Adam on history & tradition

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Sackler Library (2001), at Oxford. (John Critchley)

I am reading British architect Robert Adam’s collection of essays, Classic Columns: 40 Years of Writing on Architecture,” just published. Chapter 5, “Can restoration be too authentic?,” totally demolishes a longstanding pet peeve of mine – modernist additions to old buildings, or rather, the use of the word authenticity to justify them. Adam’s essay demonstrates how architectural historians use the concept of authenticity to buttress a misuse of history in an effort to undermine tradition.

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Robert Adam (ADAM Architecture)

The previous chapter, “Tin Gods: Technology and contemporary architecture,” explores, among other things, why modernism (the broader philosophy that undergirds modern architecture) seeks to undermine tradition. I should quote from that chapter to prepare to quote from this one. But since each chapter unpacks insights that cascade into the next chapter, I’d have to quote the whole book. You should read it, but in the meantime here are some passages from Chapter 5, originally a 2003 lecture given to the York Civic Trust.

Adam begins by explaining how “[i]t is not what actually happened that is of interest to the historian but that which is extraordinary, that which is apparently original, and so that which is considered to be, in this very peculiar way, ‘authentic’ to its period.” What is different is seen as more important than what is the same, in architecture as well as in history. Both are important. Historians often forget that. He continues:

Once you become steeped in this thinking, it distorts your view of the present and the future. … It should also be obvious that this theory, presented this way, defies everyday experience. The vast majority of what happens today is pretty much what happened yesterday. Many, many essential parts of our lives are to all intents and purposes the same as those of our fathers. We live in a world made up predominantly from the recent and even the quite distant past.

After proceeding to demonstrate that the word authentic is mostly used these days to flip its normal meaning onto its head, Adam writes:

This application of historical or archaeological methodology to living buildings and places is like the study of wildlife through taxidermy. It has the effect of turning living organisms into dead specimens and takes away the life that made them worthy of study in the first place.

Adam describes how the quest for “authenticity” transforms restoration into a curatorial exercise of historical accuracy. Modern shapes that explicitly avoid fitting into the look of a restoration project serve, it is said, to “pre- serve” the building’s authenticity – even as modernists warn that using traditional building methods will turn cities into museums.

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Royal Ontario Museum (

The word “authentic” is so closely linked to the concept of “truth” and we are so respectful of the experts who believe that historical authenticity is important that we rarely question its relevance. To whom does it really matter? Take a casual visitor to an old building; is his experience spoiled or devalued if he mistakes a new repair for an original part of the building? How far do you have to go to make sure this doesn’t happen? Do you have to go so far that you contradict one of the key objectives of doing it in the first place – to restore the wholeness of the original work of art so that it can be appreciated? Indeed, this seems to be the case. … The coherence of the design is less important than making sure that every visitor knows for sure which stones are new and which old? Surely not. But this is the ridiculous situation that the principle of historic authenticity forces on us. This kind of thing only matters to academics and experts, and if they really want to know, they can find out anyway.

Iconic buildings, such as the Tower of London, and iconic places such as Williamsburg, Virginia, are part of the way each nation identifies itself through its history. They are also not at all authentic. The Tower of London is an imaginary nineteenth-century reconstruction of the Tudor tower largely by Anthony Salvin. Williamsburg is a late twentieth-century imaginative and often hypothetical reconstruction of an eighteenth-century town. The lack of authenticity is public knowledge, to a greater or lesser degree, but some – or indeed many – might be fooled. But it does not really matter to anyone except an academic or an expert. …

And here is how tradition fits in:

We must not confuse history and tradition. They are not at all the same thing. Historians often see traditions as little more than bad history. They are fair game for ridicule and, we are told, deal with the past in an inauthentic way that is quaint and even amusing. But this really misses the point. Traditional are not history; they are not subject to historical methodology. Traditions are, however, of great importance. They make living, continuous, and developing connections with our past and it is through our traditions that we all find our place in the world. …

Tradition is the natural way we deal with our past. Once we know this, we will understand that it is not out of stupidity or ignorance that visitors to Windsor Castle really don’t mind that much of what they see is a fake castle, not at all authentic, or that drinkers sit unconcerned in half-timbered pubs made of planks around steel beams, not in any way genuine. If asked, they will often know full well that these things are fakes but it really doesn’t matter. These are symbolic reminders of historic myths and ideals that they hold dear: the myth of the chivalrous origins of the monarchy or the myth of Olde England, myths that link a factual past with the ideas of the present. As people of intellect, we may sneer at the inaccuracies but these are genuine sensations felt by real people and have a value just by that fact.

Tradition, Adam adds,

[i]s not neat and systemised like the study of history; it is a messy layering of memories, ideas, truth, and fiction but, above all, it is alive and connects us in a vital way with the actions of our ancestors and projects these actions and memories on to future generations.

Suggesting that we abandon the misuse of authenticity and adapt a sense of history that fits into rather than undermining tradition, Adam continues:

Yes, we will lose some evidence; yes, we will undertake some restoration that is not guaranteed to be accurate; yes, some people will be fooled – but we will have more buildings that live, we will have a more natural relationship between old and new buildings, we will preserve one totally forgotten part of the character of the building or the place – the way it changes. No change is the most devastating change you can make.

But of course modern architecture is the creature of an ideology that believes that we have reached a point in history – modernity – where any change would be retrogressive. Go back to Chapter 4 for Adam’s take on this phenomenon. There are earlier chapters with much worth quoting. So much of what he writes fills in the gaps of what most classicists think. I intend a more typical review of Classical Columns once I’ve finished it. I really could have quoted a lot more for this post, but my fingers are tired. I hope Adam won’t sic his lawyers on me for overcopiosity of quotation. Since, however, it is so much easier for your eyes to hop from word to word than for my fingers to type them out letter by letter, I strongly recommend buying the book.

About David Brussat

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. History Press asked me to write and in August 2017 published my first book, "Lost Providence." I am now writing my second book. My freelance writing on architecture and other topics addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am 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 employ my writing and editing to improve your work, please email me at my consultancy,, 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 Adam on history & tradition

  1. Pingback: Robert Adam: “Classic Columns” | Architecture Here and There

  2. Pingback: Postmodernist Edwardians | Architecture Here and There

  3. Robert Adam says:

    Thanks for the kind words, David. Quote me as much as you like. You can be sure he “won’t sic [sic] his lawyers” on you.


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