How architecture evolves

“Grecian and Gothic” – a charming description of this engraving is at the end of this post. (Wikipedia)

Here is a quotation about the evolution of architecture from “The Biological Fallacy” of Geoffrey Scott’s The Architecture of Humanism (1924):

Decadence is a biological metaphor. Within the field of biology it holds true as a fact, and is subject to law; beyond that field it holds true only by analogy. We can judge an organism by one constant standard – its power to survive: a power that varies in a known progression, a power of supreme importance. But even here – where the sequence of immaturity, prime and decay is a fact governed by predictable law – the power to survive is no test of aesthetic quality: the fragile unfolding of a leaf in spring, its red corruption in autumn, are not less beautiful than its strength in summer. And when we have to deal, not with a true and living organism but with a series of works of art, the tests of evolution are even more misleading. For here we ourselves define the unit which we estimate. We have to be sure that our sequence is really a sequence and not an accidental group. We have to be sure that there is a permanent thread of quality by which the sequence may at every point be judged, and that this quality is at each point the true centre of the art’s intention. The mere power of an architectural tradition to survive – could we estimate it – might be a permanent quality but hardly a relevant one; for the successive moments of an art are self-justified and self-complete. To estimate one by reference to another is a dangerous method of criticism.

His next chapter, “The Academic Fallacy,” begins:

“There are in reality,” says architecture’s principal historian, “two styles of Architectural Art – one practiced universally befoe the sixteenth century, and another invented since.” To the former belong “the true Styles of Architecture,” to the latter “the Copying or Imitative Styles.”

Renaissance architecture is imitative. It is more imitative than any style of building that preceded it.

To better understand Scott, let’s recall that he was writing in 1924, or prior to it, during which period there was very little modern architecture on view anywhere in the world. It is considered axiomatic, even today, that architecture evolved to its current modernist inanity by steps that each forecast its increasing alienation from traditional forms that Scott and many others say were already imitative, but that prior forms were less imitative: until we arrive at the complete rejection of imitation represented by modernism. Here is the problem with that:

Almost no architecture is strictly or exactly imitative. It does not “copy the past,” unless as a reconstruction or restoration. Architects may decide to diverge from past forms, and have done so both previous to and since Scott’s line of separation at the Renaissance. At that time, architects imitated the classical architecture of the ancients, using ruins and Vitruvius as their guides. But what about Gothic? What about Romanesque? Did those architects and builders have pattern books to look at, or did they use drawings of earlier buildings so as to copy them? No. Every architect used creativity of one degree or another to build structures that accomplished a set of intended practical purposes, and shaped them or decorated them following their own response to previous forms, which may have hewed near or far from what architects built before them, depending on their genius.

At some point allegedly connected to the so-called Picturesque or Romantic or Baroque period(s), it is said that architects began to incorporate meaning into their forms in ways they allegedly never did before. It seems difficult to point to some work of architecture whose designer actually did this. In every case he can be said to have copied buildings of greater or lesser similarity to the one that he contemplated, or conjured them up in his own mind, inspired by memories of buildings he had seen before, both as to their form or their decoration. Until late in this period, there were almost no schools of architecture.

In no case would any architect, forced by his sense of the purity of form or by a sense of the size of his budget, strive to pare its embellishment in a manner that architectural historians (looking backward) have imagined as looking forward to even more simplicity of form.

Apart from features ordained by the proposed use of a building, including decor that symbolized the user, no meaning adheres to any building that springs from the intention of its architect. Architecture evolves, but only in retrospect, and that retrospective view has raised many fallacies in the study of the history of architecture. Scott’s biological fallacy tells us that the rise and fall of architecture is not the same as the rise and fall of a leaf upon a tree. There is less intent in the latter (except perhaps in the eye of God), but the human intent in architecture is subservient to practical considerations, and the embellishment of its form copies the past but does not predict its future.

However, Scott is wrong that imitation is a sign of decline in architecture (if indeed that is what he is saying). Only with modern architecture did meaning gain an ascendancy, and, in a paradox, that ascendancy represents a notable decline in the quality of architecture as properly judged. This decline was accompanied by a retreat from imitation, from inspiration. It is properly called “anti-architecture,” in the formulation of Nikos Salingaros. It is easy to see in modern architecture the poverty of art and of human imagination that was abundant before its rise. But we can forgive Scott because he would hardly have been aware of architecture’s doom in 1924.

I think I am wandering out into the tall grass here, and I assume readers will kindly identify what I am missing.


Here is Wikipedia’s description of the image atop this post:

A Feb. 1st 1816 print (published J. Taylor, London) which exemplifies the contrast between neo-classical vs. romantic styles of landscape and architecture (or the “Grecian” and the “Gothic” as they’re termed here). This engraved plate accompanied Humphry Repton‘s 1816 book Fragments on the Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening.

Marianne Dashwood in Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility is a famous proponent of the romantic aesthetic, while Edward Ferrars in the same book says “I like a fine prospect, but not on picturesque principles. I do not like crooked, twisted, blasted trees. I admire them much more if they are tall, straight, and flourishing. I do not like ruined, tattered cottages. I am not fond of nettles or thistles, or heath blossoms. I have more pleasure in a snug farm-house than a watch-tower–and a troop of tidy, happy villagers please me better than the finest banditti in the world.”

