Adam on classical language

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A row of houses with a language difficulty. (modernrichmondtour.com)

Robert Adam in his book Classic Columns addresses a topic many have addressed but at far greater depth of perception.  Few can fail to perceive that classical architecture is a language and that it evolves slowly just as the English language does, and that it has been doing so for many centuries. The classical “language” has been out there for us to hear and read for centuries, and we have learned it just as well as we have learned our English, our Ger- man, our Chinese, or what have you. The word house means house, with all its manifold variations, and has done so for centuries. Likewise church, bank, town hall, barn and office building. And the actual house, written in the brick, wood, stone and glass of classical architecture (or in a traditional or vernacular architecture descended from classical), also looks like a house, no less than what you think when you hear or read the word house.

Adam’s essay, “Classical architecture is the architecture of today,” expresses the idea in his more stately, exemplary way, and reaches the point at which we have been for the past half a century, where the classical language now has a rival in the “modernist” language. Referring to an architect’s practice of “quoting” bits of well-known architecture from the past, he writes:

Living languages are not scrapped and reinvented every fifty years. We may express ourselves a little differently from Charles II or Nicholas Hawksmoor but we can use their expressions today because what they were is part of what we are. Our civilisation and means of expression are modern but they carry their past with them and we are the richer for it.

We are not limited to the use of the past. We can use the latest technology. It is no longer necessary to learn a special language to use a computer, really advanced technology does what we want it to do. As new technology becomes – to use the buzz phrase – “user friendly,” we can, quite literally, make it speak our language. Voice simulators can quote Jane Austen and injection moulding can quote John Soane.

There are, of course, dangers in these analogies. No one orders drinks in the language of architecture or discusses the weather with cornices and capitals. It is easier to check on whether you are being understood in a spoken language and English has the great advantage that there has been no cultural elite trying to destroy it for thirty years.

This was written as a speech delivered in 1985 at a debate at the Royal Institute of British Architects – with the Prince of Wales in the audience. Adam continues:

Architecture is rather different. There has been a cultural elite trying to change its language. Speaking their own made-up architectural language, they think we all ought to learn it. But why should we? We’re fine the way we are. Put another way, imagine a game of charades where the other players keep saying “no”: they can’t guess what you are trying to be. Eventually you lose. Some people, unfortunately, never admit they’ve lost.

As the Modern Movement sinks under an accelerating barrage of “no’s” we should be thankful that the full apparatus of the living Classical language has survived. Perhaps our profession will now realise that nobody but architects ever bothered to learn their language and will take up Classicism, the true International Style.

Alas, the over-optimism of the 1980s! I was in London when Prince Charles’s handlers were still nervous about the royal family’s identity in the aftermath of Princess Diana’s death. Because his recent declarations about architecture had been so controversial (“carbuncle” and all that), he was forced (not sure that’s the right word) to choose a modernist to run his school of architecture, just to sort of calm things a bit. Charles had had the modernists on the run, I think, but then he toned it down and the modernists recovered and went on to more and more ridiculous forms of architecture – more and more unlikely to ever become a language that anyone could really understand.

The muzzling of the Prince of Wales was not the only explanation for the modernist revival, but to me it seems to have been a big part of the whole picture. Maybe Robert Adam will bring up the topic later in his book. Or maybe not. If he does, I will report back.

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 Adam on classical language

  1. Pingback: Postmodernist Edwardians | Architecture Here and There

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