The Look of Architecture - Witold Rybczynski
Russell Degnan

This is a delightful little book, based on a series of lectures, and devoted to exploring the relationships between style, fashion and the users of buildings. Early on it rebukes modern architects for two things. First, for not acknowledging that style has importance to their profession. It is expressed best in a neat passage that the remainder of the book examines in more detail and with copious examples.

"Style is like a feather in a woman's hat, nothing more," sniffed Le Corbusier. Gabrielle Chanel, who knew something about hats, saw things differently. "Fashion passes," she said, "style remains."

Through the second and third parts the differences are worked through. Style, is expressed as the collection of materials, shapes, forms and ideals that guide an architect in creating a coherent whole. It can be classicism, gothic, beaux arts, international, post-modern, or even combinations of those or others. Fashion is the expression of those styles. It comes as both the desire for new, different forms from what came before, and as the point where the social context of the times is expressed in the architecture. Hence, styles go in and out of fashion, but their buildings remain as part of the built heritage of the city.

The heritage aspect is important, because of the first lecture. Here, Rybczynski administered his second rebuke. Quoting Henry Wotton in 1642, "The end is to build well. Well-building hath three conditions: Commoditie, Firmeness, and Delight.", he claims modern architects foxus on delight at the expense of the other elements, that they don't age well, and that they ignore the important fact that buildings are for people. Buildings, he argues are of their time, and their interiors reflect this in a way that ties people, decor and the fashions of both.

Hence buildings change both their function and their audience over time. He briefly cites the museums of Paris as having changed their functions, the Louvre from a Palace, and the Musee d'Orsay from a railway station. But here too, their new function is significant. Both contain the art of their time. Particularly the Orsay with the Impressionist art playing off the 19th century elegance of the railway building. Not all buildings can be so lucky to find a historical niche.

Heritage ideals have two parts: the preservation of objects of historical importance, and the preservation of the best elements of the built form. On both these, Rybczynski's musings provide interesting insights into what we should or shouldn't regard as heritage and how we should treat it.

Historically, the change in form, and the relevance of our own fashions to the interior of buildings means we should be more careful about the way we try and preserve heritage. Ultimately, buildings must be used, lest we seek to preserve delight at the expense of commodity (and to an extent firmness). Locking a building into a permanent stasis for preservation as a museum may occasionally make sense, but more often will just create an anachronism.

Preservation of the best elements is more problematic. If fashion is driving what we think of buildings then many may not be as bad as we now think them, nor others as good. Do we actually need hundreds, if not thousands of terrace houses that were little better than squatters huts in their heyday? Might careful sympathetic changes be better? Are all those buildings from the 60s actually as bad as we think? Are some truly masterpieces just waiting for a revival of the brutalist style?

I'm not sure. But nor do I think we are doing it well in Australia. There is an undercurrent of myth-making and arch-conservatism in the way it is conceived that works against good long term outcomes; by preserving crap, and by making it harder for buildings to be used in a way that secures their future financially.

Finer Things 6th May, 2005 02:24:50   [#]