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.”