Renewing and Rejecting: Comparing Architecture and Music
by Roger Scruton
It has been widely accepted for a hundred years, and in any case since Oswald Spengler’sDecline of the West, that ‘the West’ denotes a comprehensive form of human life, that this form was once flourishing and expanding, and that it is now declining into sterility and self-doubt. The sense of living at the end of things is so widespread that those who seek to renew our cultural inheritance, to affirm their faith, or to draw upon the legacy of self-confidence that was handed down with the Enlightenment, tend to be regarded either as weird eccentrics or as dangerous reactionaries. This is especially the case in the universities and cultural institutions, where a kind of morose antipathy to the Western inheritance accompanies a deep suspicion of all those who wish to teach it and to build on it.
It is not just that we, in the West, have developed a critical response to our own traditions. Self-criticism is a virtue, and part of what distinguishes Western civilisation from its more evident rivals, such as Islam. The great turning points and refreshments of the Western spirit have come about through questioning things—at the Renaissance, for example, when our artistic practices were measured against those of the ancient world and found wanting, at the Reformation, when our religious institutions were mocked, satirised, and eventually reformed in response to radical scepticism, at the Enlightenment, when everything was turned upside down in the name of Reason. Through all such upheavals our forebears maintained a distinctive continuity of interest and inspiration, which can be seen in all the institutions that survived into modern times, and of course in the extraordinary artistic traditions that are the glory of our civilisation.
At a certain stage, however, and for no apparent reason, self-criticism gave way to repudiation. Instead of subjecting our inheritance to a critical evaluation, seeking what is good in it and trying to understand and endorse the ties that binds us to it, a great many of those appointed as cultural stewards—professors of humanities, curators, producers, critics, cultural advisers and commissars—chose rather to turn their backs on it. The prevailing idea seemed to be ‘this is all dead and gone. We can pretend to be part of it, but the result will be pastiche or kitsch.’ And this repudiation of the tradition has been accompanied by vigorous denunciations of the social order and mores of those who formerly enjoyed or created it, whose sexist, racist, hierarchical, etc. attitudes apparently distance them incurably from us living now. I think everybody who has attended a humanities department in one of our universities will be familiar with this attitude, and with the ‘culture of repudiation’ that has arisen around it.
Two examples of this culture of repudiation are of particular interest to me, since they illustrate the enormous damage that it is inflicting on our society. The first is architecture, the second classical music, both practices integral to the health and happiness of a modern city, and both betrayed for no good reason by the ‘experts’ into whose hands they have been placed.
Architecture and music are worth comparing for one very important reason, which is that, while the second is a fine art, and one that entirely draws on its own resources for its own spiritual ends, the first is a skill, which is measured partly in terms of its utility, and which cannot in the nature of things demand genius or originality from its ordinary practitioner. This distinction has been acknowledged at least since the birth of philosophical aesthetics in the eighteenth century, and it is of increasing importance to us, in an age when critics and impresarios count ‘originality’, ‘creativity’, ‘transgression’ and ‘challenge’ as the primary aesthetic values, and dismiss the love of beauty as a lingering form of nostalgia.
When it comes to building a city, an enterprise undertaken by many hands over many years, and in which the principal goal is to create an enduring community united by the sense of settlement, it is rarely possible to call on a single architect to create the final result. To see a city as an act of originality, creativity, or self-expression is precisely to wrest it free from the world of human uses and to place it in its own museum—like the unliveable city created by Le Corbusier at Chandigarh. The great and successful cities of Western civilization—Paris, Florence, Barcelona, Edinburgh, the German cities so tragically destroyed in the Second World War—have not been conceived as works of art, and certainly not built with the idea of originality in mind. They are evolved solutions to the problem of settlement. They achieve order and unity by the devices that are natural to us, when we strive to fit in with others in an enterprise that we did not begin. They use patterns, materials, and details that naturally fit together; their buildings are aligned along streets; they exhibit the feel for proportion and scale which people understand without knowing how to explain it. And they are organised according to a kind of ‘generative grammar’, which is like a language in that anybody can learn it and make his own remarks by means of it, but which is normally spoken in straight and unoriginal prose.
This grammar has been much studied, and has undergone periods of renewal and revision, notably at the Renaissance, and during the emergence of the Georgian pattern-book and the Victorian neo-Gothic. But it existed right up to modern times, and can be witnessed in the cast-iron columns and tin cornices of Lower Manhattan as much as in the Gothic arches of an English country church or the rhythmical fenestration of a Georgian terrace. Anybody can learn it, and anybody can also learn to adapt it to new uses and new materials. Quite suddenly, however, in the wake of the modernist movement, the architectural schools turned their backs on this grammar and the tradition that it represented—a tradition as old as Western civilisation. It was not that they had simply absorbed the critical spirit of the modernists, or were looking for ways to use the new materials and new engineering skills in ways that would harmonize with the on-going tradition of city-building and city-dwelling. They were in a state of out-and-out repudiation. The past was the past and no longer available. We were not to belong to it. We were to begin again, with something entirely new. Building was to start a priori from wholly new assumptions, and any attempt to fit in to the old idea of the street, or the old vocabulary of detail and the old genial syntax with which people had built side by side in harmony, was a kind of betrayal, a lapse into ‘pastiche’, ‘nostalgia’, and ‘fake.’
What exactly do those terms mean? And if they mean something, is it a bad thing that they mean? And if it is a bad thing, is the only way to avoid it through some act of total repudiation? Those surely, are the questions that we ought to be addressing, but which are almost nowhere discussed in schools of architecture.
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