'Dying Words' / Xavier Vasco
The language of Traditional Architecture: Where the Contemporary Misses the Point
We are always aware of the great art which has come before, and thus the great artists are those who steal it. Eliot was not asking us to simply copy those we admired- which would result in pastiche, kitsch, or cliche- but to take what has been done before and make it into something better. In this way, the artist "welds his theft into a whole of feeling which is unique, utterly different from that from which it was torn”. Modernists like Eliot did not believe that true art belonged to a vanished past, nor existed for the purpose of religious veneration, but saw that art must take the austere nature of the human condition and redeem it by capturing its fragmented form and making it part of a meaningful whole. Only in this way could art offer any real sense of consolation, insulated from the coldness and tired expressions of the past.
Great traditions rest beneath all mediums of art, and this is most profound in the confronting work of the architect. Yet, architecture touches on something deeper than consolation and aesthetic forms; our need to settle together as communities. From this need we developed language in order to express that which we discovered, and learn from the discoveries of others. Only through language can we understand, or even conceive of, the complex ideas of mathematics, beauty, or love. Given to us by nature, as Kant would say, language is a reflection of truth itself. Traditional architecture is a language too, whose vocabulary formed itself from successful solutions like the length an eve is set to keep away the hot sun, the shape of a roof, or the relationship between the height of a building and the width of the street so as not to litter shadows and alienate passers-by. Architecture, like any language, holds its existence in its tradition and power of resisting extinction. Traditional architecture is not a style or a body of rules set down a priori, but instead the collected wisdom of an active evolutionary process. Tradition doesn't act like a convention and it doesn't constrain like a convention, it can be embellished upon or revised. Understood in this way, tradition is not the antiquated remnants of a dead culture, but instead the organs of its living structure.
Within a community a building assumes its own voice from a common language and forms part of a never-ending conversation, wherein within each unique mannerism we discover a rich alphabet of infinitely adaptable use. With each new discovery and every principle which evolves anew our vocabulary is expanded, and we who are born sovereign to its language become inheritors of its wealth. The current mode of architecture, the Contemporary, is opposed to this tradition. It surrounds us in arrogant proclamations of “Here I stand alone, entirely unique and different!”. The loud structures form cities of glazed monasteries, clad in synthetic ornament and built with no connection to that which dwells around them. It is a selfish architecture, which acknowledges nothing but its own existence and conceals its form because it was built only to be seen from inside itself, and in this way, reflects the society which created it.
Post-modern thought, having developed from sub-Marxist concepts of eternal revolution and a hatred of institutions, embodied itself in the thinkers and attitudes of Contemporary architecture. The doctrine of the post-modernist was not one which simply sought to revise tradition as the modernists did, but instead desired a deliberate destruction of all knowledge and the institutions which had fostered it. Contemporary architecture divorces itself from culture and tradition, choosing instead to indulge in the pursuit of pure aesthetic activity and abstraction. Architects became obsessed with forms which were unique, novel, and exciting. Everything had to say something new, even if it was really saying nothing at all. Once believed to be a pursuit of truth, architecture became vogue, with each architect representing their own elaborate gimmick. The impoverishing irony is that as much as Contemporary architecture claimed to be an answer to a stilted classism, it quickly became so mimicked and popularised that all buildings became unrecognisable from each other. More impoverishing still, we became unable to understand, or worse express, what we had lost. Contemporary architecture deconstructs our sense of place and fragments it into something alien. Our ability to create places that are meaningful and of character depends entirely on our ability to define space, to employ the vocabularies, grammars, syntaxes. The rhythms and patterns of architecture shared within its space, and which are uniquely its own, inform us of who we are and where we have come from.
Undeniably, it is a natural consequence that what forms the ‘new’ is met with derision by those committed to the traditional ways of doing things. The Renaissance critics scorned gothic architects for their ectopic ways and alien geometry. A more steadied eye, however, sees the ancestry of its proportion in its cruciform figure, the derived geometry from the semi-circle arch into the equilateral, and the rib vaulting which sources its heritage from the ancient Greek colonnade. In practice, the Gothic architect did not discard or disregard traditional principles; rather, they employed them in an innovative and contemporary way — one which was primitive but with a new sensibility. Modern society has chastised itself to Contemporary architecture because it feels new, or appears to be a necessary product of our time. It requires us into a code of belief that to go forward, even into misery, is always better than to dwell on what we left behind. To think in this way is a caustic philosophy and forever eats into the face. To be ‘new’ or ‘modern’ are concepts as much at odds with Traditional architecture as they are with language or science. Language, fundamentally, is an invention of experience and can only be understood with an understanding of the experience of the past. Only in this way does it allow us to say anything new; eschewed of this we are illiterate and unable to speak. Tradition is constantly reassessing itself, edging closer to something purer, and when employed has created worlds as diverse as nature, because it is inherently a part of nature. Each building carries the present within it, but it also carries the past and the whole of history and temerity which that represents. This is the consolation, the theft that Eliot treasured: to be understood and to understand something whole, and of itself, because it is a part of everything.
When we lose our ability to discern language, no one understands anything because nothing is meant to be understood. The ‘newspeak’ and abstraction of language in architecture, and more broadly the arts, has caused a divided society of a self-elected few who decide what stuff means, as well as the ‘viewer’ who is to accept it and consume it. Contemporary architecture operates in a closed system of thought, one that is anti-intellectual because it does not set out to learn, and declares nothing but its own right to exist. Each is their own being, but to be an architect and to learn and understand the language of architecture is to be able to exist beyond simply oneself. Language is perfect, and with it we separate ourselves from all that has existed. To build upon it and reason by it we, as Keats declared, can clip an angels wings. To have said something and to have written it down is to exist eternally because you can revisit it, not in time, but fixed in a way that shows it to be eternally there with you, never lost unless by losing yourself.
There is a measurable truth in the sense that all our unhappiness and alienation comes from an attempt to live entirely alone, wherein happiness comes from an ability to fit our environment to ourselves and ourselves to our environment. It is the great architect who understands that to be a part of society, as Donne wrote, is to exist not as “an island entire of oneself” but as a continent, wherein each individual is a part of the whole. Architecture, when built to be understood, informs us of who we are in a chain of past and futures. It grants us a consciousness beyond simply stimulus-interaction, by informing us not only of where we are geographically, but who we are, where we are in our culture, and with this an ability to live in the present. When realised properly, architecture is not only a space of aesthetic forms but a place in which all knowledge intersects. Without tradition we start again- and the start was a messy and horrible place to be. We should be grateful for our ancestors, who had the foresight to write things down and were graceful enough to show their mistakes. This is civilisation, don't be fooled by the simplicity of functionalism, or those who see beauty as to be an embellishment upon function rather than function itself. Take in all that you can and share all that is possible, because without it you are truly alone, left only with your dying words.
Title image: The East End in Colour 1960-1980 by David Granick is published by Hoxton Mini Press, £16.95 www.hoxtonminipress.com. The book coincides with an exhibition running until 5 May 2018 at Tower Hamlets Local History Library & Archives 277 Bancroft Road, E1 4DQ.
Photographic copyright: David Granick / Tower Hamlets Local History Library & Archives