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Architectural Style

This is my take on architecture and architects. Many years ago I chose to study architecture, not so much to become an architect but because I did not want to focus exclusively on the arts or the sciences, and architecture offered a blend of the two. I was ignorant, I had no architectural vision of my own. That took fifty years to develop, during which time I did other things, including a bit of systems engineering. Anyway, here is an evolving rough cut of the story and some of the lessons learned along the way.

The problem of style

Among architects, the matter of style is a vexed one. The Italian Renaissance famously reverted to a Classical style, supplanting the Gothic that had evolved over the thousand years since the fall of Rome. The battle for hearts and minds reached England in the seventeenth century when the rebuilding of St Paul's Cathedral was begun after the Great Fire of London, intense argument erupting between the Gothic-minded clerics and their Classical revivalist architect Sir Christopher Wren. He won the day but the argument re-ignited two hundred years later when Victorian Britain in turn revived the Gothic, though with an industrial twist. More or less in parallel, the arts and crafts movement brought first a conscious copying of local rural practices, what is known as vernacular architecture, followed by the fluid and naturalistic Art Nouveau.

Meanwhile the Christian Orthodox and Islamic styles had also evolved from the Roman in other directions. Save for the lack of sophistication in the vernacular, all these essentially European movements were distinguished principally by their style of decoration.

But all these styles were about to be eclipsed by a new aesthetic which was also growing out of industrialization. It endorsed the utter lack of decoration inherent in low-cost mass production, declaring "less is more" and "a house is a machine for living". It received spiritual infusion from the abstract simplicity of traditional Japanese house design and especially Zen Buddhist monasteries. This Modernism rose steadily until through the mid-twentieth century it first swept aside Art Deco, the last of the overtly decorative styles, before condensing itself into the International Style of monumentally monotonous shoeboxes.

All was not well. Some practitioners defined modernism vehemently as a lack of style. Others, more perceptive, pointed to the excruciatingly self-conscious and expensively laborious care taken over surface finishes and smoothing over the inevitable wrinkles left by the imperfect manufacturing machine; "less is more" was never more than an aspiration, this was a consciously conceived style like any other. J.W. Dunne summed up popular opinion when he wrote around 1930 that, "I do not imagine that the cigar-box indicates the apotheosis of Architectural Form." Moreover the claimed economies of industrial manufacture proved false; if you built it on the cheap, it looked cheap and decayed quickly, while if you made it something worth having then it cost as much as the vernacular, Jacobethan or any other of the styles then popular. Dunne's cri de coeur has been echied by many, not least Charles III during his time as Prince of Wales. It is still being echoed in the new millennium, for example by the somewhat more humble geek F&SF writer Charles Stross with the sentiment that, of the postwar era, "some of the worst crimes against humanity are committed by architect[s]" (The Jennifer Morgue, 2006).

My interest in architecture was kindled at school when I stubbornly refused to specialise in either one of the arts or sciences for my A levels, an attitude which even my very progressive establishment resisted and is in the 21st century becoming fashionable again (but will that interest last? Ignorance begets fools and fools beget ignorance. I digress). With some reluctance, I was allowed to study art alongside my maths and science. What to do next? By now I even had some inkling of the Humanities, having practised Transcendental Meditation under the aegis of an enlightened biology teacher and consequently begun to discover the Eastern philosophical tradition. Holism was trendy, almost de rigueur among the way-out intelligentsia. My immediate family background lay in Art and Design. The last of these would keep me a holistic foot in all three camps, I felt, but nobody then taught Design as a professional qualification in its own right and, despite much intellectual heat and sound about the Bauhaus, few employers had even heard of it. Architecture, though a little specialised, appeared to be the next best thing. So off I went to University. (Incidentally, as I write in 2023, that University - Cambridge no less - has at last discovered Design and its School of Architecture is setting up a maker space and planning to offer a degree course in the near future. About time too! Oxford, bless its antedeluvian little cotton socks, still does not even recognise architecture as worthy of academic attention.)

And there, gazing at the disparate variety of images in the history of architecture textbooks, I was introduced to an unhappy dilemma that would plague me, by coincidence for exactly half century. Some of that old stuff was stunning. It had a humanity that transcended beauty, it was the kind of place you could relax in. But most of the modernist stuff was vile. The best looked good, or was practical, or had a human scale, but never all together. Some of its greatest icons, such as Frank Lloyd Wright's Falling Waters turned out to be fundamentally arts and crafts. Yet everybody was doing it, my tutors demanded modernism (though there was talk of postmodernism) and would countenance nothing else. And to be fair to them, that also reflected the prevailing marketplace; no modernit attitude meant no prospect of work. Horrible, unacceptable. If I was to be an architect, what could I adopt as my own natural style?

