject and transform itself from a pastime and a sideline into an intellectual discipline. It is time now for architectural historians to advance beyond Pugin, and specify precisely the relationships that link ‘architecture’ to ‘the world’.