‘Dystopia’ on sale in U.S.

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“Pardon me, where is the school of architecture?” (Austin Cramer)

On Monday, Making Dystopia, by British architectural historian James Stevens Curl, officially went on sale in the United States. I am mere pages away from its completion and will review it soon. It offers a comprehensive study of a monstrous crime, summed up in the subtitle of the book: The Strange Rise and Survival of Architectural Barbarism.

Published by Oxford University Press, this hefty volume has rattled the cages of the architectural establishment in Great Britain as, no doubt, it will here. Some of those who have praised the book have enjoyed its observations on schools of architecture. For centuries an education in the design of buildings looked backward in order to teach the next generation of architects to move forward – a pattern followed by every profession, indeed every human field of endeavor throughout history until modern architecture. Stevens Curl, who was himself trained as an architect, describes how it used to be. First, students would learn how to draw exemplary buildings:

It was only by such close examination that detailed knowledge could be acquired of proportional systems, relationships of parts, axial planning, mouldings, how junctions are formed in a satisfactory manner, and, above all, how materials were used and put together in a building, especially dressings around openings such as windows or doors, where the materials often differed from those used in expanses of wall.

Such study revealed how a moulded skirting stopped at a block above which an architrave rose; how a band of mouldings joined another band at right angles to it; how the features of a room (e.g. fire-surrounds, windows, doors, and bays) related to each other by means of main and subsidiary axes; how subtle, recessed bands or planted beads could not only disguise joints, but helped objects to look pleasing by their logical positioning and the resulting subdivision of planes; how plinths, pedestals, rails, and cornices divided and finished the designs of walls; how pilasters, antae, or buttresses could break up a long wall into a series of parts and relate to the design of entablatures, ceiling-compartments, and the geometries of floor-finishes; how to treat a corner (inside and out); how the structural aspects of holes in walls such as those required for windows and doors are expressed in design, and how the treatment of a doorway might signal its significance and meaning; and a great deal more. In other words, an understanding of the ways in which a building was constructed was encouraged by such detailed hands-on study at close proximity to the fabric, reinforced by having to draw it to scale with accuracy and sensitivity.

The student would discover a rich alphabet to start with, then a vocabulary, and then a whole language capable of infinitely adaptable use, enabling him or her to look at buildings with informed eyes, and making visits to fine cities, towns, and works of architecture all the more enjoyable and instructive. Furthermore, armed with such a language, an architect did not have to stick pedantically to dull copyism. Skilled designers such as Karl Friedrich Schinkel, Leo von Klenze, Sir John Soane, or Alexander “Greek” Thomson (all of whom were thoroughly immersed in architectural languages [and fluent in their uses too]) could employ them as springboards for adaptability, invention, and creativity, all in the service of making architecture with profound resonances and meanings, which is what real architecture is about. Those languages with which they were acquainted gave them the means by which they could actually design with fecund invention and skill, drawing on true expertise and deep learning, to make buildings that were actually fresh, truly original, and which really functioned as architecture.

Such education, which had prevailed for centuries, was killed off in the 1950s and ’60s. It was replaced by an education totally different:

[S]tudents’ “projects,” produced in “studios,” were largely graded on the basis of how closely they resembled whatever “architecture” illustrated in the magazines was currently fashionable. Despite the supposed abolition of “style,” students who did not conform to stylistic dogma were cast into outer darkness. I can confirm this, for my own time in schools of architecture was a revelation: it left me wholly unprepared for the real world designing real buildings. That experience was by no means unique, for others have come to similar conclusions concerning their own inadequate “education” and the tactics used by tutors (often reinforced by their fellow-students anxious to ingratiate themselves with the tutors) to enforce conformity on pain of rejection and ultimate failure.

Stevens Curl graduated from the architecture school at Oxford in 1963. I never went to architecture school. So, unless he started out his architect coursework as a renegade, his road to wisdom in architecture required him, at some point, to rip off the blinders I was never forced to don. Yet in my years of writing about architecture, I have encountered so many students and practitioners with so much pent-up anger, who, some moved to tears, told me horror stories of the brutality they faced from faculty in architecture school if they did not conform to modernist orthodoxy. James Stevens Curl’s description of the education of architects today is of a piece, in its honesty, truthfulness and factuality, with his book’s description of the tragic history of the profession in the 20th century.

The passages above from Making Dystopia are far from its most controversial, let alone its most angry. The passages I quote in my review will rattle the modernist cage with far more violence than these.

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, 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 ‘Dystopia’ on sale in U.S.

  1. Daniel Morales says:

    It’s interesting how in the passages quoted, Mr. Curl talks about ‘architectural language’, yet employs the colloquial ‘style’ when speaking about modernists. It seems modernism’s disdain for the term has leaked into the traditional camp.


    • Dan, you are quite right. In fact, you frequently hear modernists deploring the idea of “style wars,” as if resisting modern architecture requires only that trads offer their own theories of architecture for architects of every persuasion to reach some sort of glorious compromise (which of course would be totally unworkable at at least half unbearable). I don’t think Curl is among those who would participate. He is skeptical that overthrowing the current regime is possible, in part because he realizes that mods will simply ignore trads (as they have for decades), and still have no reason to change.


      • Daniel Morales says:

        That’s why it would serve us well to promote stylistic eclecticism. Open up the marketplace of ideas and traditionalism will once again be alive and kicking. This might seem too libertine for some traditionalists, but I don’t see modernists opening up the schools to other points of view unless embarrassed by their authoritarian ways.


  2. Mark Hewitt says:

    David: I am making my way through the book as well and it is excellent. Some of the history is known to those of us who took Vince Scully’s course, and studied with other good historians. Other material is new to me. Curl has unearthed some real zingers! He exposes the fallacies upon which the glories of Modernism are based. I will review the book as well, hopefully in a journal like the JSAH. –MAH

    Liked by 1 person

  3. leveveg says:

    WoW! Now I’ve 3 books I must read!
    A: Making Dystopia: The Strange Rise and Survival of Architectural Barbarism
    B: Klyngetunet – Den norske landsbyen (about the traditional Norwegian village, which disappeared in the wake of the land reform of 1859, inspired by the American settlers and John Locke.)
    C: Bedehusland – Sjå, eg kjem snart! (about Norwegian layman Christianity, which reached a peak 100+ years ago, and which influenced our society on a broader range than anyone can imagine today. Soon the last “bedehus”, a house for prayer and gathering, like a third room, is gone.)


  4. leveveg says:

    Reblogged this on LeveVeg and commented:
    Endelig! Skal bli deilig å få satt flere ord på hva man opplever. Hvor skal man flykte fra dette?


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