Scruton’s architecture school

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Kensington Park Road, London. (Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea)

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.

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Sir Roger Scruton

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.

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The Classical Vernacular

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.

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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5 Responses to Scruton’s architecture school

  1. Anthony says:

    Dear Lazy Reader, Interesting. But did you write this or does it come from Ralph Knowles? I thought it was yours until I came to the end where you mentioned Mr. Knowles.

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  2. John says:

    “He believes that architecture school should be about architecture.”

    Only the highest arts can afford that, art for the sake of art (art has no sake though, humans have a sake).
    Architecture has a practical function also, to protect from nature, to live and to gather. So, I was told that in the past, the residential architecture for the poor often included deliberate small windows, for the sake of heath conservation (in lack of modern techniques of isolation). In spaces with very high ceilings it is more difficult to keep the temperature at a desired level, etc. In architecture we live and gather, so architecture is subjugated to all kind of practical physical human realities (aside these related to engineering). But they better be real concerns rather than imagined ones.

    Quoting some lines from Oscar Wilde:

    “If Nature had been comfortable, mankind would never have invented architecture, and I prefer houses to the open air. In a house we all feel of the proper proportions. Everything is subordinated to us, fashioned for our use and our pleasure. Egotism itself, which is so necessary to a proper sense of human dignity, is entirely the result of indoor life. Out of doors one becomes abstract and impersonal. One’s individuality absolutely leaves one. And then Nature is so indifferent, so unappreciative. Whenever I am walking in the park here, I always feel that I am no more to her than the cattle that browse on the slope, or the burdock that blooms in the ditch. “

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  3. LazyReader says:

    I stopped worrying about climate change a long time ago. The highest temperature ever recorded was 134 degrees Fahrenheit in 1913 in Death Valley California. When that records broken I’ll worry about the climate. I’m a luke-warmer, not a denier. THERE WILL Be some warming with contributions to CO2, However that requires logarithmic inputs of CO2 which are impossible. In the span of 140 years the atmospheric CO2 level went from 280 ppm to 400 ppm a 42% increase and we got a near 1 degree celsius boost in average temperature. So to get another degree we’ll need double the CO2 emissions (800 ppm) and double that again (1600ppm) to get another degree respectively. CO2 is a warming gas, however the physics of it’s warming potential decrease based on the law of diminishing returns because CO2 molecules infrared propensity for absorption of heat can only hold so much. As CO2 emissions start to slowly decline the atmosphere will remain as is for the foreseeable future; one things for sure a CO2 rich environment is beneficial for plant life. The “Point of diminishing returns” for CO2 enrichment doesn’t begin until about 2000 ppm. If you study paleoclimate, Earth’s CO2 levels have always for much of geologic history been near 1000 ppm or within that range, thru out history CO2 levels have been steadily declining and that’s not good, once it hits around 150 ppm plant life ceases overall growth. Presently by 2019 the rate is 415 ppm. That’s reasonable and stable for the agriculture outdoors for the foreseeable future. However greenhouse growers growing pot or dare I say vegetables…purposely increase CO2 levels indoors to above 1000 ppm or more for better buds……..i mean beets.

    And besides, I’ll believe that climate is a problem when the Googlers in Sicily start acting if it is a problem. Currently, either they don’t believe climate change is the big problem they keep saying it is, or they just don’t care enough about saving the planet to give up their perks. The lifestyle hypocrisy of the main purveyors of [Insert cause] pretty much eliminates any penchant of responsibility or enthusiasm for whatever they’re proposing. Also remember they can afford any cost overrun that for them is but a minor annoyance.
    To create policy, you need to create a “problem”, and you need to be able to blame that problem on people whom by policy you wanna control. Segregate a group of people to do something different, so you have to pin something on their behavior to create policy to control them.

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  4. LazyReader says:

    A one degree increase in temperature over 140 years is well within the natural parameters the climate.

    When realtors advertise 9-10 foot ceilings they’re scamming you…how the hell are you supposed to clean them? An increase in ceiling height increases the useless amount of air volume you have to heat and cool. A decrease in ceiling height by one foot decreases your air volume by 1000-2000 cubic feet. It takes 19 BTU’s of energy to change the temperature of 1000 cubic feet of air one degree Fahrenheit. It takes 2-3 times that much energy to decrease the temperature (Via air conditioning) one degree Fahrenheit. The average home size in the US is now 2,600 square feet of floor space. With a ceiling height of 9 feet that’s over 23,000 cubic feet of interior volume. A McMansion with 9 foot ceilings, needs several thousands BTU’s of energy per day to climate control. A floor plan decrease by 25% eliminates nearly 6,000 cubic feet of volume you’d have to cool down or heat up and a ceiling reduction of just one foot eliminates nearly 8,000 cubic feet of volume without a change in floor size.

    Despite thousands of years of technological progression there’s still no substitute for the southern facing house and the thermal mass wall. Passive solar design requires the knowledge to design and orientate buildings so that they can be heated by the sun. Coupled with other low-tech solutions such as thermal underwear, heated clothing and tile stoves, passive solar design could all but eliminate the use of fossil fuels and biomass for heating buildings throughout large parts of the world. Modern climate control is a technology where we expend huge amounts of energy to warm a interior volume we mostly don’t occupy or spending more energy to get rid of that heat energy. Passive solar design does not involve any new technology. In fact, it has been around for thousands of years, and even predates the use of glass windows. For most of human history, buildings were adapted to the local climate through a consideration of their location, orientation and shape, as well as the appropriate building materials. This resulted in many vernacular building styles in different parts of the world. In contrast, most modern buildings look the same wherever they stand.

    The Ancient Greeks built entire cities which were optimal for solar exposure as far back as the fifth century BC. The fact is, passive solar design took a back seat to the EnergyStar concept which has done little to save energy. Appliances and devices are not the biggest energy consumers. The largest source of energy use is climate control namely water and air heating which eats up 50-70% of our energy portfolio. Ralph Knowles, professor emeritus at the USC’s School of Architecture and author of three fascinating books on the topic.
    Energy and Form: An Ecological Approach to Urban Growth
    Sun Rhythm Form (MIT Press) Reprint Edition
    Ritual House: Drawing on Nature’s Rhythms for Architecture and Urban Design

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    • John says:

      “In contrast, most modern buildings look the same wherever they stand.”

      Indeed, and in relation to the rest of your story, ‘were adapted to the local climate through a consideration of their location’, perhaps experts, besides their current focus of criticism, the focus on sustainability and human well-being (the latter in terms of geometry), can expand their focus to this side of the issue, instead of proposing an ‘architecture school to be about architecture’ (whatever that means). It will be uncovered that modern architecture is also irrational, dysfunctional and inefficient in this respect. There is a risqué though, when this aspect is highlighted it might play into the hands of believers… Perhaps it can be proved that the institutions and elites who are promoting the climate change scenario are themselves most often the promoters of types of modernist architecture which are energy wasters. Sort of like they are all Al Gore’s…

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