A R Powys (1882 – 1936), was an architect and preserver of ancient buildings who also wrote essays on architecture, and one of them in the book that I came across, From the Ground Up, was titled Origins of Bad Architecture. This is a question that has long troubled me, so much so that my wife says I have become something of a bore on it. Whenever I see an eyesore in otherwise beautiful surroundings, which is often, I remark upon it, whereupon my wife, who agrees that the twentieth century was an urban aesthetic disaster, tells me I should clam down (eyesores make me angry) because what is done is done, and working myself up about it will do the landscape no good and will do me harm.
But is the origin of bad architecture the right question to ask, as if it were in the nature of architecture to be good unless some disturbing factor intervened? First, however, I cannot forebear from remarking on the frontispiece of the book, a photo of the author. He is a most distinguished-looking man, of a kind that one does not, or at any rate that I do not, see today.
On the author:
That he was a man of exceptional probity is confirmed in the introduction to the volume written by his most famous brother, John Cowper Powys, admittedly not an entirely unbiased source:
Nothing in his life was at random. Nothing was wanton or wilful. In dress, in ablution, in food, in drink, in the minutest arrangements of his time, of the objects around him, of his rooms, of his garden, of his household utensils, in lighting a fire, in opening a bottle, in whittling a stick, in driving a nail, in hanging a picture, in washing a dish, in chopping a log, in cutting a loaf, he would always follow a carefully considered method of his own, for which when challenged… he would bring forth a most confounding and irrefutable weight of elaborate justification.
Such integrity in everything that he did is perhaps slightly intimidating to us lesser mortals who have it not, but it nevertheless has the enormous merit of not taking anything in life for granted, in paying close attention to every small thing, of finding purpose everywhere, and therefore of avoiding the blight of modern life, namely meaninglessness and boredom.
The article’s punch-line was a killer:
Modern man’s religion is progress: what comes later must be better than what went before. And there are clearly whole fields of human endeavour in which this is so. No one, I suppose, would wish to be operated upon by surgeons using the methods of 1830. (Even in medicine, however, it is sometimes worth remembering that the very latest is not necessarily the very best, and the supposition that it is has occasionally led to disaster.)
But aesthetics are not science: aesthetics do not show the same inbuilt tendency to improvement. From the aesthetic point of view what comes after is not necessarily better than what went before, and is often worse, even much worse. Particularly in an age of progress, however, men are reluctant to admit that they cannot do better than their forebears; to admit it is to admit the heresy that beauty’s arrow, unlike that of time, does not fly in one direction only.
A return to the pattern or design of the past – dismissed as pastiche, the worst of all architectural crimes, far worse than destroying an immemorial townscape – would indicate a deficiency of imagination, inventiveness and originality, all the qualities that make the artist, at least in the romantic conception of the artist. And architects, in their own conception, are above all artists: artists, moreover, when it is widely believed that the purpose of art is to challenge, to question, to transgress, never to celebrate, to harmonise, to console, to give meaning.