‘Spirit of the age’ bugaboo

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David Watkin in Chicago for Henry Hope Reed Award ceremony. (Architects Journal)

Among the most inane of modern architecture’s founding conceits is that buildings reflect the spirit of the age. If a building truly reflects the spirit of the age rather than, as most people would expect, its architect’s desire to express his own particular talent, how can one architectural period possibly supply buildings of different styles, as is always the case? This would suggest that a period may have competing spirits, which of course torpedoes the very idea of an identifiable spirit of the age.

For months I have immersed myself in the thinking of Prof. James Stevens Curl, author of Making Dystopia, published by Oxford University Press. As part of that immersion I am rereading a book by one of his favorite authors, the late David Watkin, his friend and fellow British architectural historian. Morality and Architecture Revisited*, published in 2001, is a reprint that added his reaction to the largely but not completely negative establishment critique of the original book’s publication in 1977. In a letter to Watkin, the eminent architectural historian Sir John Summerson wrote:

I admire the book greatly. It is the most important piece of writing on the philosophy of architecture that has appeared for a very long time. But do I agree with everything you say? Well, yes, I think I do. I have the feeling that you have written an obituary of ideas which have wilted and died without many of us realizing that this is what has happened.

The ideas were stillborn, but the modernists and their acolytes have kept them on life support, so to speak, hiding their intellectual weakness in the same closets where the founders’ relations with the Nazis are kept.

Sir Karl Popper, the eminent philosopher, wrote: “I find this important. The irrelevance and emptiness of the Zeitgeist philosophy” – essentially the same idea that each period in history has a distinct spirit of its own – “is shown very powerfully in your book.”

Watkin, who died last year, and whom I met in 2013 in Chicago, where he was celebrated for winning the Henry Hope Reed award (given in association with the Driehaus Prize), was disappointed that so many of eminence who expressed admiration for his book privately did not do so publicly. This is no surprise. The modernist establishment, or cult, is ruthless, even if its power may be on the wane. Even today, though, many of the most dire opponents of speaking truth to modernist power are classicists themselves, who fear anything that might discomfort the reigning apparat. Such bad manners!

Still, I imagine Watkin’s book would get similarly tentative applause from many classicists today, as I suspect has been so with Professor Curl’s book, which has been roundly condemned by the usual suspects. Stevens Curl gores oxen with his terrible swift pen, as Watkin did 41 years ago.

Whereas Stevens Curl in his book describes in detail the “strange rise and survival of architectural barbarism” (its subtitle) and indicts each rascally turn in modernism’s sordid history,  Watkin’s book dissects the “spirit of the age” bugaboo line by line from architectural historians – Lewis Mumford, Sigfried Giedion and, especially, Nikolaus Pevsner – who struggled to fortify the mush of Le Corbusier’s thinking. I would say that Watkin inflicts the death of a thousand cuts, except that each sentence is a stab in the heart.

To give you an idea, here is an example in which he critiques Giedion’s writing about the spirit of the age:

[O]ne can surely be suspicious of the implication that the historian owes less to documentary evidence than to inspiration by the spirit of his age. According to this view, … the historian is not capable of discovering truths by the scholarly exercise of a disciplined mind, but is merely a vehicle of the spirit of the age or of class interests or of the collective subconscious. Basic to this interpretation of history is a belief not merely in the spirit of the age but that the spirit expresses itself through men, rather than that men themselves create and constitute the spirit of the age and are able to help choose what it will be. It is a view which sees art and architecture as an inevitable reflection or expression of something else outside its creators.

Without a single particularly memorable sentence or phrase, the passage is priceless and suddenly “the spirit of the age” is history. After reading it, no thinking person could possibly credit it as anything but nonsense.

Two decades ago, as the guest of Roger Scruton, I heard Watkin lecture in London. I have no recollection of what he said because the Prince of Wales had just that very day announced that a modernist had been hired to run his architecture school. The many fans of Charles and of Watkin in the audience were cast into deep funk by the news. It just occurred to me to wonder whether Professor Curl was among them.

[*I have linked to the original version because a copy of Revisited runs into the hundreds of dollars.]

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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2 Responses to ‘Spirit of the age’ bugaboo

  1. Artemas says:

    Some time ago I showed two photos to an acquaintance, a recent architecture graduate, who said that “architecture should reflect the spirit of our age”.

    The first one was of Villa Tugendhat by Mies van der Rohe, a close-up of a curved glass wall under a concrete slab of a roof. I specifically chose that view so that he wouldn’t recognize the building which should be known to him. (He didn’t recognize it.)

    The second one was of Boch Chapel and Mausoleum from this very blog.

    I asked him which of the two buildings reflects the spirit of our age. He naturally replied “the first one, because nobody will ever build anything like the second one. Architecture of our age is about efficiency and economy. Form follows function. We don’t have time for useless decoration.”

    I then revealed that the first one was built in 1928 and the second in 2018, and inquired “How can this be, that according to you the spirit of our age is reflected by an almost-century-old building? Are we still living in Weimar Republic?” He mumbled something about me “confusing civic and unique architecture” (I’ve no idea what it means) and wasn’t keen to discuss it any further.

    To his credit, Mies’s glass wall could have very well been designed by Zaha Hadid. It just shows how really stagnant “modern” architecture is.


  2. LazyReader says:

    Art Deco was definitely spirit of the age. In expression the American version of it boldly showcased the wonders of new industrial materials society could work with. Like the famous expositions and worlds fair’s before, Art Deco was to showcase the technologies that allowed Man to build.
    Art Deco furniture and interior materials; their greatest technological triumph was in transportation and material science. The advent of new shipping and materials allowed us to use new substances to make products. Laminated woods, chrome, stainless steel, bakelite (Plastic), the rise of the air industry and tropical tourism opened the US market to new timbers such as Mahogany, Ebony, Teak, Rosewood, Narra. The first introduction of plastics into the consumer market albeit higher price. Buildings were decorated with motif’s influenced by man’s mechanical, scientific, agricultural mind.

    The sixties brought another evolution, The Googie and Jet age, defined by Sharpness and broad swooping curves. And once again consumer products were shaped by it, rocket ship toys, blaster guns, Disney’s Tomorrow world…………


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