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

Subscribers Newsletter No. 15

10th January 2012


* All the statement in this newsletter are attributed to their authors, represent the views of their authors only and do not necessarily represent the view of TAG *


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:

In Newsletter No 14 I included a brief abstract of what each of
the main speakers said. Here I focus on the question I asked Alain de Botton with a word for word transcript of what I, Alain de Botton and Roger Sdruton said at the time.

Follow that I include a reply to de Botton's reply, that I have now written

At the end of the newsletter is a link to a comments page.
All comments will be published on the website and in a future newsletter

Also in future newsletters I will include transcripts of questions from other members of the audience with the main speakers' answers

If you have any special requests, leave them on the comments page.

Peter Kellow. I’ve got a question for Alain but just before I pose that question I’d like to come back to the question of authenticity, people say is this building authentic or not and I think is implied behind that is some kind of sense of morality. Consider a building like the Houses of Parliament in this country which I think is one of the world’s absolutely greatest buildings. Now if you ask was that building authentic in its time I think the obvious answer is: no. I think a much better question to ask is: is it sincere? I think that building wreaks sincerity and that is the correct question to ask. "Authentic" goes nowhere and gets very confused

But my real question is: I was listening to the comments from the both speakers and there is not really much that meshes up because both are arguing from different positions. On the one hand the modernist position and the other the traditionalist position. Alain is a defender of modernism. You talked very little about the form of buildings. The phrase that I wrote down that you used is “buildings must be legitimate for their time” and “architects should distil certain themes of their times”

Now Roger talked about light and shade and columns and politeness. Things that everybody can understand and address. I can understand that and so I don’t have a question but my question is to Alain.

I have a big problem with that phrase “legitimate for its time”. You did not actually use the word "zeitgeist" - but it’s in there. How can you make the connection between that building as being legitimate for its time and not this other building? You seem to think, like a lot of Modernist and Modernist defenders, that a modern building has to be of steel and concrete and cannot be a traditionally styled building. But how do you actually make that connection? And in any case why do you want to make it "right for its time" as if that is something you can define

Alain de Botton. In my talk I wasn’t giving instructions on how you should build OK that’s the theory what’s the practice? How would you go about doing that? Look I’m a believer that there are certain rules, principles of beauty when you’re designing a building ….

Peter Kellow. That wasn’t what I asked. I asked: how do you connect the building to a time? How do you know that that building is legitimate for its time and that building isn’t?

Alain de Botton. I think the beginning of the answer has to be with… It’s very very complex and most of the time we do this unconsciously. So if you hold up an Apple iPhone to most people and you hold up a Bakelite radio and you say: which is of our time? Most people would immediately point to the Apple phone.

What of the seeds of our time that are in here? People would have a very hard time answering so what you are asking is a big and complex question that I just know I am not going to able to fully go into but I think the beginning of an answer has to be with very simple object and very simple lines and the attempt to deduce character and personality from forms. I could show you various window treatments and say to you have a look put a date to these window treatments not which is the most beautiful but try and imagine what sort of century these might best go in and there would I think be remarkable consensus around that around the personality of form and I think that is the beginning of the answer

I think that, in our minds, there are incredibly complex processes that go on that synthesise visual data from all sorts of things that we see and are able to pick up, what le Corbusier called, an atmosphere and we are extremely sensitive to that atmosphere but mostly at an unconscious or preconscious level and recognize it very very quickly which is why I am able to say: Ooh! this looks like an Arabian building often without quite knowing why it looks Arabian. It’s the shape of the windows. Oh yes, it’s the shape of the windows so there are associations that are formed in our minds in forms, materials and eras and we are extremely sensitive to this.

Clothes. You look at somebody’s clothes and very quickly we can deduce when clothing is of its era not of its era and not quite of its era. Sometimes we may wish to make a point not to be with our era or to be slightly to the left or the right of our era or whatever it is but I guess what I am trying to do is simply point out that this process goes on. Most of us are pre-consciously aware of it

Hugh Pearman. On that question, surely there is no such thing as timelessness. Could we tell that it is of the 1950’s for all that it is working in a classical idiom?

Roger Scruton. This is another of those really deep questions in aesthetics. I would say just one thing: that in literature painting and music you’re engaged in an artistic enterprise that no one else has to pay attention to. You are very much aware of your predecessors. You are doing something original in relation to what they have done to make your own personal statement and so on.

