by S. E. Rasmussen,
Chapan & Hall
this is a very good, and possibly dangerous, book about architecture. It is good, above all, for three reasons. In the first place, it is not written in professional jargon—neither the academic jargon of “architraves” and “curtain walls”, where structural technicalities become an excuse for lack of discrimination; nor the matey jargon of the architectural magazines, where every building is a “neo”-movement, and everybody “Bill” or “Ted” or “Corb”. It avoids the parochial professionalism of most architects, to whom the “layman” is either client (i.e. nuisance or bore) or a vague abstraction (i.e. “peopling the perspectives”). Secondly, it never deals in the sort of historicism where either “everything leads up to the modern movement” or “each period has its own style appropriate to the age”. Thirdly, it is not angry about “modernism”, nor “subtopia”, nor telegraph poles, and consequently does not label everything “good” or “bad” on grounds of external appearance alone. This is, in fact, a book about buildings as we see, use, enjoy and even find them annoying all the time. Professor Rasmussen’s criticism of architecture is essentially “functional” in the true unlimited sense of the word. He considers every building as an organism created by many things: the site and the use to which it is to be put; the ideals and the taste (two different things) of the age or of the client; the creative genius or otherwise of the architect; the craftsmanship of the builder; and the accident of the events that can occur while it is being conceived or erected. He is absorbed in the effect of buildings on everyday life; perhaps his main aim is to bring to our notice—in a far subtler way than the cries against “subtopia”—the created environment in which we spend nearly all our lives. He does not describe any buildings he has not himself visited. Because of this first-hand experience he can say—as the apologists for the modern movement and the shout-ugly boys cannot—that this doorway in a mediocre house is superb, this detailing is poor in a well conceived whole; he can say that so-and-so is “trying” to do something, not necessarily either wholly succeeding or wholly failing. He is genuinely critical because he is genuinely alive and interested in why and how—in the widest sense—any building is as it is.
This kind of critical education is the only kind that will ever produce a real appreciation of architecture that will demand the environment that could—because of technology—and should be ours today. The “good” v. “bad”, “modern” v. “fake” notion of architectural education for the “layman” is useless. A thorough examination of where, for example, Span at Blackheath and Churchill Gardens, Pimlico (to take two widely accepted canons of contemporary taste) are successful as places to live in and as expressions of a modern way of life, and where they are not, where every detail is examined as an experience that must be felt daily, would be of far more value than putting them upon a pedestal for lesser designers to copy inadequately. Let us criticise the best, find out where the best has created richness and where flatness, ask what the best have forgotten, down to the smallest detail. Then we might have the basis for some “good” architecture and some criticism which might keep architects in touch with the reality of their job. This book is an example of the way this criticism might be carried out.
Yet I have said that this might be a possibly dangerous book, and so it might. For two reasons: the first is that it has an eclecticism of its own, which seems at times to be able to separate buildings from the quality, as opposed to the kind of life for which they were designed. If that appears a little unfair let me put it in another way. Professor Rasmussen sees life, it seems to me, as inexhaustibly different and varied, which is true enough; but he does not draw the necessary distinction between what, in the inexhaustible pageant of culture, is a valuable expression of real life and what is merely a stultifying ritual. And at times he is satisfied with and praises architecture which is only the ritual, the facade, instead of the embodiment of a living idea. He cannot say that the ritual architecture of old Peking or of Versailles is unbearably repressive, or that the Spanish Steps in Rome are grandiose and mundane.