Scott: The mechanical fallacy

Facade of Seagram Building, with its structural dishonesty. (www.eca.ed.ac.uk)

Perhaps the most eloquent, erudite, evocative denunciation of modern architecture came near the beginning of its ascendancy with Geoffrey Scott’s chapter “The Mechanical Fallacy” from his 1924 book, The Architecture of Humanism. Scott has the modernists dead to rights. The following passages, which address the notion that beauty is the result of structural honesty, are excerpted from A Battle of Styles, a compendium edited in 1961 by Henry Hope Reed Jr. and William A. Coles.

Such [writes Scott, referring to his previous chapter “The Romantic Fallacy”], in broad outline, were the tendencies, and such, for architecture, the results, of the criticism which drew its inspiration from the Romantic Movement. Very different in its origins, more plausible in its reasoning, but in its issue no less misleading is the school of theory by which this criticism was succeeded. Not poetry but science, not sentiment but calculation, is now the misguiding influence. …

In every activity of life … [w]here mechanical elements indisputedly formed the basis, it was natural to pretend that mechanical results were the goal; especially at a time when, in every field of thought, the nature of value was being more or less confused with the means by which it is produced.

… [If] the relation of construction to design is the fundamental problem of architectural aesthetics, … [w]e must ask, then, what is the true relation of construction to architectural beauty. …

“Architecture,” such critics are apt to say, “architecture is construction. Its essential characteristic as an art is that it deals, not with mere patterns of light and shade, but with structural laws. In judging architecture, therefore, this peculiarity, which constitutes its uniqueness as an art, must not be overlooked: on the contrary, since every art is primarily to be judged by its own special qualities, it is precisely by reference to these structural laws that architectural standards must be fixed. That architecture, in short, will be beautiful in which the construction is best, and in which it is most truthfully displayed.” …

In the modern criticism of architecture, we are habitually asked to take this view for granted, and the untenable assertions as well; and this is accepted without discussion, purely owing to the mechanical preconceptions of the time, which make all criticisms on the score of “structure” seem peculiarly convincing. …

[The Renaissance] produced architecture which looked vigorous and stable, and it took adequate measures to see that it actually was so. … Had it remained tied to the ideal of so-called constructive sincerity, which means no more than an arbitrary insistence that the structural and artistic necessities of architecture should be satisfied by one and the same expedient, its search for structural beauty would have been hampered at every turn. And since this dilemma was obvious to every one, no one was offended by the means taken to overcome it.

I was never offended by the fact that the ancients covered columns of rude structural material with marble in order to enhance beauty. But I have long been offended by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s use, in the Seagram Building (1958), of “bronze-toned” vertical beams to cover fire retardant (concrete) demanded by the New York City building code to protect steel girders. This was a lie, but an offensive lie only insofar as it was described as “honesty” – the reflection of true structure. “God is in the details,” quoth the despicable Mies! What baloney!

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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1 Response to Scott: The mechanical fallacy

  1. LazyReader says:

    People assert “Classicism” is White Supremacy
    Phillip Johnson, Corbusier, and Loos were three important pillars of the modern architecture movement. Two Nazis/ collaborators and a convicted pedophile. Quite a foundation you have there modernists.

    The ERA of new building codes emerged as buildings got HIGHER, but higher over all average. While the skyline proliferated, Fear that such light, building materials though made of metal; were a fire hazard.

    Like

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