Architecture of the picturesque

Baroque church in Prague that serves as my computer desktop. (Photo by author)

Having just twitted a panel of architects for having “touched on weighty academic matters that would never enter the mind of most citizens,” I beg readers’ pardon for touching on such a matter here.

Many classicists blame “the picturesque” for paving the way for modern architecture. Since I, like most people, think of the picturesque as quaint or charming, I never understood its connection with modernism, although the word “terror” often appears in the discussion. In this connection, paintings of nature as drama – a storm in a tranquil valley – are key. “The sublime and the beautiful,” awe-inspiring vs. serenity, the rational and the nonrational, the Enlightenment vs. Romanticism, Gothic vs. classical styles. Somehow, the picturesque got mixed up in all of this, and, in the words of Nir Haim Buras (Classic Planning, 2020), its “sensibility formulated Modernist thinking regarding design, buildings, and cities.”

I am still confused, but I know a good passage on architecture when I see one, and I recently happened upon a lengthy passage on the picturesque by Geoffrey Scott from his The Architecture of Humanism (1924) in a collection of essays called A Battle of Styles (1961), edited by Henry Hope Reed Jr. and William Coles. The passage struck me as enchanting; however that might relate to the picturesque, I’m not sure. It reads as follows:

Of these two types of aesthetic appeal [the classical and the picturesque], each commands its own dominion; neither is essentially superior to the other, although, since men tend to set a higher value on that which satisfies them longest, it is art of the former kind which has most often been called great. But they do both possess an essential fitness to different occasions. … Fantastic architecture, architecture that startles and delights the curiosity and is not dominated by a broad repose, may sometimes be appropriate. On a subdued scale, and hidden in a garden, it may be pleasant enough; but then, to be visited and not lived in. At a theatrical moment it will be right. It may be gay; it may be curious. But it is unfitted, aesthetically, for the normal uses of the art, for it fatigues the attention; and architecture once again is insistent, dominating and not to be escaped.

I believe Scott had Baroque architecture in mind, not the modernism we put up with incessantly today. Some modern architecture might be said to grant a feeling of repose, but most, especially today, is, at best exciting, even discombobulating – “insistent, dominating and not to be escaped.”

I have referred to Nir Buras’s The Art of Classic Planning. It sits open on my dinner table to be read at leisure. I will occasionally extract a trenchant quote (in fact, the entire book is one long trenchant quote), and eventually, in the not too distant future, will review this volume and its 498 large-format pages. I can’t wait to imbibe his long passage on the picturesque, which I clearly still need to read.

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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8 Responses to Architecture of the picturesque

  1. John the First says:

    “the classical and the picturesque], each commands its own dominion; neither is essentially superior to the other”

    How awfully tendentiously, democratically, politically correct. Of course the classical is superior to the picturesque, the classical obeys to higher laws, it is the product of the higher reaching man, the picturesque falls in place with nature and the struggle of life, it is honest, non pretentious, though without higher striving.

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    • John the First says:

      In addition.

      “Thinking the matter over, it seemed to me that the artist had sinned against that harmony of sentiment which is essential to a good picture. When the other constituents of a landscape have irregular forms, any artificial structure introduced should have an irregular form, that it may seem part of the landscape. The same general character must pervade it and the surrounding objects; otherwise it, and the scene amid which it stands, become not one thing but two things; and we say that it looks out of place. Or, speaking psychologically, the associated ideas called up by a building with its wings, windows, columns, and all its parts symmetrically disposed, differ widely from the ideas associated with an unsymmetrical landscape; and the one set of ideas tends to banish the other.”

      Since the picturesque is the product of the struggle of life in the context of the natural environment, determined by the latter, it cannot be artificially produced. The picturesque which today is mass produced or individually imitated never has the charms of what is the product of the ‘honest’ struggle of life in nature, of what is mostly necessity and neediness. Classical architecture though is wholly artificial, in the positive sense of rising above nature and the struggle of life.
      The conception of the picturesque itself is also the product of the privilege of rising above the struggle of life, the people who once produced it never looked upon it in terms of aesthetics. Historically only privileged elites entertained the idea of the picturesque, for the masses it was merely their habitat, but since the masses today are also partially relieved from the struggle of life, they are also able to partially form a disinterested aesthetic view on it.

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  2. This comment is from British architectural historian and 2019 ICAA Ross Award winner Professor James Stevens Curl, author of “Making Dystopia”:

    Picturesque. See my Oxford Dictionary of Architecture (2015-16) pages 574-5.

    It is absolute nonsense for Modernists to claim any connection with the Picturesque, just as it is complete crap to claim Modernism was a logical follow-up to the Arts-and-Crafts Movement, which the chief drum-banger Pevsner promulgated: in fact Modernism had absolutely NO connection with either, and indeed was just the opposite, the enemy of both.

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  3. David Andreozzi AIA says:

    I do not pretend to be an architectural historian. I do not even play one on TV. But, in an over simplified explanation, I see the picturesque movement as a pivot point away the homogenized and perceived impersonal canons of Greco-Roman/Renaissance ideology back towards nature and place, “Genius Loci”. This is how I interpreted William Gilpin’s famous book “Observations on the River Wye.” And while on the face of it we could scorn this repositioning in the 1700’s, it is actually now (again in my humble opinion), providing the building blocks throughout our modern culture as a datum to appreciate the history, culture, people, and vernacular. For us, architecture geeks, I believe this exact philosophy, morphed with the new appreciation of classical and traditional archetypes is the solution.

    Peace

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  4. barry schiller says:

    Calling attention to a possible example, I suppose as a tourist I vote with my feet and though “picturesque” is not clear to me I believe it applies to the Gaudi buildings in Barcelona which I made a big point of tracking down while there, and so did many many others. But nobody tracked down the modern high rises or apartment blocks, so we see the difference! And though Gaudi is not classical or traditional, it has a lot of appeal.

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    • Many tourists visit Paris but how many of them visit La Defense? Precious few, I’d wager. I too am attracted to Gaudi’s work, probably because it has elements of the traditional even if I would not describe his work as traditional. I’m equally sure it’s not modernist, although it has elements. It’s wonderful stuff, sui generis in a way that, say, Lutyens or Plecnik are not quite.

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  5. Dan Gordon says:

    I guess I need to read The Art of Classic Planning, because my understanding of the picturesque bears no resemblance to modernism. Possibly you will imbibe Nir Buras’s words before I do and will share his rational.

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