Pub: SYDNEY MORNING HERALD
Section: NEWS AND FEATURES
Mind your manners SPEAKING VOLUMES
Reviewed by ELIZABETH FARRELLY * Elizabeth Farrelly is an international award-winning architectural writer and Sydney City Councillor.
TWO new books are the collected works respectively of Australia’s biggest modern architect, Philip Cox, and modern architecture’s most trenchant critic, Roger Scruton.
Scruton is widely seen as the archetypal fogey – bookish, acerbic, upper- and lower-case conservative, lamenting lost forms in manners but sufficiently populist to lend Thatcherism an unearned aesthetic gloss, even after the event.
But Scruton is no run-of-the-mill, horn-rimmed, post-modern theorist for all that. Anti-modern, yes, his central thesis being that civic architecture never recovered from its wholesale dumping of the classical tradition early this century.
For Scruton, however, post-modernism, too, is horribly tarred with the same nihilistic brush, answering modernism’s “unbending rectitude” with a licentiousness “no less destructive than the paternal interdiction which inspired it”.
Hence the title which plays on Rudolf Wittkower’s classic, substituting nihilism for humanism in a way which, Scruton suggests, is symbolic of the entire modern world.
Such dark vehemence, however, belies the predominant flavour of the book which is generally engaging and positive, opinionated but insightful, naive, eclectic, plausible and even kind. Scruton can be irritating but he is unfailingly thoughtful and, as a colleague, Anthony Quinton, writes, consistently interesting.
The Classical Vernacular is a collection of 15 essays written since 1972 and presented in no particular order so that, frustratingly, any development of thought is obscured. The blurb hails it as “a comprehensive critique of modernism” but “sustained repudiation” would be more accurate. It is held together by a constancy of passion – belief, even – that is surprising and refreshing in an academic philosopher. Scruton’s dashes of seething polemic debase but also greatly enliven philosophy’s meticulous enquiry.
For instance, in an otherwise lucid passage on civility (“the art of the boundary”), Scruton suddenly fulminates over Denys Lasdun’s Institute of Education building at the University of London. It is “a building as repulsive as the activities that are contained in it”, he says. Quite as abruptly, he recovers cogency to discuss the superiority of the vertical, the importance of decoration in articulating the joint and the ways in which the discipline of the Order – classical not religious – can bestow on architecture “an immense gift of freedom”.
Le Corbusier’s writings are dismissed as “crazed scribblings”. This is a perfectly defensible view of works whose huge and mainly destructive influence was always more indicative of the naivety of the profession than of any intrinsic profundity, but the phraseology lacks scholarly distance.
His theme, though, is not so much that “all … modern architecture is bad and horrible”, although that is his belief. Rather, his is a thoroughgoing moral crusade, if this is not contradictory, to uphold the paramountcy of manners.
This thought, bobbing up irrepressibly, essay after essay, strikes much closer to the root, since it implies that modernism’s central fallacy, in architecture and elsewhere, has been the presumption that the essence lies within or, as he puts it, that “every essence is a ‘bare essence’ “. This would make the search for authenticity, which modernism undertook indefatigably but without conspicuous success, doomed from the start.
LESS-IS-MORE minimalism provides an obvious target for derision on this score, with Le Corbusier – surprise – as its focus. Scruton has no difficulty in presenting Le Corbusier’s “five essential points” of architecture as the utopia-babble of a simpleton. The classical idiom, by contrast, “is devoted to the perfection of civil boundaries … an idiom of facades, junctures and progressions”.
Modernism’s emphasis on invention and originality, argues Scruton, amounted to no more than “licence to do as one pleases, while disparaging everything that would make the doing of it worthwhile”.
“Architecture,” he says later, “is a question of manners, not art.” The role of architects is not to shape, but merely to “decorate and humanise” the world. The student architect should learn “to see with the eyes of others”, to design buildings which are dignified and inconspicuous, and to practise “mental effort and spiritual humility”.
In this, Scruton’s arguments are hard to fault. Many are the ways in which our lot, jointly and severally, would be improved were more architects to embrace such admonitions. But, in the end, his exclusive emphasis on the visuals of architecture takes him too close to the absurd.
“Mouldings,” he says, “are the sine qua non of decency.” The man has a point, yes. Details and depth do help enliven a facade. But there is more to architecture than wallpaper design. A building is a complex, functioning, spatial creature. It needs a face, capable of expression and revelation, not just a well-appointed mask.
This truth-beauty thing has long been a staple of architectural debate, and it is here that, embarrassingly for an aesthetician, Scruton’s simplism lets him down. His failure to grasp the essentially spatial, constructed and functional nature of architecture allows him to sustain the delusion that he can afford facility. He thus aligns himself with Oscar Wilde’s unusually vapid maxim “that, in matters of greatest importance, it is style, not sincerity, that counts”.
Geoffrey Scott, to whose remarkable 1914 treatise on architecture Scruton refers, had a surer grasp of the problem. Allowing that both authenticity and appearance have a role, Scott argued that the crucial characteristic was not “honesty” itself, so much as the appearance of honesty.
Sophistry, you say? But as any Martin Place bank demonstrates – steel frame with a stone cladding designed to look weight-bearing – there’s aesthetic milage in this commitment to the look.
Philip Cox and Michael Rayner also offer a variegated catalogue of items linked by recurrent motifs. But there the similarity ends. Cox and Scruton come from, and look to, different ends of the earth.
In part, this is standard old world-new world stuff. There is the careful stone-by-stone, room-by-street construction of the traditional city, on the one hand, and on the other the exuberant appropriation of structure to a sweeping expressionism that would embrace space and time.
There is the other Cox oeuvre, double-knitting where white lace won’t do, such as the two UTS buildings, and much of his housing. But the trademark Cox images are still those heroic white-on-blues, the curves and masts and sails so evocative of the wide, open spaces, but so remarkably well adapted to the coffee table.
Is this what Geoffrey Scott meant about the appearance rather than the fact of authenticity? Sadly, the book affords no answers. This is extravagantly high-tech architecture, with patent formal obsessions and undisguisable international-modern ancestry.
How can Cox claim, rhythmically, to work in direct “intuitive” response to the Australian environment “both natural and built” and the “Australian vernacular (of) early woolsheds and barns”? How might such an intimate relationship with the particulars of site and culture produce buildings so universally similar – so universally Cox – on sites selected at random from Darling Harbour to Joondalup, Western Australia, from the Penrith flatlands to Wellington, New Zealand (the last doubling as “a metaphor for the traditional Maori hill fortress”)? Could Scott have intended this? What can be made of Cox’s claim to solve the problems of design “in a direct and honest manner with poetic qualities derived from structure and envelope rather than from applique”? There are no answers in this book. Its every word is penned by Cox or his chaps. Sadly, Cox Architects is very much the authorised version, designed to please the eye, not the mind.
Illus: By Michael Mucci