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.]