Style vs. form balderdash

Kensington Park Road, London, gets high grades from Roger Scruton. (rbcklocalstudies.wordpress.com)

Kensington Park Road, London, gets high grades from Roger Scruton. (rbcklocalstudies.wordpress.com)

Justin Shubow, the provocative head of the National Civic Art Society, has posted a segment from a 1996 book review by the late Paul Malo of Roger Scruton’s The Classical Vernacular: Architecture in a Time of Nihilism, which I recently reread. Malo’s point is to teaze out the relationship between style and form in architecture. In Malo’s view, Scruton is a shallow critic of modernism because he thinks style is more important than form.

[Malo’s article is in the International Journal of the Classical Tradition, Vol. 2, No. 3 (Winter, 1996), pp. 443-452. Justin’s link to it in a dropbox timed out. Justin resent it and I hope it will not time out again. If it does, the citation will remain here.]

But Malo, long a revered professor of architecture at Syracuse, starts out by mischaracterizing Scruton’s thinking in an important way. He quotes Scruton as saying “aesthetic considerations … must take precedence over all other factors – over function, structure, durability, even over economics.” Malo transforms the precedence of into the exclusion of all matters but appearance, and then spends the rest of his review castigating Scruton as shallow or, as he puts it, “superficial.” “Scruton’s exclusive concern for appearance renders him a stylist” when he should really be interested in “form.”

“‘Form,’ what is beyond appearance,” writes Malo, “is the genuine if invisible gestalt of architecture.” Things like symmetry, organization, structure, essence, flow, and other elements that you cannot necessarily see are matters of “form.” Appearance is secondary. Form is so invisible, so gestalt, and yet so important that it is able to render even such founding modernists as Ludwig Mies van der Rohe into “an ardent and rigorous classicist.” Louis Kahn was a “metaphysical architect … grounded in an understanding of architectural tradition” even though his work, inventive but mostly Brutalist concrete, treated the classical orders as if they had the cooties.

Many of today’s classicists fall for this bugaboo. They consider form as if it has nothing to do with appearance. And they buy into the hogwash of Mies being a classicist, one of the few shibboleths that they have not managed to abandon along with the other junk they acquired in architecture school, which they have wisely jettisoned with experience.

But appearance, or style, is part and parcel of form. The two cannot be considered separately, and Scruton never said they could or should be. He believes appearance is the most vital aspect of form because it is what people actually see – like it or dislike it – and what people see influences whether a building is useful – utilitarian, as the modernists like to say. Malo writes:

To the architectural theorists and educators, Scruton’s dictums seem silly – that architects’ “first concern must be the viewpoint of the man in the street” and that the “first principles of composition concern the ordering of façades.”

Whatever its intrinsic role in architectural practice and thinking, form is important to architectural discourse because it makes modernist nonsense sound plausible. Such modernists as Malo (who eventually reveals that he considers himself a classicist) exemplify the idea that words are meant not to express but to conceal thought. Malo’s ideas, clearly expressed, would immediately become obviously silly, even to the unlettered masses.

By the end of the essay it is clear that Malo does understand the essence of classical architecture. “Classicism is not ‘easier’ as a sort of kit-of-parts exercise. Classicism is more demanding because it entails rules.” He adds:

In architecture, as in music, conventional rules do not constrain but liberate. Rules are the grammar of language, without which expression (or at least communication) is impaired. Modern architecture tried to dispense with rules, or at least with old rules. It failed to find new values as  rewarding as classical qualities, such as scale and proportion. It failed to motivate designers with models – not so much forms to be replicated as goals of performance.

This seems to contradict much of what Malo says in the first half of his review. But the ability to hold contrary ideas in mind without apparent embarrassment is the key to being a theorist of modern architecture. You can believe things that make sense, but if you can’t also believe things that obviously don’t make any sense, then you can’t operate effectively as a modernist. There is a lot of interesting matter in Malo’s review of Scruton’s book, and many sentences that seem quite sensible when isolated from their context, but taken together the sensible is wholly submerged in a great vat of senselessness.

My shelf continues to groan under the weight of books and articles by modernists who bash modernism in order to give a bogus plausibility to their attacks on classicism.

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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3 Responses to Style vs. form balderdash

  1. Cathy Chin says:

    Paul Malo taught at Syracuse with my uncle Charles Croom. I think that he did good work preserving architectural landmarks in the St. Lawrence River area and in western New York with the Landmark Society of Rochester.

    Like

  2. David, thank you for this digest of Paul Malo’s thoughts on Roger Scruton. To me, his most telling mia culpa is this, which is clearly drenched with undeniable truths:
    “In architecture, as in music, conventional rules do not constrain but liberate. Rules are the grammar of language, without which expression (or at least communication) is impaired. Modern architecture tried to dispense with rules, or at least with old rules. It failed to find new values as rewarding as classical qualities, such as scale and proportion. It failed to motivate designers with models – not so much forms to be replicated as goals of performance.”

    Like

    • If Mies and his ilk operated according to rules, why do their buildings so regularly poke us in the eye? Maybe the rules of modernism prohibit beauty. I’ve heard that before. And that is why they cannot afford to express their rules, or their ideals, in plain language.

      Like

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