Architecture isn’t like that. When you’re building something you’re imposing yourself on others regardless of whether they want to look at it and this public aspect of architecture means that it can’t develop in quite the way that the other arts do. If it tries to do so it will end up offending people which is what has happened

This is a subsequent written reply to the main speakers by Peter Kellow. It was not included in the debate

Peter Kellow. Modernist architects and theorists often promote the idea, that de Botton refers to, that a building should be “legitimate for its time”. This concept is one of the main defenses that Modernists use in the face of those who object that their buildings have no visual appeal and may sometimes be downright ugly. [Example here.]

Modernists attempt to sidestep the question of beauty by appealing to what they clearly consider as a higher matter. If a building satisfies the condition of being “legitimate for its time” then the question of whether it is appealing to the human eye is only of secondary, or may be of no, importance.

This is why I asked the question of how Alain de Botton can be so sure that one building can be discounted because it is not “legitimate for its time”, while this other one can be hailed because it is. What is the rule that enables the link of legitimacy between a building and its time? Clearly de Botton believes this is something that can be objectively assessed even if he did not set out precisely how in his talk. In answer to my question he said the matter was “complex”. Roger Scruton said the connection was “deep”. I would argue that it is more than “complex” or “deep”. It is unfathomable.

It is easy to understand why people argue that somehow buildings, or anything for that matter, display an aspect of their times. When we look back at a past era, we seem to see a commonality between different items that came out of that era.

If we consider, for instance, Victorian Britain we might imagine that from our perspective we see it, to a degree, as all of a piece. The fashions, the architecture, the technology and even the novels and the ideas that people believed, all in some sense share a quality. Of course there is a danger in pushing this too far, but it is nevertheless reasonable to suppose a recognizable, if loose, unity in the output of that particular time might exist.

This impression becomes stronger  when we compare the Victorian era with, say, the middle ages in Britain, for we can see that the novels of Dickens could not have come out of the middle ages and likewise mediaeval church sculpture could not have could not have come out of the 19th century. Getting a feel for the different qualities inherent in different eras is thus a way that we make our understanding of history vivid.

Having said that, we must always be conscious of the fact that our feelings for different eras can never be entirely objective, for each new period constantly reassesses past times. For instance, the modern view of, say, ancient Greece is clearly quite different from that held by, say, the Georgians. The supposed “unity” we think we see in any era can thus be subject to radical reform and even dismemberment. In view of this the idea of “legitimate for its time”, as de Botton calls it, starts to look distinctly shaky.

This relativity is reflected in much modern hermeneutics which seeks to take account of the position of the viewer in any understanding of the past. Clearly this is where things can get truly complex but the alternative is to accept each past era in terms of a collection stereotypes that in themselves have little objective validity.

But let us accept for a moment that in spite of these difficulties there is validity in the idea that we can place certain items from history within the milieu that produced them. After all, as I suggested, we do this all the time to come to an understanding of history, although few would use such a strong word as “legitimacy” to describe this kind of identification.

However, the really big problem comes when we try to apply this insight to the present. Historical distance gives us perspective, and perspective helps us towards a better more usable picture, even if a highly approximate one and one that is subject to revision. But by its nature we have no perspective on the present and certainly not on the future. We are too immersed in its processes to stand back. The past is given and unalterable. But we act in the present and only in the present. Consequently we have to understand the present in quite a different way from the past. The nineteenth century Danish philosopher, Soren Kierkegaard, put it succinctly when he said: “we live our lives forwards, but we make sense of them backwards”.

More recently, the philosopher, Karl Popper, wrote about the dangers of what he called “historicism”. Historicism does exactly what de Botton wants to do. It uses the practice of historians to understand the present. But it often goes further, for it tends to put forward prescriptive agendas for present action. It is as if history has a predetermined narrative and it is up to all the players in it to simply read from the script. But humans are a rum old lot and they don’t always want to read from the script. They know that life in a truly deep sense does not work like that. They know that Kierkegaard was right, that we live life forwards into the unknown. They know historicism can dupe us into an illusory sense of certainty.

These lessons from Popper concerning historicism have never had any traction on the Modernist mindset. Historicism, in spite of its being widely accepted as intellectually impoverished, has proved a powerful force when attached to a prescriptive ideology, like Modernism. De Botton liberally applies historicism as if it were a tried and tested potion rather than the suspect concoction that Popper showed it to be.

But none of that means that we are completely without purchase on the currents and flows of contemporary life. We are not just buffeted by events. In architecture, this is thanks to our inner sense of beauty and aesthetic merit. This is what Scruton’s talk was almost entirely about, whilst de Botton had nothing to say on the subject. To profit from this human facility we have to set aside abstract ideas like “legitimacy” and turn to our emotions and our instincts. Yes, we need some analysis and common sense - but not grandiose schemes that challenge our intuitive responses. We should never deny the emotional life that gives us direction and guidance as “we live our lives forwards”.