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.


Anonymous said...

It's interesting that Glancey doesn't realize that the same exact words can be directed at the modernist office buildings - "you also know instinctively that behind those weakly expressed entrances lie ordinary speculatively built offices".

What he seems to say is that if we're going to construct something cheaply and without grace, we'd better design ALL OF IT that way.

Assuming that the insides of the buildings are the same, I'd still go with numbers 2 and 3. In fact, if I were to rate them, I'd give #2 an A-, #3 a B, #1 a D, and #4 and F.

These modernists are talking out their asses (or "arses" in Britain). We must stand strong, and together, and put them in their place.


Jim said...

I'm definitely in the camp that this study was perhaps not as objective as it should have been. The two contemporary buildings are not great examples. Building #1 is a monolithic facade that not many people would like. Building #4 is a decent Adjaye-designed facade that perhaps plays with depth a little too severely, but also comes off as a bit monolithic. If they had included contemporary buildings such as these two (
Bankside in London, Allies & Morrison
Langston Lofts in DC, Shalom Baranes
) that actually have some depth and texture to them, the survey results would've been quite different.

My grades for these four buildings: #1 & #2 get D's, #3 & #4 get B's. The first two are poor designs and the second two are kind of OK.

The main reason people typically respond positively to traditional design is because of the greater amount of shadow that is created by intricate detailing. The same effect can be achieved in contemporary architecture when attention is given to materiality. Architects such as the two I mentioned above (Allies & Morrison in London and Shalom Baranes Assoc in DC) and others such as Herzog & de Meuron, Miralles Tagliabue in Barcelona, and Koetter Kim from Boston have many examples of such work.

Traditional architecture has proven the test of time but contemporary architecture is also here to stay. There really isn't much sense in debating about whether or not one is better than the other.
The two can coexist and complement one another and should be appreciated equally

I'm going to add your blog to my Reader and follow you to see if you are capable of favoring tradition while also being more accepting and appreciative of new ideas.

-Jim in DC

Anonymous said...

It's interesting that you describe the two modernists designs as mediocre. They look snazzylitious and a far cry from your average dopey meisian glass block. The traditionalist designs if anything are a bit flat.

"Building #4 (Modernist) is a decent Adjaye-designed facade that perhaps plays with depth a little too severely"

followed by...

"If they had included contemporary buildings such as these two that actually have some depth..."

Too much depth, not enough depth, which one is it. Me thinks thou protest too much.

"The main reason people typically respond positively to traditional design is because of the greater amount of shadow that is created by intricate detailing"

Again, wrong. People love symmetrty, pattern, and rythem, just look at the human body. It's like saying any percusion will do when we all know rhythmical percusion is vastly prefered. Ask any kid to draw a house and 99% of the time you'll see a sloped roof. Is that because there isnt enough intricately detailed modernist buildings around?

Finally, to get so difensive as to assume the writter was saying Modernism should be banished is a little paranoid. If you invested your education and career in the ideology of Modernists, then I can see why one would react thusly.

The whole point of this survey (and Glancey knows this) is to show off how hypocritical and full of shit most architectural instruction and establishment is when it comes to these points about style. They're afraid that once the intellectuals turn against modernism en mass, they'll be out of a job. That's not going to happen until we get rid of this relic (ironically) of 19th century romanticism, that the artist (and architect) should be in opposition to society.

By the way, to insinuate that one has to like crap to be open to new ideas is a cheap ploy. Much in line with the way the early modernists tried to coopt phrases such as "modern". No sale.

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...

I'm "Anonymous 1", and I'm with "Anonymous 2". Jim has some majorly flawed logic. The first response to his comment was great in itself, but I'll just add to it.

Jim complains that the modern buildings are mediocre. The fact is that the traditional buildings are far from stunning, too. To Jim, I say, pick your favorite piece of modern architecture in all the world, and be willing to put it up against St. Peter's Basilica or the U.S. Capitol. Then, we can say it's "best against best" and not have to whine about the study not being objective.

I live in Tokyo now, and sadly, 99% of it is of the "throwaway modern" style. That is, it's not particularly innovative or unique - just bland. And I'd rather have bland traditional buildings that bland modern buildings any day. You can get some idea by looking at some pictures I uploaded.

These types of buildings make up the vast majority of the buildings in Japan, and are much more likely to be constructed in non-major, non-showboat cities around the world, so why SHOULD we only see the best modern architecture has to offer? A good 90+% of it is nowhere near the best, yet it's still being built. (By the way, even the best examples that Jim gave, and I checked out, are not as good as the traditional buildings in my opinion, and I wouldn't like them more even if they had more shadow.)

If modernists offered to only build 1 or 2 buildings just in the downtown sections of major cities (that is, only building their "best" stuff) and leave the rest of the city to traditionalists (whose poor work still looks decent), I'd take up that offer in a second.

Jim wants traditional and modern architecture to coexist, but that's exactly what happened early in the 20th century when modernism faced almost no backlash. However, the modern movement, once it got strong enough, successfully banished all traditional architecture - do you know of even one good classical building made in the 1960s or 1970s? Basically from the 1940s until the late 1980s, even classical motifs were extremely scarce. This was because there was no desire for diversity among the modernists who took charge. They wanted the world to themselves, and they got it. They even successfully destroyed many monuments like Penn Station and replaced them with filth.

No doubt, if modernists wanted to share the world, 50-50, I'd again jump at the chance. Having even 50% of new buildings and neighborhoods would be designed well is much better than what we've gotten for the past 70 years.


Blog Widget by LinkWithin