Traditional Architecture Group
A Linked Society of the Royal Institute of British Architects

Subscribers Newsletter No. 14

28th October 2011


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Following the great success of previous TAG Debates in which traditionalist and Modernist architects and their supporters debated the future of architecture, the latest debate took place at 6pm to 8pm on Thursday 20th October 2011 at Kings College, London.

This debate was between the two noted British philosophers,
Alain de Botton and Roger Scruton.

De Botton is an ardent advocate of Modernism whilst Scruton is equally passionate in his support of traditionalism.

Introduction by TAG Chairman, Alireza Sagharchi

Peter Kellow TAG Communications writes the following summary of the talks of each of the main speakers. Each used their own slides which are not included here.

Following the talks there were questions and answers and these will be referred to in a future newsletter.

But, don't forget you can make your comment here which will be published in a subsequent newsletter.

Also I am looking at what I can provide online in the way of audio/video material.


Left to right Roger Scruton, Alain de Botton and Chairman, Hugh Pearman

De Botton began by saying that the discussion should not be about “Old v. New” buildings but “Good v. Bad” ones, but that today we cannot always agree about what is good.

The rest of his talk was an attempt to define what is meant by good architecture and this rested on a single thesis which was explained in different ways in relation to different buildings.

This thesis states that good buildings have to be “legitimate in their time”. He compared an ornate classical staircase in the palace of Versailles with a geometric modern one in le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye and said that both were legitimate in this way.

He went on to contrast these two examples he admired with others he did not. These included a recent reconstruction of Dutch building types in Japan. He said we are “troubled by this as it is in the wrong country and at the wrong time”.

“The values by which we live should be echoed in the buildings around us.” What are these values? It is up to the architect to “distill certain themes of the era”. That, to de Botton, is good architecture.

He then criticized a bland street scene in Japan that he showed on the grounds that it was not rooted in its place and claimed that “humans want to feel rooted in time and place and this sort of place”, in failing to do, “this tells us that something is wrong”.

To illustrate the kind of architecture that exemplified how contemporary architecture could succeed he showed, among other buildings, an Oscar Niemeyer villa in Brazil which he said “distils the best themes of the era and the locale”. He used further illustrations to demonstrate how “you can be faithful to the deeper sense of tradition while working in a modern idiom”. This included a modernist timber house on a beach being part of the “Living Architecture” project he is involved in.

As an example of a building that does not “represent what contemporary architecture is” he cited the “Shard”, currently under construction in London, which he “hated”.

He said that contemporary architecture has moved on from what it was fifty years ago, and that Peter Zumphor and Louis Kahn were heroes. He said their work was difficult to place in time, but nevertheless you don’t feel “that painful disjuncture between your era and the era they represent”.

He rebuffed the idea that human nature is immutable saying that, “whilst some sides of it are eternal, others change”. They change as eras change.

He concluded by referring to the new village at Poundsbury, Dorsetshire, England, saying that it revealed a “depressing disengagement from contemporary possibilities”. It did not satisfy his criterion of being “legitimate in its time”.



Scruton began by saying he approved of many of Alain de Botton’s examples. But that he wanted to talk about what he saw as “the real contrast between traditionalism and modernism”. This concerns “not the great projects but ordinary necessary buildings where a talented architect may not be involved”.

He showed a view of Philadelphia that included two buildings: one a glass curtain walled block, the other a classical railway station. He said the glass curtain wall building has “no consciousness of the main materials out of which buildings are constructed, that is, light and shade”. On the contrary the classical Philadelphia railroad station knows that “no built form makes sense if it does not capture light and shade”. The modern block is a “means to an end”; the classical station is an “end in itself”.

After the demise of Beaux Arts in the early twentieth century, “a new language was sought” and le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye is an example of this. It emphasizes the horizontal and there is “no real contact of this building with the ground or the sky”. The invention of the piloti (such as was employed in this building) was a turning point, turning away from the classical idea that the weight on a column goes downwards. The “play of light and shade is downgraded”.

He said in one of his central points that modernism has “produced no everyday vernacular” and associated with this is the fact that today “nothing significant is taught in architectural schools”.

He showed a New York street scene with simple nineteenth century buildings on one side and an extravagant modernist building by architects, Morphosis, on the other. The old buildings he said “confront the street as civilized members of the community” whilst the Morphosis building was “designed not to fit in”

He went on: “like Alain I am not against the great modernist experiments but what has not emerged from them is a general vernacular that is OK in the hands of ordinary untalented people”. We should not allow architectural “egos out of the cage”.

He spoke of the damage done to the city of Reading, England, by modernist architecture and that the city “contains every conceivable form of ugliness”. He showed a concrete building only 15 years but now abandoned that had replaced some charming Victorian buildings that were well appreciated by their residents.

More specifically he noted that modernist buildings don’t know how to go around corners. “To manage a corner you need a vocabulary to take you around.” He cited the corner of a classical building in Rome and a now listed building in New York as good examples of how to go around a corner.
He returned to a building in Reading to show how not to design a corner and in the process create a “no go area for the human eye”.

He said people are rightly in rebellion against this kind of thing and he cited, by contrast, a street in Whitby, Yorkshire, England, of ordinary buildings that nevertheless were buildings that people fought to defend. He said we need this kind of “genial neighbourliness”.

He said: also the use of Modernist buildings is difficult to change “whereas architecture in the classical tradition can be recycled”, and to demonstrate this he showed a 2000 year old Roman opening converted for a garage

He concluded by saying that we have recognize that the world has to change but our sense of mortality “awakens a desire for the permanent”.