J. Mordaunt Crook, the eminent architectural historian, here tells the tale of what went wrong (and right) with architecture during the past two centuries. Although he makes clear from the opening pages that he has not set out to write a history of nineteenth- and twentieth-century architecture in Britain, his study of architectural style in fact provides an excellent, if wonderfully irreverent, history of its subject.
Ever since the Renaissance introduced conceptions of individual architectural style, architects have experienced the tension between building as service and building as art. According to Crook, it was only during the eighteenth century, however, that conceptions of picturesque architecture made this tension a fullfledged "dilemma by multiplying the range of stylistic options" (p. 11). Pugin, Ruskin, and Viollet-le-Duc added to this dilemma by making architecture a matter of morality. "During the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, the problems created by the need to choose a style — Gothic, Renaissance, or some sort of vernacular — accelerated two complementary trends: the cult of eclecticism and the concept of modernity. The Modern Movement tried — and failed — to abolish style by abolishing choice. Post-Modernism — or rather Post-Functionalism — has recreated the dilemma by resuscitating choice" (p. 11). Crook, who writes with great energy and wit, holds that "eclecticism is the vernacular of sophisticated societies" (p. 11) and does not find the problem of style an occasion for worry or despair. Instead, he finds it reason to celebrate a culture of richness and diversity.
After a first chapter entitled "The Consequences of the Picturesque," which sets forth the historical origins of the stylistic dilemma that provides the center of his study, Crook moves to a chapter on Pugin and ecclesiology and another on Ruskin and Viollet-le-Duc. A fourth chapter, "The Architect's Dilemma," which sees Victorian im'. iainty over architectural style paralleling contemporary doubts about religion, literature, and philosophy, sets forth the range of possibilities open to architects. Crook argues that "Victorian architects had failed, on their own terms, in the object they had set themselves. But the object they had set themselves [finding the one, true style] was, in a sense, unnecessary" (p. 126). The fifth chapter, "Modern Gothic," wittily surveys the Rogue Gothic of the 1860s that smashed the barriers of historicism, and the following two chapters survey Progressive Eclecticism and the Neoclassical strain in British architecture from the eighteenth century through the Imperial Baroque of Edwardian Britain and its empire.
An eighth and final chapter, entitled "From Modern to Post-Modern," races somewhat too quickly through the architecture of this century. Crook maintains that the architects of the Modern movement were the first since the followers of Palladianism to base a theory of architecture on intrinsic, objective qualities, "in this case the authority of function" (p. 226). Crook argues that their dream of objective form, like the supposed constructive logic of their buildings, was largely mythical. Working with a semiotic theory of architecture as representation, he savages much modern building for embodying a comical range of aesthetic and political bad faith while also being incompetently constructed and "semiotically dumb" (p. 249). His portrayal of the death throes of architectural modernism in Britain (pp. 260-64) masterfully combines scholarship and satire, savagery and sympathy.
Crook concludes that Post-Modernism represents a return to plurality, populism, symbolism, color, and subjectivity after decades of paternalism and its functionalist mythology. The old dilemma, in other words, has returned, and he finds that fact more comforting than troubling because he sees it as the sign of a pluralistic society. Crook's fine work, which will make many historians of art and architecture gnash their teeth, immediately brings to mind Tom Wolfe's From Bauhaus to Our House, another work that similarly extends the line of Ruskinian architectural criticism not only because it also uses heavy doses of wit and satire but also because it roots architecture within the culture that produces it. Whereas Wolfe's tome, entertaining as it is, often strikes one as the unconvincing grump of an antimodernist pure and simple, Crook's work, which clearly derives from a fine knowledge of its subject, convinces. This book will make a lot of trouble.
Crook, J. Mordaunt. The Dilemma of Style: Architectural Ideas from the Picturesque to the Post-Modern. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987.
Last modified 29 July 2012