Did I instinctively look back to the comfortable glow of the past, the immediacy of the present or the vibrancy of the future? The opposing forces of interest and cleanliness, mass and light, humanity and monumentalism, cost and durability, opulence and homeliness all tugged at me with equal appeal of beauty and repelled with equal horror of overindulgence. So much of modernism looked brutal, inhuman and sterile in the nude but beautiful when placed among trees. I could not find my direction; could not bring myself to draw the wrong line, could not find the right one. I flunked two successive attempts to become an architect. (When I met my old Cambridge Director of Studies, Marcial Echenique, at a reunion dinner not so long ago, he asked me what I did after I had dropped off the course. He smiled wryly when I remarked that I must have been his worst student ever. I then told him that I had tried again at the Bartlett and his eyebrows went up quizzically; I answered the unspoken question and continued, "...and I became their worst student ever." His mouthful of dinner spluttered all across the table.) There was little call in the postwar twentieth century for Byzantine churches, Art Nouveau reading rooms or psychedelic spaceports. After ten years of heartache and dithering I was forced to forge a new career elsewhere.

Compromise and balance

Like any other design discipline, indeed perhaps more so than any other, good architecture is all about drawing an uncompromising passion from a welter of underlying compromises. It has been said that it takes a new architectural style two centuries to reach its peak. Think early Greek temples to the Parthenon, or early Renaissance to late Mannerism. Modernism has its roots in the latter part of the 19th century, with examples such as the Maison de Verre and Falling Waters; by the 1970s it was only half way to making the best of itself.

As an idealistic and naive youth, compromise offended me, it seemed dishonest and hypocritical. The IT engineer and technical author who retired forty years after his abortive flirtation with architecture had spent much of his life learning to like compromises. Postmodernism had by then struggled but in all honesty failed to find any settled rationale or lasting identity of its own. Fantasy artists let loose on epic film franchises such as Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings had consciously compressed the problem of architectural style into a few short months of intense and stunningly sophisticated creativity. And finally, technologies that I had played a minuscule part in bringing into being were freeing up the manufacturing process from its eternal mass production of identical clones. At one time you could tell where an architect had used a CAD package. You learn to see the designer's hand at the drawing-board, creating the lines of the design. Suddenly, I began to see the drag-and-drop of standard shapes – spheres, cylinders, cuboids – to the exclusion of invention. But computers got steadily better at coping with the designer's whims; lines could become fluid once again. Moreover, the machines that manufactured the components were becoming as capable of making a truckload of one-off specials as churning out a million identical blocks. CAD-CAM brought automation full circle and freedom of line returned. As technology shifts the balance of compromises around, styles change with it.

Historically, the imperative of architectural compromise is well illustrated by the Regency and Art Deco styles. In a bid to reduce labour costs, Regency reduced classicism to its bare bones, to delicate and tasteful embellishment of what was technologically little different from an industrial office block. As a style, Art Deco did little more than expand the Regency repertoire of decorative elements to an eclectic mix of past and future, setting ancient Egyptian oand Far Eastern motifs jostling alongside the streamlined steamship and aeroplane. The compromise was driven by economy, but the artist transmuted the base imperative into the gold of aesthetic balance. That is the true art of compromise, to use it as a creative tool and refuse to be bowed by it.

On the city street, the monumentalism of the tower block must be leavened by a ground floor exterior on a busy human scale if it is not to create a dreary and windswept wasteland around itself. Design, scale, placement and density of street furniture are as crucial as the surrounding buildings to a tolerable cityscape. The windscape is as key as the play of light to a successful hard landscape. The organic curves and fractal textures of nature are essential foils to the clinical blankness of the concrete wall and tinted plate glass, whether embodied in the architecture itself or in natural planting alongside.

It is all about compromise and balance. As an impatient youth my compromise glass was half-empty. Today, as a smug old dotard my balance glass is half-full. Modernism is just one of those extremes that need reining back.

Scale and humanity

Vitruvius defined the three virtues of good architecture as commodity, firmness and delight. Le Corbusier observed that a house is a machine for living. Besides good engineering, what ties these together is the human scale. One of the most shattering disappointments to me back in the 1970s was the utter failure of modernist architects to live up to their rhetoric about the human scale. Bleak, windswept, unforgiving concrete badlands broken only by a scattering of litter were the norm. Graffiti immeasurably improved the concrete corridor, whether indoors or out. These were not places where you felt inspired by majesty or humanity, they were places that depressed the sensitive, broke the vulnerable, left no quarter for rest or litter bins, where the strong-minded blanked their consciousness during their hurried collar-turned-up transit. Towering above them were the giant concrete pillboxes, the Gods of "less makes you free" (or was that "Work is more"?). Somewhere in all that purgatory were doors leading in to homes, offices, perhaps a theatre or a museum. Some were quite nice inside. But they were only for the Chosen Few, as far as the architect was concerned the rest of us were not even The Damned, we did not exist.

