November 2, 2009

When a Survey Shows Britons Prefer Classicism, Architects Attack!

A short time ago, Robert Adam Architects commissioned a study along with The Traditional Architecture Group in the UK asking ordinary people which sort of building they preferred when they were shown this image.

The YouGov survey asked 1042 respondents to select a preferred building from a choice of four, in answer to the question; ”Please imagine a new building is planned to be built near where you live. Four different designs are proposed. Please look at the designs below. Which one would you most like to be built near you?” The illustrations show new buildings of a similar height, size and orientation to the street.
Much to the surprise of the architectural establishment (but neither to Adam, nor myself) the public preferred the traditional schemes by a three to one ratio. Predictably though the architectural press and heads of the prestigious architecture organizations in Great Britain used the survey as a launchpad for their invective against traditional architecture and ultimately on the public at large.

Having all the characteristics of a drunkard confronted with his addiction, the press and architects first deny the charge then move to attack their antagonists. Johnathan Glancey of the Guardian's response to the poll is fairly indicative when he questions the poll's accuracy.
Even if 77% of those who took part in the TAG survey preferred the superficial look of the two “traditional” office blocks, I wonder what they would have said if they had visited all four buildings?
Glancey would like to make us think that the public is somehow hoodwinked by just showing the facades of these buildings, and that the modernist buildings insides are really a lot better than the exteriors show. "You see, the public is just being fooled by only showing the exteriors, really they would love the place if they just got to know it. " Of course this just introduces an assumption that interiors of the traditional buildings are mediocre at best. Which is exactly Glancey's sentiment when he derisively dismisses the classical design:
"You can dress up an everyday office block in any facade you like, yet nothing will ever hide its matter-of-fact nature. Not only do floor heights give the game away — where are the piani nobili in the two “traditional” designs? — but you also know instinctively that behind those weakly expressed entrances lie ordinary speculatively built offices."
Margarine he says, assuming that the classical building is nowhere near the quality of the renaissance palazzo and therefore not as good as his modernist office block. Traditional architecture, according to Glancey, is incompatible with modern uses and is completely unable to adapt to the exigencies of "our modern times."
The two with “traditional” facades, however, are the least traditional of the quartet because the heyday of neo-classicism offered little precedent for the design of 21st century office blocks.
Such forgetfulness is par for the course for the adherents of modernism such as Glancey, conveniently forgetting that the pioneering architects of office blocks in Chicago were committed classicists such as Daniel Burnham, John Holabird and Cass Gilbert, again, living in denial. I suppose it's not too surprising to see such statements when the president of the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) Ruth Reed, dismissing this same survey slammed classical architecture because the buildings shown are “frequently very expensive and often use unsustainable materials.”

To which Robert Adam replies with characteristic wit:
“I don't know what planet Ruth Reed is on if she thinks that the glass, steel and concrete favoured by modernist architects are more sustainable or cheaper than the natural materials like brick, stone and stucco used by traditionalists"
As I believe I've shown again and again before, the ridiculous canard of modernism being the sine qua non of sustainability holds as much water as the roofs of these same modern buildings.

But probably most offensive of all is the downright disdain they have for the opinion of the public at large. Glancey is again typical in his Glass-tower elitism when he condescendingly calls those who prefer the traditional designs stupid.

Once upon a time, seven out of 10 people claimed they couldn’t tell the difference between a heavily marketed margarine and dairy butter. How dumb were those people who couldn’t pick up on a difference that must have been as great as the gulf between modern movement and neo-classical architecture?

So if you prefer traditional architecture, you just like margarine because you are too dumb to know the difference. Glancey seems to say: "If you were as intelligent and educated as I am, you'd know the difference." But Glancey either has as Robert Adam claims such "lamentable ignorance of classical architecture" or he is simply not telling the whole truth. I'd prefer not to call someone stupid, as he would, so I think he just lies. Such are the ways of this drunken establishment, drunk from the excess of its power over the built environment for so long that it can only deny the plain truth in front of their eyes, attack traditional architecture and denigrate the very public they claim to be enriching.

I'd be happy to see the architectural press launches such attacks if I were Robert Adam and the classicists in Britain. They are only indicative that classical movement is beginning to resonate with the people, and the modernist establishment is losing its privileged status the sole arbiters of architectural orthodoxy.

I hope that someday the state of affairs on this side the pond will change and the architects and promoters of modernism will be forced to have a debate with tradition on its merits. Sadly however, without champions such as Robert Adam over here, the modernists still remain snug in their glass-tower elitism.
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