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.