Hellblog: To quoin a frieze

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I am about to place a new blog on my “Blogs I Follow” list. It is the blog of the British architectural cartoonist Louis Hellman, called “Hellblog,” and comes to me from Malcolm Millais, the irrepressible author of Exploding the Myths of Modern Architecture (2009), which Andrés Duany called the best book he’d read summarizing the evils of modern architecture. I used a Hellman toon to illustrate my review of Exploding the Myths.

I just purchased a new microwave after my Quasar pooped out. It was over 30 years old. I got an LG, the tops midsize according Consumer Reports. Why am I telling you this? Well, read to the last line of “To Quoin a Frieze” and you will find out – explanation if not justification. Here is Hellman’s wry take on what someone called “frozen music.”

“Frozen music” is the most popular but most misleading definition of architecture around. It was coined by Von Schelling and typifies a 19th century German romantic formalist view of architecture as sculptural art. It was gently satirised in the 1950s by humourists Flanders and Swann as “music is defrosted architecture.” Von Schelling’s definition ignores architecture’s utiltarian functions. Nearer the mark and equally popular is “Commodity, firmness and delight,” Sir Henry Wotton’s 17th century take on Vitruvius, though it sounds disturbingly like a 60s bra advert. In other words, buildings must stand up, give pleasure and, in today’s parlance, be fit for purpose. The Greeks had a word for it, but did they? The only relevant Ancient Greek word is “architect” or “master builder,” so “architecture” is simply that which is done by architects. Clearly a case for the ARB to pronounce upon.

It was not until the Victorians that definitions addressed the social and political nature of architecture. For Ruskin it was “An art for all to learn because all are concerned with it” and Morris saw it as “The moulding and altering to human needs of the very face of the earth itself.” Participation and eco housing no less.

The modern movement masters provided their own definitions. Le Corbusier’s was “The masterly, correct and magnificent play of masses brought together in light,” a conveniently vague definition for an architect who would work for any regime, however unsavoury, no doubt echoed by today’s starchitects whose moral compasses are equally obscured. Mies’s portentous “The will of the epoch translated into space” also leaves plenty of room for political maneuvering. Hitler, of course, more demolition contractor than architect, understood that architecture was a political tool, “Stone documents, the expression of the utility and power of the nation.”

Today definitions seem to have gone out of fashion. Monumental architecture during the profligate period from the 1990s to 2008 was more “commodities, futures and deregulation” than Wotton’s sedate description. Or perhaps “frozen money” would be more apt.

Our current era’s obsession is with energy conservation and retrofitting, much loved both by politicians, who see it as a source of righteous taxation, and architects, who take it as a neo-function- alist opportunity to wallow in alternative technology. The best definition for this must be Ian Martin’s ironic “Architecture is frozen carbon.” Praise the Lord and pass the microwave.

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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One Response to Hellblog: To quoin a frieze

  1. Steven Semes says:

    I love “commodities, futures, and deregulation”! Also “frozen money.” That really sums it all up!

    Like

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