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Book Review: In the Mood for Architecture—Tradition, Modernism and Serendipity

Patrick Webb reviews Lucien Steil's book In the Mood for Architecture—Tradition, Modernism and Serendipity.

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In the Mood for Architecture

In the Mood for Architecture—Tradition, Modernism and Serendipity
by Lucien Steil
First Edition

In the Mood? Serendipity? What could the author possibly mean by that? It’s certainly intriguing, at least I found it so when I’d received a copy of this book in the mail as a gift from the author. That evening and three pages in, I knew I was set for a treat. How to describe? Skilfully woven throughout is what I’ve referred to as the third rail of philosophy (at least in architectural academia): Ethics. Specifically, the branches of aesthetics: judgements of how things we build ought to appeal to the senses, and morals: how the things we design affect the people who construct them as well as those expected to live, work, or otherwise interact with them. However, this subject is not treated in a dry, esoteric manner, rather conveyed in a very down-to-earth manner with repeated appeals to common sense and human decency.

Blue Sky Stars Moon illustration

Let the waters settle, and you will see the moon and the stars mirrored in your being.” -Rumi

Memory and Forgetfulness

Much of the aforementioned consideration of ethics is reflected in a discussion of traditional architecture juxtaposed with Modernism. Tradition carries the sense of something that is passed across the threshold from one generation to the next. However, not everything makes it. Tradition in architecture “sifts out” the most durable, the most beautiful, the most conducive to civic life. In so doing, the author describes it as a project of perpetual becoming. By retaining the best solutions of previous generations and adding contemporary contributions, it sits as the nexus of permanence and change. Whereas tradition could be said to be the collective memory of a culture, traditional architecture acts as a material re-enactment and extension of that shared memory.

“There can be a culture of forgetting only, and these periods are called Dark Ages.”

Modernism as an ideology posits itself as antitraditional. Materially, it has aligned itself with Industrialisation. Metaphysically, it manifests a longing for Utopia, literally a “no place” fixated on an ever-receding future, what the author describes as an endless beginning. He further surmises that this overinvestment in and fixation upon the future betrays a fear of the “present’s own potential for a better world,” one that diverts all attention from the local here and contemporary now. Modernism has pressed its adherents and much of society at large into forgetfulness; to forget that “the essential purpose of all these built works has not been to reflect on contemporaneity” but “to provide a meaningful setting for life.”

September 11th Memorial, Grosvenor Square, London

September 11th Memorial, Grosvenor Square, London - Russell Taylor Architects, 2003

Originality and Imitation

Genius has been alternatively called a divine gift or in more recent times thought of as an inherent aptitude. Holding this perspective, genius is not something that can be taught. Nevertheless, in schools of architecture it seems to be the default expectation. As such, technique and expertise are no longer viewed as creative activities and as a result the means to teach and train all of the lessons embedded in tradition have been largely lost. As it turns out tradition is not something one can inherit genetically, you have to work very hard for it.

This is where the concept of originality may serve as a corrective. As the name implies, true originality means a return to discovery of the original creation, the metaphorical bringing of order out of chaos. The traditional means for doing so have lay in imitation which can be thought of in at least three different ways. Initially, a copy is “concerned with the mechanical and literal replication of originals.” Rather than something to be derided, this technique driven activity sharpens skill and serves as a firm foundation for creative activity. Whereas a copy is concerned with reproducing a pastiche seeks of convey an impression of the original. Of course, there could true or false, good or bad impressions. A pastiche might be better thought of as a means of expression rather than a term of contempt. Finally, there is imitation, which amounts to the reconstitution of the original. Traditionally, nature has been the source of origin for architectural inspiration as expressed by Sir Geoffrey Scott, “This order which in Nature is hidden and implicit, Architecture makes patent to the eye.” Imitation is therefore the maturation of artistic and intellectual intentions concerned with expressing the very essence of things.

There is much more to In the Mood for Architecture than what I’ve previously highlighted. There is a detailed critique of starchitecture and skyscrapers as well as a thoughtful consideration of the civic role of towers and monuments. Quite encouraging, there is an extensive review of case studies of contemporary architecture that apply the traditional principles and lessons outlined at the outset of the book. What shines throughout is the author’s passion for architecture as a place of dwelling for you and I. Lucien Steil is clearly an advocate for the types of buildings, communities, and landscapes that everyday people love and feel completely at home with.

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