And of course humanity is about more than just scale and wind. It is about modulation, detail, texture and visual interest, warm and sympathetic lighting, a sight to refresh weary eyes not brutalize them with sandblasted reference to rusticated fortresses. That goes for the interior as well as the exterior, not all those pillboxes were any better when you went in. Blank as prisons with invisible bars, their acres of unopenable plate glass froze you in winter and baked you in summer. And humanity is about more still. Toilets should not stifle, corridors should speak their passage, lifts be a pleasure not an ordeal. Living in a glass fishtank, cheap blinds a miserable excuse for privacy. These are not things that hundreds of people should be condemned to for the sake of an architect's worship of the shoe box. A famous architect had just built us a new History Faculty library. It was a glasshouse, south-facing wall and roof in one continuous sweep. Both the books and their readers baked on summer afternoons and chilled damp on winter mornings; anything less than disastrous for either of them it was not. The books had to be found a new home. Yet because it was clever-clever shaped, like a child's cubist sculpture of an open book, it won a prestige prize. Humbug!

If we were set an essay criticising some trendy building or other, if it was close enough I took the highly unusual step for a student of actually visiting the building we were criticising and talking to any passing residents. I wrote about the problems I found. "Normally I would mark such a negative essay as this very low" said one tutor, "The critics have had universal praise for Robin Hood Gardens. But in this instance your observations are unarguably factual, I have given you a good mark." The unspoken "But please don't do it again" hung heavy in the air.

But I am being unfair to modernism. It was not all International shoeboxes. Le Corbusier pioneered the flat-roofed concrete-and-glass "machine for living" aesthetic. But he also turned the boatbuilder's handicraft upside down to create a roof, when it seemed the right thing to do. His most iconic early works, such as the Villa Savoye, were created on a human scale for individual clients. Spaces may expand into the landscape but are themselves tailored for convenience and intimacy. Frank Lloyd Wright was another founding father of modernism, popularising the aesthetic of flat rooves and large areas of glass. Yet he was rooted in the arts and crafts movement and the human scale. Where Mies van der Rohe fought bitterly against anything even as minimally natural as polished stone, Corb was not above the odd appearance of timber or figurative art and Wright preferred the local brick or stone over concrete, wood over steel. His Falling Waters is one of the movement's great icons, yet it is smaller than it looks to an eye accustomed to overscale Lego. The flat rooves and ceilings are low, the spaces intimate and friendly, the brick walls warm and homely. Taliesin East and West show different technical, and hence also stylistic, approaches to his own craft-built workplaces. The lily pads of his Johnson's Wax office were inspired by nature and made it a pleasant place to work. Shame about the blank exterior though, those bricks go on just too long without a break, without interest; not even Wright got everything right.

Architecture as a soft system

When you mention systems engineering, most people think of hard systems like spacecraft, or information systems like the World Wide Web. But in truth, the vast majority of these are just parts of a wider soft system – a system in which people do unexpected or stupid things but somehow everything still has to hold together. For example a weapons system includes the staff who operate and maintain it, those who train the hands-on teams on it, libraries of emergency response procedures, and so on.

My decades working in such system development environments have made me appreciate that built form is no exception. Yes any building incorporates hard systems - structure, heating, lighting and do on. But you have to make the doors, valves and switches easy to find, understand and operate. And things have to hold together when the unexpected happens. When a maintenance technician goofs, you do not want the building to burn down; when someone has a bad headache, they may not appreciate the setting sun shining in through that special curtainless window. You cannot design for every possibility, you muat expect the unexpected. All this is the domain of soft systems. So, whether you know it or not, as a practising architect you are also a soft systems engineer.

But it goes much further than that. A fundamental characteristic of systems is that they evolve over time. Every student of systems knows that they can be characterised as input—process—output, and that a key feature of most systems is feedback, where the output at one end affects the input being fed in at the other end. Over the longest time scales, we can even understand technological civilisation as such a soft system, in which our aspirations of one generation lead to the creation of technologies, which directly affect the aspirations of the next generation; there is constant feedback between human aspirations and the technology to deliver on those aspirations. Architecture is just one of many such technologies.

