Feelings Are a Better Way to Discuss Architecture Than Concepts

  • 2017-06-08
  • Aeon

The overwhelming problem in contemporary architectural culture is that most of the critical talk about it fails to relate to the buildings that we all see every day. How can we talk about that clumsy new apartment block nearby in terms of the great movements in architectural history? Only with great difficulty. And the reason is that a few outmoded ideas alone, most of them originating in the mid-20th century or much earlier, still dominate the critical press. Buildings have to be exciting, progressive, mould-breaking to be worth discussing. Yes, there are buildings like that, and people are rightly moved by them. But as a measure for judging the great run of buildings that are erected daily – that are perhaps less than thrilling – we have no adequate way of sharing the pleasures or disappointments that they bring.

Architects tend to imitate the language of their clients and critics because they themselves are visual, visceral people for whom the thing itself and not a description of it is the dominant motivator. It has always been like that: the architects of the gothic revival spoke passionately in terms of morality and truth because that was the terminology the church-builders who employed them wanted to hear. And that has never subsided: buildings are still ‘good’ or ‘bad’, or ‘honest’ or ‘pastiche’. And ‘bad’ buildings are somehow morally ‘wrong’, and their architects lesser people because of it. This – and the whole business of delivering one-line judgments – is early Victorian language, and these terms are completely useless when applied to most buildings.