Fie on a million years!

Royal Crescent at Bath (John Wood the Younger, 1767-74); cited as

Royal Crescent at Bath (John Wood the Younger, 1767-74); cited as “boring” by Anthony Flint. (wikipedia.org)

For his latest piece in CityLab, “Making the Case for Symmetrical Cities,” peripatetic architecture critic Anthony Flint, housed at the Lincoln Institute in Cambridge, does a very nice job adding up the evidence for the superiority of classical and traditional architecture.

Flint has heard a lecture by Ann Sussman, author (with Justin Hollander) of Cognitive Architecture: Designing for How We Respond to the Built Environment, and sums up her thinking thus:

The symmetry of red brick, perfectly positioned front doors and 12-pane windows has a soothing effect. It tells us all is well in the world, that there is order, and indeed that we’re connected to that equilibrium. In evolutionary terms, we sense a friendly environment; we’re going to have food, and we’re not going to be eaten. Survival of the tidiest.

“Can so much really be wrapped up in what we see?,” wonders Flint.

Much more than that, really. Symmetry is only part of it. Architecture and city building are among the few human arenas in which the product of the human mind lasts for centuries. Added to year by year, the way we build is a learning process that never stops. It inculcates eternal verities handed down generation to generation, literally since before we even started to build – as we humans began storing knowledge about the environment that enabled us to, say, spot the tiger in the bush yonder. Symmetry is a part of that, and so is the brain’s swift recognition of facial symbology. But that is far from all.

Flint then cites millennia of gathered wisdom that bears this out.

It has long been established that well-tailored design is pleasing not only to the eye but the soul, though the reasons for that have always been somewhat mysterious. Firmitas, utilitas, venustas — that is, solid, useful, and beautiful — we know from Vitruvius, are characteristics baked into architecture as an imitation of nature. Leonardo da Vinci, Le Corbusier and many others recognized the strange power of mathematical alignment. More recently, the Congress for the New Urbanism reminds us that great places built in traditional design make us feel good. The theory of how this all works is detailed in A Pattern Language by Christopher Alexander.

(I would boot Corbusier from that list because he used his knowledge to destroy cities and undermine the principles of human habitation.)

As I say, Flint adds all this up and nods approvingly, but clearly he feels uncomfortable:

The bottom line seems to be, why bother trying anything new, when we’ve already figured out what constitutes good design? I wonder if one possible result is a restraint on creativity, and cookie-cutter boredom.

The bottom line is not that at all. It is that anything new must be tried and tested over time, as was the case during millennia of architectural evolution. The modernists threw that baby out with the bathwater long ago. Most architecture today is not science but cult, and it’s people like Sussman – I would add also Nikos Salingaros, the Texas mathematician, architectural theorist and research partner of Christopher Alexander – who are among those trying to bring not only science back into the architectural fold, but firmness, utility and delight, all casualties of modernism. It’s hard enough with the architectural establishment arrayed against them, but snickering from the peanut gallery doesn’t help.

“Far be it from me to argue with a few million years of evolution,” sighs Flint at the end of his piece. Indeed.

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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4 Responses to Fie on a million years!

  1. I assume this is the same Anthony Flint that wrote, and got published (!) a totally derivative and more or less praising biog of Le Grande Satan.

    I think it could be an amusing exercise to compare each years short lists for the Stirling Prize and Carbuncle cup. Maybe a quiz for architects to spot the difference, if they can, or anybody else can for that matter.

    I’m going to London tomorrow and it’s my intention to torture myself by getting up close and personal to something done by Zahahaha.

    best wishes

    Malcolm

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  2. David – yes, Sussman is only trying to re-balance a current terrific imbalance in the relation of the novel to the well-evolved. I don’t see her proposing to stop innovating — only to stop discarding the past and ONLY innovating. And too often repeating the same mistakes, in clever new guises… Cheers, m

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    • Precisely, Michael. Hardly earth-shattering – unless your gig is to uphold the current idea of novelty as the only valid version. By the way, vis a vis your excellent email on the geographers’ upcoming confab in SF on CNU, I enjoyed Flint’s description of the CNU. It seems to validate my concern that CNU gets no “credit” for its stylistic neutrality. The die is cast, and those who support CNU should ride that horse rather than trying to corral it.

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