In a world in which the “happy” architectural image feels all-pervasive, the British architect and academic Dr. Timothy Brittain-Catlin reveals its darker side suggesting why, and how, we might come to celebrate it. You can read Brittain-Catlin’s essays on British postmodernism here, and on colorful architecture, here.
“Contemporary buildings celebrate openness, light and free-flowing movement,” says the President of the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) in the March 2017 issue of the Institute’s journal. This is what at my school we call an “announcement”, rather than a statement of fact. Indeed, all architects and architecture students hear these words all the time. But are they true? Should they be?
There’s no historical justification for the assertion that buildings should “celebrate” any kind of openness, or indeed any kind of cheerful feeling. Erik Gunnar’s Asplund’s upbeat extension to the court house in Gothenburg was astonishing because it was the first major building of its type to be like this: previously court houses were designed to be heavy, stifling, possibly even depressing or puzzling. Many buildings were: some obviously so, such as mortuary chapels and grottoes. Freemasons’ lodges were intended to be enigmatic so that masons and not intruders could comprehend them.
No one is surprised that houses that appear in paintings, or in novels, are depressing. It is a fair bet that as many depictions of buildings in other media are downbeat, dark or forbidding, as the opposite. Not only because they have low ceilings and poky windows in the way that unimaginative speculative housing often does, but because writers and artists see depressive emotions as being as important as cheerful ones. And of course they also realized that the evocation of contrasting feelings, such as through a long dark entry to a bright room, can be elating.
Look at John Everett Millais’ 1851 painting Mariana. This is the heroine from Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, who was rejected by her fiancé after her dowry is lost, only to be exploited by the political powers in her city. The architecture of the room expresses her tragedy through the stained glass and the deep shadows created in the wall. It is obvious that a Mariana standing in one of the RIBA president’s cheerful rooms would be ridiculous. It is also obvious that if all rooms were to have the same character, there wouldn’t be scope for expressing any difference of feeling between them.
The reason for this is that if buildings “should” be doing anything, they “should” be reflecting the real cycles of life. That means not just different daily moods, but also the themes of life and history. That way people other than architecture critics will understand them and be enriched by them. John Outram recently told me how the iconographies he devises are drawn from a lifetime’s study of ethnography – the patterns of life of different peoples and the symbols that accompany them. The understanding behind this is that if a designer can draw on ancient ideas and symbols that have developed over hundreds of years, people with no particular specialist education will understand something from them and relate to them. A building can then speak back to them, in the way that a cathedral does. Like much else that re-emerged in 1980s postmodernism, this was a late Victorian or Edwardian idea, carefully and slowly told by W.R. Lethaby in his Architecture, Mysticism and Myth of 1891. The best architecture provides a layering of ideas: some fresh, some inherited, some interpreted. Just making shapes won’t do it. A piece of advice sometimes given to young novelists struggling to develop their narrative out of a dead end is to contrive a meeting between the story’s two most improbable characters. Look around and see how well this approach once served some of Europe’s greatest historical architects.
It is the greater awareness of the idea that variations of mood can enrich building that has made the current upsurge of interest in neo-classical architecture much more exciting than it previously seemed. Modernism had one line only about classical architecture: that its time was over. But the best neo-classicists today are already imaginatively playing with mood: see for example Craig Hamilton’s recent additions to his own house in Wales, or his chapel in Oxfordshire, and John Simpson’s fellows’ dining room at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge. Hamilton’s new entry hall, with its mysterious skylights, single column, and stair with no balustrade presents a wonderful sense of distance between the visitor and the private areas of the house.
For younger designers looking for ideas about where this might take them, James Stevens Curl’s fascinating and masterful book Freemasonry and the Enlightenment has become something of a bible. Curl, who has published a great deal on the architecture of death, not only describes the masonic lodges themselves throughout history (and that is interesting enough) but also traces the origins of the masons’ Mysteries – that is, their accumulated myths and ceremonies, and the architectural symbols used to depict and them. Here, in hundreds of mostly eighteenth-century engravings, are the broken columns, the all-seeing eyes, the ruined pyramids, the cenotaphs, the sepulchres and tombs, both inside buildings and across landscapes. In some cases, these features are arranged mnemonically so that a person passing through them might be reminded of the architectural sequences of Solomon’s temple or a pharaonic tomb.
These features have a tragic air because they represent, in Curl’s interpretation, the masons’ battle against the philistinism and mob rule prevalent in the societies in which they were devised (and, he adds, as if addressing Brexit, “that is given so much credence in the twenty-first century”). It therefore makes sense that the symbols of death or perpetual trial and torment should have been intended to represent eternity, the thing that goes on beyond the frustrations of day-to-day life and the petty concerns of a certain kind of political or religious leader. To have a building made from symbols and forms that outsiders or uneducated people do not understand can furthermore be gratifying and rewarding for the designer who thereby can also add to their own elevated status, the part of the profession that no “project manager” will ever usurp.
The only historical architect whom modernists seem to have accepted is John Soane. Perhaps it is because his buildings can be described, in Le Corbusier’s hollow, echoing phrase, as the “masterful, correct and magnificent play of volumes brought together in light”. Indeed, Margaret Richardson and MaryAnne Stevens’ definitive book about Soane is called Master of Space and Light rather than Master of Gloom and Death, which would have deterred most publishers. But this light filtered through indirectly, and through colored glass; some of the best known spaces that Soane designed, including in his own house, were mausoleums or designed to look like them. His plans have a weighty and labyrinthine quality: a sense that people are pressed downwards within a building seems to have been a recurring theme in the architecture of the Mysteries. Whereas by contrast the Gothic Revivalists and their modernist successors talked all the time about elation and building upwards towards the sun.
There was another tragic aspect to late eighteenth-century neoclassical architecture: we know in retrospect that it was doomed to die out, to be replaced by gothic, by industrial construction systems, by modernism, until finally it became a parody of its earlier self. Yet now it is back, and the eternal sunshine of the neo-Modernist practitioner is in danger of becoming the architecture of the grinning idiot.