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,, 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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4 Responses to How architecture evolves

  1. edward7pan says:

    Dear Mr. Brussat,

    Forgive me but I must point out the misunderstanding: not just Scott didn’t criticise Renaissance architecture as imitative but he regarded it highly as The Architecture of Humanism.

    The quote “Renaissance architecture is imitative. It is more imitative than any style of building that preceded it” was a self-mockery in response to the statement at the beginning of the chapter by Fergusson, who was actually the one that criticised Renaissance architecture.

    Scott’s reasoning and advocacy for Classical Architecture or Renaissance architecture can be found in every chapter of his book. To name a few:

    “[…] They [the men of the Renaissance] had an immediate preference for certain combinations of mass and void, of light and shade, and, compared with this, all other motives in the formation of their distinctive style were insignificant. For these other motives, being accidental, exerted no consistent pressure, and, consequently, were absorbed or thrust aside by the steady influence of a conscious taste for form. As an architecture of taste, then, we must let it rest, where our historians are so unwilling to leave it, or where, leaving it, they think it necessary to condemn: as though there were something degraded in liking certain forms for their own sake and valuing architecture primarily as the means by which they may be obtained.[…]” (page 33)


    “This principle of humanism explains our pleasure in Renaissance building. It gives us, also, some final links that we require. It forms the common tie between the different phases—at first sight so contradictory—of Renaissance style. It accounts for its strange attitude, at once obsequious and unruly, to the architecture of antiquity. It explains how Renaissance architecture is allied to the whole tendency of thought with which it was contemporary — the humanist attitude to literature and life.” (page 241)

    Edward Pan

    David Brussat’s reply:

    Yes, Edward, I am aware that Reed was a proponent of classical architecture. I was not aware that in the quotation I used he was mocking himself in response to Ferguson. I assumed that for Reed, imitation was a good thing (“Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery” and all that). So the line from Reed was a little baffling to me, and I took it as more a comparative remark than a criticism. Thanks for clearing it up!

    [The WordPress “reply” function did not work, forcing me to add my reply to Edward’s comment.]


  2. LazyReader says:

    For thousands of years Architecture style was a byproduct of the conquering culture. Now architecture is the conquering culture which is why it looks the same no matter where you go.

    Welfare for starving artists. This is absurd. I don’t like a lot of what passes for art these days. Especially the modern art we put up in our cities and it’s everywhere now. What good is art and how valuable is it when it becomes ubiquitous. Sculptor Richard Cera’s work “Tilted Arch” was put up at a cost of $175,000. It was a leaning slab of rusty metal. There was a war brewing in New York over people who hated it and those accusing the haters of being cultureless. Eventually it taken down, cut up into pieces and stashed in a warehouse and so far culture hasn’t suffered it’s loss. Take that art. They recently installed a public piece at a bus stop in my town. By the way, do they mean “bus station?” I suppose they dare not speak those words since, in our culture, buses are for losers. If someone chucked a molotov cocktail into a museum of modern art, we wouldn’t miss it. Also it’s composition of non-flammable material ensures little is destroyed. Back then architecture was art, it evoked a sense of impression, you didn’t need public art, the buildings served that purpose. Today architecture has become crap. This is the headquarters of the Southern Poverty Law Center. The only poverty I see is the “poor” excuse for a building. Nice to know they spent all that money on this rather than actually alleviating poverty in the South.


    • John the First says:

      Greetings, lone commentors who are not member of any clique or club, as such also not obliged to be polite. But to approach the issue with some humour:

      “Sculptor Richard Cera’s work “Tilted Arch” was put up at a cost of $175,000. It was a leaning slab of rusty metal. There was a war brewing in New York over people who hated it and those accusing the haters of being cultureless.”

      In my country there have been two instances where ‘barbarian’ construction workers demolished alleged work of modern art. These guys didn’t realize that some ‘sculpture’ of metal which was positioned outside of some building was supposed to be contemporary art. They didn’t accuse anyone of being culturless, in their healthy naive ignorance, they just dumped the thing in the metal shredder, implicitly declaring it useless in its current form… On another occasion a wall had been overpainted, turned out that what was below it was supposed to be art.
      According to a clique, still alive, very valuable art created by an artist who already had exchanged the temporal for the eternal had been destroyed. But you can’t really blame the barbarian construction workers can you.

      Bring on the barbarians, so to execute their judgement without much ado? Probably some distant future generation will do so.


  3. John the First says:

    My theory: decadence is a spiritual condition which can affect an organism, but it never proceeds from an organism. Organism are automatons, blindly subject to law. Decadence can only occur in a creature which has sufficient power of will and active conscientiousness, emotional and mental capacities to override the force of natural instinct, and, in the case of humans, to override common sense (based on collective long term experience). Organisms may be sentient, but they are in lack of active consciousness and sufficient will power, they are in lack of freedom, also the risks of freedom.
    In case of the effect of the spiritual condition on an organism, the organism can never be said to be in a state of decadence, but rather that the natural laws to which the organism obey are continuously negatively counteracted by a spiritual force.

    My theory about imitation:
    Imitation in architecture is no sign of decline itself, humans are imitative to a degree in absolutely every area, for very good reasons. A culture could be said to be spiritually to a degree in decline when its products are the result of the force of (often automatisms of) imitation, disproportional in relation to the force of the degree of conscious powers of the mind (will power, imagination). When the resultant cultural products are no spiritual synthesis, containing something substantial of the evolving contemporary mind, but mostly imitation.


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