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April 26, 2024

Make architecture art again | Henry Oliver

One barrier to solving the housing crisis in Britain is the ugliness of modern architecture. Most people simply don’t like the aesthetics that architects use. As Sam Bowman said on Twitter recently, the Victorian and Edwardian style is what people love, and not just here — it’s popular around the world. The less new buildings appeal to popular taste, the less popular new buildings are going to be. That’s why Poundbury is so popular: it looks old-fashioned.

It’s not going to be enough to replicate the style of these buildings, though. That will become stale and boring in the same way that the “Premier Inn” aesthetic that now dominates new blocks of flats and office buildings is so dull. Instead, we need to draw some general principles from the Victorian style to inform what a new architecture might look like. To do this, we can turn to some lectures John Ruskin delivered in Edinburgh in 1853.

Ruskin’s aim was to restore Gothic architecture. He disliked the dominance of straight lines, the thuddingly square aesthetic of classic architecture. And look around today, modernism gave us a century of curveless boxes. It is flat, sharp, uninspiring. It has no grace, no elegance, no line of beauty. Of course, there are many splendid buildings in this style. In the hands of a genius like Frank Lloyd Wright, the straight line can be a marvel. But the average modern building is such a plain box it is dull beyond redemption. It feels lifeless.

Windows, said Ruskin, ought to follow this design. Roof ought to be steep and gabled

Ruskin wanted to replace the flat style with the pointed arch. No more windows made of big slabs at the top. Instead, he wanted to revive the sort of pointed shapes familiar from medieval architecture, England’s native style. These arches are not just stronger, they are more beautiful. Think of the great cathedral of Europe. They tower up so high in the nave like forests because of the mighty strength of pointed arches. But the arch is also a natural shape: there are, Ruskin points out, no square leaves. The vaults of gothic ceilings spray out like leaf stems growing from a tree branch. Windows, said Ruskin, ought to follow this design. Roof ought to be steep and gabled. In this way, we will have stronger but also prettier buildings.

Next is height. Great architecture, says Ruskin, has always built upwards. It has always included “heaven pointed towers.” So many buildings today feel squat, crouched, grounded. This is why the Shard attracts so much attention. Spires and turrets are romantic and tease the imagination. The Houses of Parliament is a wonderful building because it is covered in minor turrets and little spires.

Finally, Ruskin recommends decoration. God varies the clouds every morning and evening, he says, and we have to vary our buildings. But this must be done at the street level. Too much ornament in his time was kept high up. Similarly, buildings today are often designed to look good on a horizon, but play little significant part in the aesthetic of the street. Delicate decoration belongs at the bottom, and large bold statements at the top. The ornament must be visible, natural, and thoughtful.

Look at the proposed design for the new Euston station. There are some pointed arches, of a sort. And it has high open spaces. The problem is a fundamental lack of ornamentation. There is nothing decorative at all. It is a series of plain glass surfaces and straight lines. We have seen so many buildings like this. Far from feeling modern or futuristic, it is vintage. Has anything significant changed in the fundamental principles that led to this building in the last century? Aren’t we looking at the equivalent of neo-classical design in the early 1900s? Old-fashioned, replica stuff from a group of architects so attached to their old ideas they cannot see what is obvious to everyone else. This is boring.

Equally, the answer cannot be, as Ed West suggests, simply to rebuild the old Euston arch. That was a mighty structure. It was a terrible triumph of philistinism to both demolish it and dump it in the Thames. But trying to restart the Greek Revival movement of the 1830s in modern London isn’t going to give us the energy and enthusiasm for architecture that we need.

The challenge, as Ruskin said, is one of temperament. We need to harness not the exact styles of the nineteenth century but their sense of vision and their willingness to develop new ideas. What’s needed is a break with the establishment. Traditionally, architects weren’t architects at all. As Ruskin said, they were painters and sculptors first — think of Michelangelo. What we have now is a narrow, hieratic discipline too closeted from the world.

If we are going to revive traditional architecture in Britain, we need to do it in an entirely new way. We need to make architecture into an art again.

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