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.
This is a weakness in a man who sees the task of architecture to be that of bringing “order and relation into human surroundings”. And this is the second danger of this book. For this is a large aim and I feel a mistaken one. We must be aware of the limitations of architecture. It is a truism to say that good buildings alone are not an assurance of contented people and happy lives. It is not perhaps such a truism to say that to impose a false sense of order upon people, an order they do not understand, is to ask for swift revenge. Many architects find out too late what the people who are put to live in them will do to the formal layouts that look so impressive on the drawing-board. We are mostly humane enough now to know that the solution is not a return to the concept of the barrack-room—“they can’t damage this!” But we must also escape from the idea of imposing the order of an architectural formality based upon the existing social patterns and class ideals. I suspect that Professor Rasmussen is unconsciously expressing the emergence of a truly new conception of architecture in his occasional comparisons of baroque and modern. This is not a retreat from “functionalism” into a new “style”. Functionalism should—as I understand it—be able to embody the living culture of the old society, the new ideas and needs that are arising, in buildings that can freely, undogmatically, without the necessity of formal order, express this superabundant life.
But this can only happen so long as the architect himself has ideals of what social life can and should be firmly embedded in his own consciousness, and if he is artist enough to be able to express them. The real fact about “good” architecture (especially good housing, but it also applies to more standard forms of building such as offices) is that people always recognise when a building or a housing scheme has been designed with this kind of feeling—a feeling for people and for living needs, not for shapes on the drawing-board or ideas of community culled from the latest sociological study. The only “order” is then the underlying feeling for what life can be in the present; this is the only “order” which will ever make architecture live.