Nor does any individual building stand still for long. People want to fix mistakes, add bits on, uplift and modernise their quality of life. Yet architects and their clients tend to insist on set pieces; the client sets a one-shot budget and the architect sculpts a statement that hopefully will not overrun that budget by too much. Sometimes the architect fails, but the statement is literally cast in concrete and is going nowhere. Dynamite has been known to be the only solution. More often, the client periodically comes back with more money and the latest architect on the scene carries out another set-piece exercise. Eventually, nothing more can be done and the wrecking balls are given their feast. The latest client then commissions a new statement in that nice green field next to the old site, whose residual brown-field mess they are loath to pay to clear up.

This whole process is wasteful in the extreme, damaging to our sorely-pressed environment, and for the occupants proceeds in a series of unsatisfactory leaps from one set of problems to the next. Taking a soft-systems approach from the start means considering the whole business lifecycle, recognising that no requirement is fixed and unyielding, and that the built form needs to accommodate unforeseen changes in as graceful, pragmatic and environmentally friendly a way as possible. My airport will grow another terminal, more offices, more parking space. Security barriers, segregated toilets, shopping areas and the like will wander around as best practice evolves. Planes of new sizes and shapes will be taxiing up to disgorge or embark they payloads. Bringing in the thermic lances and re-routing the foul drains every time could have been prevented with just that little bit of soft-systems forethought. Even the facelift, now that that shocking poison green is no longer in fashion and the cladding elsewhere has failed its long-term safety tests, should not require excessive preliminary demolition.

In this wider context, the architect themself is a key component of the soft system; change the architect and you change the way the system evolves. All too often such changes are arbitrated by cost, availability and a shiny set-piece idea, rather than the qualities, integral to the sytstem, which you wish to preserve or enhance.

But to achieve such a sea change of approach requires both the client and the architect to change their spots. How do we persuade the greedy developer to look to the longer term? How do we persuade the proud architect to pin their ego to that same longer term and not to the front-cover photograph of their iconic masterpiece? The former requires legislation, the latter perhaps an endless read of rants like this one during their formative years. Putting an introduction to soft systems on the student curriculum would help, too.

Let me offer you an example of how it should work, so that you can judge for yourselves. Churchill College, Cambridge was built in the 1950s as the National Memorial to Sir Winston Churchill. A superbly flat green-field site, a patch of long-drained fenland, was found on the edge of town. A golden opportunity indeed to stand up your iconic set-piece vision ensuring fame, fortune and historical immortality. In the ensuing design competition, most submissions were indeed of this kind. Many would later spring up, with little modification, among the new universities and colleges which soon spread around the country. Richard Sheppard and his colleagues took a different approach. The college would grow as a loose cluster of low-key buildings on a human scale, with only the great hall (and, as it turned out, the boiler house) to belittle the humble occupants. Space was to be left for one planned aspiration or another. Services would be easy to maintain, run between the various buildings under the removable paving slabs of raised walkways. He won, and with some changes his vision of growth got under way. Despite its irregular plan, some saw it as a set-piece concrete raft on which the stately college flagship sailed across the Fenland sea of grass. Over the decades, many of those aspirational spaces have indeed been filled in, though seldom in the manner, or for the purpose, originally envisaged. Despite the original buildings being styled in the then-fashionable brutalist manner, their humanity and place in the planted landscape have matured over the years and today they are much loved. They too have evolved and some have been wholly re-purposed. The high seas of Fenland grass are long gone under a dense tangle of variegated developments and plantings, the original buildings forming an integral part of a harmonious yet dynamic whole. The grounds alone deserve a book to themselves (and indeed they have one). Nobody involved was consciously practicing soft systems engineering, but they instinctively held to its core tenets. Few others have been so grounded in both humanity and pragmatism. The competition judges, Sheppard and the site's subsequent curators over many decades have much to be proud of. Theirs is an example to be followed.

My architecture

Finally, in my sixties, all these influences came together in my mind, creating a vision of the architecture I can now never realise, a might-have-been body of work which in practice never could have been because I was not ready. Now, in my seventies, I am ready and it is too late. Never mind, I shall do my best to communicate it to any, in some future world, who might wish to care.

So, what are the elements of this conceived style? I fear I shall ramble more than ever in the telling, for as yet it is a mere sackful of tangled impressions, like a knitting bag full of oddments. As I tip out the bag, it will pour out as it may with little attention to order.

