Return to the establishment

Example of terraced housing by George Saumarez Smith of ADAM Architects. (Starter Homes Design)

Example of terraced housing by George Saumarez Smith of ADAM Architects. (Starter Homes Design)

It appears that tradition has begun its long march back through the institutions, at least in Britain.

Oliver Wainwright’s latest piece in the Guardian, reprinted in Architectural Record, is “The Tories’ New Design Guide Backs Tiny, Unlivable, Backward-Looking Homes.” It predictably dismisses the new guide’s traditional advice to the home-building industry in Britain. It’s actually a mixture, though it is weighted toward tradition. But the true source of Wainwright’s angst is the fact that its authors are now (horror of horrors!) part of that ancient nation’s architectural establishment under the ruling Conservative-Liberal coalition (not Tory, as the critic well knows).

The guide’s bland title, “Starter Homes Design,” is a product of the government’s housing design advisory panel. Very boring, except that it consists of Quinlan Terry, Roger Scruton and Terry Farrell. The first two of that trio are, respectively, Prince Charles’s fave architect and my favorite architectural writer – which means Scruton is also somewhere near the prince’s wavelength. Farrell is described by Wainwright as “the Tories’ architecture tsar of choice, acting as adviser to both David Cameron and Boris Johnson on matters of the built environment. His tastes are harder to pin down.”

Harder to pin down? If that’s the case, what is Wainwright all knotted up about? It seems Farrell does modernist towers as well as twee cottages. But the latter puts him out of bounds in Wainwright’s eyes. Look up Farrell in Wikipedia or his work on Google and you’ll wonder at the critic’s dismay. (Though Farrell’s most popular building is his MI6 headquarters – it got blown up in a recent Bond film – and it has a vaguely traditional though hardly twee air to it.)

In Britain as in America, the modernist establishment has got so used to having its own way for so many decades – witness the absurd “I Look Up” ad campaign of the AIA – that traditional architecture’s long march back through the institutions is something establishment architecture apparatchiks can neither imagine nor abide.

How far back through the institutions? Not that far, it seems. Quinlan Terry and his son, Francis Terry, are on the warpath against Mayor Boris’s massive phalanx of towers bearing down on London, but it certainly doesn’t seem as if the city is on their side, let alone the ruling national coalition. “Starter Homes Design”? It may not exactly be small potatoes, but methinks the palace coup has yet to be planned, let alone accomplished.

Still … Pip, pip, cheerio! Sporting, wot?

The classical revival is an issue about as nonpartisan in theme as can be imagined on this, the western, side of the pond – if only one of the two major parties over here would pick up on it. The public is growing tired of the indifference required to survive our built environment. The party that first starts speaking to this disillusion with modern architecture and planning will steal a big march on its rival.

When, late in the second Bush administration, Thomas Gordon Smith of Notre Dame was nominated to be chief architect of the General Services Administration, all hell broke loose and his name was withdrawn. I don’t think there’s any American equivalent to Terry or Scruton in the American architectural establishment, governmental or institutional, or even anything near an equivalent, let alone an equivalent here to Britain’s Charles.

 

About David Brussat

For a living, I edit the writing of some of the nation's leading architects, urbanists and design theorists. This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. My freelance writing and editing on that topic and others addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a fellow of the Royal Society of the Arts, and a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to invest your prose with even more style and clarity, please email me at my consultancy, dbrussat@gmail.com, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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