Review: “Classic Columns”

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Sackler Library at Oxford University, designed by Robert Adam. (ADAM Architecture)

Aside from my own book Lost Providence, Robert Adam’s Classic Columns, published by Cumulus Books, London, is the recent book that I would place highest on my list of books to give to friends or family members interested in architecture – or you could gift yourself. It’s the holidays. This is allowed.

Gifting oneself may or may not be fully ensconced in holiday tradition at this point. In fact, we should ask Robert Adam himself. In Classic Columns Adam reveals himself as the most subtle and fecund thinker about tradition, as the proper basis for architecture, in our era. Adam is the founder and a principal of the London firm of ADAM Architecture, so his theorizing has its basis in practice. In the past year I have written three posts quoting from his book (while also promising a review, which you are reading at this moment). The three posts are here, here and here.

Each post has arisen from my being bowled over by passages that engagingly describe the differences between traditional and modernist architecture. Here are three passages exemplary of Adam’s clear yet profound thinking.

Passage the First:

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.

Passage the Second:

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.

Passage the Third:

Until the later twentieth century, all buildings were traditional or customary. That is, either they deliberately drew upon some aspect of the past either unselfconsciously in customary or vernacular buildings or they made conscious references to the past in tradi- tional or high-style revivals. While the desire to be up-to-date and the wish to be different have always existed, there was no theory of a complete aesthetic disengagement from the past. It is this absence of complete and deliberate disjunction that allows older villages, towns, and cities to have a harmony while containing buildings of quite different styles and periods.

In all three passages, Adam describes the most essential differences between modern architecture and traditional architecture. Without the flapping of arms and gnashing of teeth in which I usually engage, Adam describes the crossroads that humanity has reached in the style wars, which modernists try to ignore but which not a few traditional architects acknowledge with some degree of uneasiness. That is because we are all part of our culture, like it or not, and right now this choice, supposedly just a matter of taste, is exactly not just a matter of taste. And since society has wrongly embraced the wrong choice at the highest levels, talking back is literally to speak truth to power. So no, it is not easy or comfortable to do. But the consequences of not doing it will be horrifying.

It is the great unacknowledged issue of our time. If humans want to continue to follow the path of modern architecture, it will take society down one of two roads. We are on the road that takes us toward a totalitarian state. This is what modern architecture is about. Modernism is cold because its chosen metaphor is the machine. It exalts the spirit of a governance that treats each citizen as a cog in a machine. If we want a better future, humanity must turn toward traditional architecture, which has evolved its path, on our behalf, slowly over many centuries through trial and error that seeks honestly to identify and develop the techniques in design and building that reflect nature and thus benefit humanity.

This is our choice, and nowhere is it writ more clearly and forcefully than by Robert Adam in his book Classic Columns.

So buy it for those you love and respect, and for yourself, and for the future.

***

I apologize for confusing some readers of my last post on parks in Providence. If you got it through an email with an introduction beginning “Is Providence without …” I accidentally flipped the yes and no at the end. It should read “… Zipf says yes, I say no.”

Here it is, corrected:

Is Providence without “City Beautiful-era” parks? Catherine Zipf says yes, I say no:

https://architecturehereandthere.com/2017/11/30/city-beautiful-parks-of-la-prov/

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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2 Responses to Review: “Classic Columns”

  1. Yes, Milton, that was a most excellent passage from Robert. It may well be that some traditions are bad for society, but not the ones he is talking about. I would only add that the modernist “tradition” of rejecting tradition is, I think, part of the broader effort effort by radicals, using deconstructivist strategies, to destabilize society in every way it can. I don’t think most modernist architects are part of that “conspiracy,” or even recognize its existence. But the buildings they design make them participants in it nevertheless.

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  2. Milton W. Grenfell says:

    Thanks for the very trenchant quotes selected from Bob Adams. The last of the three makes a particularly important point, which is that the reason for the harmony of ALL pre modern settlements, is that they were all traditional, ie based on emulation of prior buildings. ONLY modern architecture abandoned this approach -that of a profession learning from its own tradition, – and decided there was nothing to learn from the thousands of preceding years of architecture. Pace Bob Stern, modernism is NOT just another style. Res ipse locquitur.

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