First must come a rationale, a philosophical and cultural backdrop giving cohesion to what would otherwise be mere personal arbitrariness. Above all, it is a human conception, seeking to express and nurture the positive in human experience – peace of mind, an easy heart, warmth of emotion, beauty of vision. Yet it must be flexible. It may be required to compromise severely with hard reality, to stand back from its context and cost little. On the other hand it should be capable of supporting dense Baroque celebrations of organic complexity, of providing its own context should the need arise. It may be called upon to satisfy a demand for proportion and rhythm, or for organic flow and imprecision. Always, monumentality must be subject to the human scale at close quarters. The design elements are not confined to the building mass but must perforce flow to a greater or lesser extent into the surrounding landscape (and perhaps sometimes vice versa), able to accommodate both made and living elements in the mix. It is not an architecture of built form, nor even of inhabited space. Rather, it is an architecture of visual, tactile and spatial perception, an architecture of the senses and emotions.

How is this blueprint for Utopia to be impressed upon us? The first step is its repertoire of formal elements, serving both structural and aesthetic – which is to say psychological – needs. The wall, of course, is essential to the British psyche. Take a close look at King's College Chapel in Cambridge if you do not believe me. Where to the French the Gothic style was a framework defining space and light, a Crystal Palace in stone, to the Englishman it was a way of piercing walls and decorating ceilings (the Crystal Palace was created by a designer of greenhouses and conservatories). Look at the spandrels between the bays of the chapel and you will see the flatness of the walls asserting itself. Look at the contemporary late European Gothic and you will see a riot of carving swung across the gap. The four-centred arch of perpendicular Gothic becomes a language common to both my structural and aesthetic visions. Look too at the famous leaves of Southwell Minster (where my parents married) and its Chapter House, where it is only the smallest of conventional details that separate the built stone from the organic growth of foliage. The step to Art Nouveau is minimal, little more than a re profiling and freeing up of the mouldings along the columns and arches. Now return to Regency and Art Deco. The artful placement of decoration on the walls, creating an elegance born of rhythmic division and subtle embellishment, runs throughout.

Or, if your bent turns from the organic to the abstract, Islamic architecture provides a rich tradition of the arched and decorated wall, creating spaces of cool delight in which to contemplate higher things. The temptation to integrate depictions of three-dimensional crystalline polyhedra would be irresistible to me. Abstract friezes of angular, tangled knots abound. However I personally would not cover every last patch of wall in religious inscriptions. Celtic knots offer a wonderfully rich transitional language between the branching trees of Gothic and Art Nouveau on the one hand and the abstract friezes of Classical Greece and Islam on the other. What they all have in common is a richness of visual, intellectual and emotional perception. Too many styles compromise the richness for the sake of the motif. For me, the motifs are secondary to their impact. We do not judge the beauty of a building for its imposed motifs per se, but for the impact of the artist's composition.

For the most part all is restrained, elegance is seldom allowed to give way wholly to abundance. In my world at least, walls have a habit of becoming encrusted with windows, cupboards, shelves, pictures and whatnot. Abundant decoration would be hidden or destroyed – what a waste that would be. Whether of masonry, concrete, wood, glass or even tapestry, the wall must serve to fix both the utilitarian and decorative motifs in their orbits. Which fixation brings us to proportion. Whether dictated by squares and circles, vesica piscis, golden mean, Corb's modulor or an organic mass born of line and function matters little. What does matter is that the elegance and discipline of language, the subconscious unity of presence, are there.

Then there is the matter of scale. An Englishman's home may be his castle, but it need not be the blank medieval fortress that the International Style would foist on us. Nor need anybody else's; even an unbroken wall can be given visual interest without making it climbable. Ancient Eastern temples in India adopted complex exterior forms and clad every available inch with a riot of figurative carving, sustaining interest at all scales. The Renaissance introduced great orders, columns and pilasters running up through several stories, to modularise the scale and allow the style to transition from one scale to another. Nowadays we can see this as an example of fractal geometry, of self-repeating scale. However at the most intimate human level, walls still tended to be intimidating and fortress-like. Next time you go for a walk in the woods, note how the branching trees, the shrubbery and the creeping weeds create a fractal texture for your eyes. Where a large building meets the ground should not be a wasteland. Get somebody to do something there; sell, live, make, garden, advertise, anything but inject, litter, defecate, sleep and die in soulless isolation!

And so – modulation through the organically flexible three- and four-centred arches, interest through images, ornament and variation, the whole placed harmoniously through a system of proportion or growth and given depth through its cultural references. A balance of human enclosure and spatial vision appropriate to use – an exhibition pavilion and a home for the disabled are not the same space! Warm lighting – no blue-white LEDs, no "permanent supplementary artificial daylight" without the warmth of incandescent sun or candle in the mix.

Well, it's a start. Perhaps.

Updated 14 July 2023