There’s much in the air these days about architecture school. British students have petitioned for architecture schools across the pond to do a better job teaching how architecture school can be more relevant to climate change. Sir Roger Scruton has addressed their concerns, though not quite as they might wish. He believes that architecture school should be about architecture.
Here, from his pathbreaking 1995 book The Classical Vernacular: Architectural Principles in an Age of Nihilism, he describes the fundamentals of architecture school as originally conceived, where teachers taught how to create the form of Western civilization in cities and towns around the world. He then describes what happened next.
Our civilization continues to produce forms which are acceptable to us, because it succeeded in enshrining its truth in education. An astonishing effort took place in nineteenth-century Europe and America to transcribe the values of our culture into a secular body of knowledge, and to hand on that knowledge from generation to generation without the benefit of the pulpit or the pilgrimage.
Nowhere was this process more successful than in the field of architecture. All the busy treatises of the Beaux-Arts, of the Gothic, Greek and Classical revivalists, of the critics and disciplinarians of the syncretic styles, had one overriding and urgent concern: to ensure that a precious body of knowledge is not lost, that meaning is handed down and perpetuated by generations who have been severed from the inner impulse of a justifying faith. And, looking at the nineteenth-century architecture of Europe and America, who can doubt the success of their endeavour?
The most important change initiated by the modern movement was to wage unconditional war on this educational tradition. Certain things were no longer to be studied, not because they had been examined and found wanting, but because the knowledge contained in them was too great a rebuke to the impatient ignorance of the day.
That passage is from Chapter 7 of The Classical Vernacular, and he follows it with eleven “fundamental” principles of architecture, to which he adds eleven more principles that flow from the first eleven. Together, they amount to the most profound writing I’ve encountered on architecture. In fact, they should be memorized in the introductory course of any serious architecture school. I am tempted to type out all 22, but my fingers already grow weary from transcribing the three paragraphs I’ve chosen above. I can only urge readers to buy the book or borrow it from a library or a friend.
Okay, okay – just a couple. The first and second principles read:
1. Architecture is a human gesture in a human world, and, like every human gesture it is judged in terms of its meaning.
2. The human world is governed by the principle of “the priority of appearance.” What is hidden from us has no meaning. (Thus a blush has meaning, but not the flux of blood which causes it.) To know how to build, therefore, you must first understand appearances.
The rest get longer and longer. Of course modern architecture bears no relationship to these principles at all, except as their negation. Yes, even modern architecture has meaning, but that meaning is that no rules are worthy of respect, and that no meaning can claim to be nearer the truth than any other. That fact is a simplified explanation of why modern architecture is so ugly and so disliked by all thinking people. Here is the eighth principle:
8. The aesthetics of everyday life consists in a constant process of adjustment, between the appearance of objects, and the values of the people who create and observe them. Since the common pursuit of a public morality is essential to our happiness, we have an overriding reason to engage in the common pursuit of a public taste. The aesthetic understanding ought to act as a shaping hand in all our public endeavours, adapting the world to our emotions and our emotions to the world, so as to overcome what is savage, beyond us, unheimlich [scary]. We must never cease, therefore, to seek for the forms that display, as a visible meaning, the moral co-ordination of the community.
Of course, all of principle No. 8 is an insult to the morality, if it can be so called, of today’s architecture and the precepts by which it is taught in the schools of architecture. I wonder whether the words would even be readable by, let alone comprehensible to, say, a member of the I-195 Redevelopment District Commission. That’s a body that is in the process of ruining one of the oldest parts of Providence, without (if I may say so gently) its commissioners’ understanding what they are doing. If I told the 195 commissioners that they had a morality of some sort (as they do, albeit entirely invisible to them), the entire pack of them would rush off to the restroom to wash their hands.
But Roger Scruton is the last person who would laugh at them.