Back to the drawing board: How the modernist cult captured architecture
Mark Alan Hewitt’s book is a welcome breath of sound common sense in a field where expensive insanity seems to have ruled the roost for far too long
That architecture and architectural education are in a terrible state is obvious to anybody in the field. The reasons for this catastrophe are many, but some of the primary causes have been the universal embrace of the cult of inhumane modernism devoid of ornament (“a crime”), beauty, or even fun; the arrogant ditching of history and disregard of architectural precedents; the devaluation of craftsmanship through the adoption of factory-made components; and the desensitisation of architectural students terrorised and bullied into acceptance of nonsense by means of design “juries”, and by the compulsory study of false “grand narratives” of modernism that are patently distorted.
One of the worst of those pernicious texts was Nikolaus Pevsner’s Pioneers of the Modern Movement from William Morris to Walter Gropius (1936), the title of which should have been enough to put off anyone who knew anything about art history. The creation of an entirely spurious connection between Arts-and-Crafts practitioners like Morris and modernists like Gropius was part of a campaign to create respectable father-figures for disreputable modernism; to legitimise the unspeakable by giving it a fabricated historical pedigree.
It says a lot about the flabbiness of the architectural world that it so readily accepted not only Pevsner’s sacred cowdom, but his enthusiastic endorsement of the Modern Movement in architecture as the “new style” of the twentieth century; a “genuine style as opposed to a passing fashion”, and one, moreover, that was, as Pevsner approvingly noted, “totalitarian”, a remark that did not even arouse a frisson of anxiety among the dimwits. Elizabeth Cumming and Wendy Kaplan put it neatly in their The Arts and Crafts Movement (1991 & 2002): they observed that few “now accept the view of Nikolaus Pevsner, put forward in his influential Pioneers … of Arts and Crafts as an antecedent of modernism”. Unfortunately, that is not true of “schools of architecture” in which falsehoods are still taught, and people like C.F.A. Voysey, who hated the modernists and everything they stood for, was held by Pevsner, in the teeth of objections by Voysey himself, to have been such a “pioneer”, a libel still perpetrated to this day in recent publications.
Hewitt’s intelligent new book argues persuasively for the advantages of drawing in helping us to see
The widespread acceptance of untruths, obvious errors, and false attributions can only be explained if some cognitive functions have been shut down. To swallow the sort of twaddle peddled by Pevsner one would need to disengage what one actually sees from one’s understanding: in other words, instead of looking at something with care and forming sensible judgements based on careful comparisons and observations, one has one’s vision impaired by peering through Bauhaus-tinted spectacles, and therefore sees what Pevsner & Co. want one to see. In other words, whole generations have been brought up, not to see with their eyes, but to look with their ears.
Hewitt’s intelligent new book argues persuasively for the advantages of drawing in helping us to see. So often, the camera and the mobile phone are used to record something, but it is true (and I speak from many years of experience), that one can really only understand a building or an artefact by drawing it.
His book starts with a primer on visual perception, cognitive science, and modes of conception, and surveys 12 millennia of how humans have made their habitats and buildings. It ends with cogent recommendations concerning contemporary design education, including the abolition of the vile, confrontational, bullying, brainwashing “jury” system adopted in the dark satanic mills approved of by so-called “professional” bodies that themselves need major structural reform.
The hand-drawn sketch should be rediscovered as the fundamental medium for creating real architecture
Hewitt advocates that architectural practice and education must re-engage with those historically grounded ways of working if they are to serve humans and the environment in the coming decades. First, the hand-drawn sketch should be rediscovered as the fundamental medium for creating real architecture, for daily practice of drawing strengthens neural networks and engages cognitive faculties at many levels: students should sketch from the very beginning of their education, and be required to use sketches to document and develop their ideas. Basic drawing should be taught with constant reference to the most recent research in cognitive science and visual perception, and students should engage with direct experience as well as with mnemonic models.
Second, students should travel, see new places, visit outstanding buildings (not ignoring great historic buildings, dismissed by modernists as irrelevant), and record them in sketchbooks, with annotations. I would go further: I would insist upon measuring and drawing such buildings to scale, with details, in order to develop an understanding of what quality architecture entails. In one American university, admirably, third-year students of architecture are all required to carry out studies in Rome.
Architectural history must become a compulsory subject again (it has been jettisoned almost everywhere in recent years), avoiding the pitfalls of only presenting “modern architecture” as a fit subject for superficial understanding. Students should be taught the proportional and grammatical systems associated with Classical architecture, Japanese and Chinese traditional architecture, and other non-Western systems, to which I would add the study of Romanesque and Gothic architecture and the Arts-and-Crafts movement, especially in England, for England produced two important indigenous architectural styles: Perpendicular or Third Pointed Gothic of the 14th-16th centuries; and the Arts-and-Crafts Movement that drew on vernacular styles, especially in domestic architecture.
The core concerns of real architecture must be readdressed
Furthermore, students should engage with the users of buildings as soon as is possible: only by seeing designs constructed can fundamental principles be understood, while reality can also be brought into education once young people have to deal with the often painful realities of designing for real people to use. In addition, contact should be made early on with artisans, tradespeople, and other makers of building components so that students become aware of the processes of how design is translated into building. Too much so-called architectural “education” has concentrated on semantics, with a loss of understanding of how physical forms can convey symbolic meaning: the result is that a great deal of architecture has no meaning whatsoever, and the core concerns of real architecture must be readdressed.
Although no designer can afford to ignore computers, there is no reason why much early design-work cannot be done with traditional drawings and models, and so-called “low-tech” and artisanal processes should be embraced, remembering that often simple vernacular forms using natural materials such as mud, clay, and thatch may be the only possible solutions in certain areas where expensive “high-tech” buildings are not only beyond the reach of the populace, but are highly inappropriate for a great number of reasons, cultural, economic, or even what might be remotely possible.
Architects today are blind to other buildings adjacent to where they propose to erect their egocentric ‘statements’
Virtual representations of designed environments should be avoided until the presentation stages of design: the expressive capacities of pencil, ink, paint, etc., are far more flexible than many electronic systems. Digital drafting should be employed as an adjunct to hand drawing, and software that is geared to proprietary products before creative decisions are made should be avoided. Evidence-based, peer-reviewed research products should be demanded. At all times the collaborative nature of design should be emphasised as a discipline: collaboration among students should be encouraged rather than promoting the notion of individual originality: such “originality” should only emerge from a sound understanding of precedent, with the caveat that it is only of value if it is an improvement, not a mere gesture designed to shock, stand out, or otherwise make its mark. And one of the most important aspects of architectural design, something that has been largely ignored since the modernist cult took over, needs to be resurrected: context, for in densely built-up areas, architects today are blind to other buildings adjacent to where they propose to erect their egocentric “statements”.
All in all, then, Hewitt’s book is a welcome breath of sound common sense in a field where expensive insanity seems to have ruled the roost for far too long. There are some surprising clangers, however: King Friedrich Wilhelm II of Prussia (r.1786-97) was not “der Große” (the Great). That was his predecessor (r.1740-86). And Hewitt need not have been so respectful of Pevsner’s Pioneers, nor had he any need to bend the knee to Sigfried Giedion (whose name he mis-spells).
Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print
Try three issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £5Subscribe