Brexit and architecture

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London’s skyline abandoned history and tradition decades ago. (Dezeen)

British voters’ startling decision to opt out of the European Union dismayed many British architects. Dezeen found no one to quote supporting Brexit in a story just before the vote. “We love EU, declare UK architects and designers ahead of referendum” quoted nobody who opposes Britain’s membership in the E.U. in its article, and tacked on statements by 15 architects and designers, all of whom opposed Brexit.

They could not find a single one who supported it? There can be little doubt that most favored the remain vote. But could they find not just one with the alternative opinion – if only to gin up some slight sense of verismilitude in their reporting? Or did they merely decide not to include any naysayers in the article? In short, was the June 22 report pure propaganda?

To belabor the obvious, it is this sort of elitism that fueled the opposition to remaining. I got an email today saying Brexit would redound to the benefit of architectural diversity – that is, tradition. He might well have been right. Modern architecture is the brand of the elite economic establishment whose unpopularity drove the Brexit. Is anyone on this side of the pond taking a look at the architectural implications of the vote? Let’s see what happens.

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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7 Responses to Brexit and architecture

  1. Robert Adam says:

    David,
    When I say that architecture will inevitably reflect broader social, political and economic trends I think I am stating the obvious. Architecture is not a primary mover, it is commissioned for political, social and economic ends and architects respond (one way or another). When we examine any past period (with the benefit of hindsight) we can see this, so it will almost certainly be the case today.
    I really don’t think architecture has the power to change social trends, alter the economy or transform politics. Architecture does, however, move slowly and it is up to us to understand these trends and respond responsibly. I am not saying that modernism has power to which we must bow, on the contrary, it does not; it too must follow broad trends. Rather than see that this view supports the hegemony of modernism, I put this is as a critque of the view that architecture must be ‘of its time’ in any kind of predictive way. Anything we do now will be ‘of its time’ when viewed from the future, this too is inevitable. This is the conclusive response to the claim that tradtional architecture is not of its time.
    Architects can, however, misinterpret the current situation and while we are dealing with broad trends, this too applies to architecture. This is why I see a proper understanding of social, political and economic trends as the best predictor of trends in architecture – and in this I see great hope. As it is, the continued dominance of the traditional dwelling is a reflection of the relationship between the economics of the free housing market and social attitudes – not some retrogressive abberation as most modernists suggest. The dominance of modernist corporate architecture is a reflection of the power and the decision-making structure of corporations, the status of the western economy and the monolithic nature of globalisation. This is why I see trends towards political fragmentation, the assertion of identity and the action of people against monolithic elites as very positive.
    We have to admit that traditional architecture has been a minority activity for a long time and there will be a political and economic background to this; if this is to change we must see the circumstances that will lead to that change and run with them – this is the best route to success.

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    • Glad you clarified that, Robert. If trends are as the Brexit suggests, perhaps architecture will follow. You mention the persistence of tradition in the housing market as evidence of this. I have cited that many times – the individual’s power to select his or her own home as opposed to the influence of committees on architecture that is not single-family housing. It is important to keep pushing for larger architectural commissions to better reflect the trends that you adduce.

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  2. Robert Adam says:

    This is what I said the Architects’ Journal. The background to the referendum and it’s result are complex and just blaming it on elites and especially Modernism (which is just one elite) is simplistic. Younger people and metropolitan citizens (not necessarily elites) were in favour of remaining but so was Scotland – on a broad social basis. It was, so called, ‘middle England’ and the north who swung it to leave and they have been left out by the globalisation and feel threatened by immigration – Americans will recognise this – and turn to a loss of sovereignty (read ‘identity’) as a grievance (in fact the loss of sovereignty affects daily lives much less than claimed). I voted IN – 40% of my 80-strong staff are non-British and I find this stimulating not threatening and they earn as much as the rest of them.
    I believe that there are two parallel pressures at the moment (see my book on Globalisation): homogenisation and localisation (or fragmentation). They are complementary not mutually exclusive, the important thing is to recognise the power of localisation which the barely democratic leaders of the EU don’t.
    Anyway, this is what I said and it was printed amongst the cries of anguish from well-known members of the profession:
    ‘It’s not the way I voted but I see it as part of a larger political trend to fragmentation and highlighted the fact that the homogenising agenda of the EU is out of date. We have abandoned our fellow north-European reformists and the balance in the EU will shift to the south with Germany uncomfortably leading a political and economic climate they will find it hard to control without authoritarianism. The blame, if there be blame, lies with the Cameron’s failed negotiations; the EU leaders didn’t recognise the problem and the underlying issue. They will now pay the price in political turbulence in the EU. In the meantime the UK must remain firmly international and a semi-detached, as a contrary to attached, part of Europe.
    I don’t think this will affect our business except in as much as architecture is an economic bellwether. By the same token, architecture will inevitably reflect broader social, political and economic trends and fragmentation is a reality in the world of architecture; we are seeing a less and less monolithic theoretical landscape.’

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    • Robert, no doubt you are right in much of what you say. My three paragraphs were not an attempt to be exhaustive on the issue, but focused on one piece – the Dezeen article. A relatively simple take is, however, not by dint of that lacking in truth.

      But I must disagree about – or at least strongly regret – the idea that, as you conclude, architecture “will inevitably reflect broader social, political and economic trends.” If you are suggesting that we must accept the dominance of modern architecture simply because it has the power to maintain its dominance, well, I hope you are not suggesting that. (Maybe you are in fact suggesting the reverse.) Either way, you are probably correct, but to promote more traditional architecture is to seek to slow or reverse those trends. I am not so sure that it cannot be done.

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  3. Peter Kellow says:

    I assume the architect’s surveyed were Modernists as a random sampling will not turn up any traditionalists. Modernists are globalisers by nature as universalism is their design ideology. Little wonder they would favor submerging British identity in a pan-national project. As you say architects, in general, i.e. Modernists, are elitists by nature and elitism and experts were very much on the line in the debate. On the other hand, Quinlan Terry, for instance, is a strong supporter of Brexit and British identity – I suspect you would find this with other traditional architects but I have no evidence.

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