Bleak Houses: Disappointment and Failure in Architecture, by Timothy Brittain-Catlin

Richard Williams on architectural criticism and how its narrowness affects our built landscape

March 20, 2014

Architecture in Britain has always been a mess. Nowhere is this more evident than in the field of architectural criticism, where for as long as anyone can remember, a self-perpetuating elite has routinely advocated forms of building wildly at odds with popular taste.

The battlegrounds are familiar to us all, architects and bystanders alike. And we know, if we’re close enough to architectural education, that this critical paralysis has had the peculiar effect of encouraging architects to design buildings of a kind that they will never, in all likelihood, build.

Worse, architects design an ever-smaller proportion of the world’s buildings, their expertise ever more encroached upon by a range of smaller, nimbler professions. Kenneth Frampton’s Modern Architecture: A Critical History – first published in 1980 and perhaps the nearest thing to an architectural education textbook in the anglophone world – concludes with extraordinary pessimism. Architecture can only now function as a “reality reserve”, Frampton says, a fortified space of aesthetic freedom against the tide of globalised building.

Timothy Brittain-Catlin’s Bleak Houses is full of such illustrations of architecture’s uselessness, and they would be hilarious were they not also so tragic. Parametricism, for example, is a kind of ultra-formalism, disconnected from any concern with function. It has produced some remarkable shapes, but it is an architectural and social dead end, an entertainment for Russian billionaires. Moreover, its language is completely free of meaning, while giving the appearance of sophistication. It really is the most depressing of all current tendencies, and it’s gratifying to see it get a good kicking here.

Melancholy is one defining characteristic of Bleak Houses. Eroticism is another, for this is a decidedly queer book

However, there is undoubtedly something sad about this situation. Architectural criticism’s impending demise may be deserved given its complicity in the process (see above), but if we lose it, we lose something bigger, namely a way to make judgements about the quality of buildings in the world in which we live. As Brittain-Catlin argues, the poor quality of ordinary buildings – our houses especially, if we think of the UK context – is the result of a critical failure, in large part. If we cannot have a sensible public conversation about what is good and important about buildings, we end up at the current impasse – parametricism on the one hand and developer-schlock on the other. If you summarily dismiss popular concerns as irrelevant – as criticism routinely does – this is what happens.

Brittain-Catlin makes this gloomy argument extremely well. He writes in a mode familiar to readers of the University of Cambridge architectural historian David Watkin in the 1970s. A teasing, anti-Modernist, High Church neopopulism, it is the mode that underpinned Prince Charles’ anti-architectural-establishment speeches of the 1980s, and then the British expression of the so-called new urbanism. (The Prince’s new town Poundbury gets a decent hearing, as it should – it’s more interesting than is conventionally thought.) It’s a nostalgic, small-c conservative worldview, sceptical of architectural elites and their rhetoric, dubious of both the value and possibility of architecture-led social transformation, regretful of the loss of an architectural culture shared and shaped by users and builders alike.

But boy, it is melancholy, and Bleak Houses takes melancholia to a new level, from its title and subtitle to chapters on “Losers”, “Hopelessness” and “Retrenchment and loss”. The author is disarmingly present himself, right from page one, on which he outs himself as an architectural “loser”, and he offers numerous stories of his own professional and personal disappointments, as well as poignant moments that suggest real hurt.

Fortunately for us, Brittain-Catlin is an unusually talented writer, always engaging, sharply critical where necessary, and often very funny. The autobiography for the most part really works. In a lesser writer’s hands these reflections might have seemed simply self-indulgent, but here they always serve the larger thesis that we need criticism that can engage with sentiment. We feel things in relation to buildings; novelists (as he argues at length) understand this well, hence their use of buildings as characters. Dickens’ Bleak House is the signal example, with architecture used to sustain mood for the sake of narrative.

The defence of sentiment is convincing. It’s backed up by an exploration of two popular but critically despised forms of architecture, Tudor and Queen Anne, the latter a bastard form invented by the Victorians and later cultivated by model railway builders and Yorkshire confectioners (the Quality Street tin is arguably the style’s apogee). Such styles are interesting because they’re popular and enduring, and therefore can be used to substantiate an alternative history. They are also interesting because in their very form, they encourage sentiment: they’re all nooks and corners and fireplaces, spaces for comfortable repose. They are the exact opposite of the moral bullying offered by Gothic and, later, Modernist styles.

Melancholy is one defining characteristic of Bleak Houses. Eroticism is another, for this is a decidedly queer book. It eschews queer theory and the rare bits of architectural criticism that invoke it (Aaron Betsky’s work, for example) but it describes an alternative architectural universe. In this world, the “sissies” (Brittain-Catlin’s nicely chosen term) have won. The “bullies” are recognised for what they are, and their instruments of torture – the studio “crits” and manifestos – have fallen into disuse. Criticism becomes more like novel-writing, and architecture a hybrid practice that is part design, part memory, part erotic reflection; a building’s meaning cannot be separated from the lived (and loved) experience of that building.

I couldn’t agree more. Anything that puts sex back into our architectural conversation has to be a good thing, as well as anything that makes clear what we owe to homosexual experience in our collective imagination of architecture. As Brittain-Catlin shows, our imagination of space is often a queer one; queer writers have been especially alert to the use and meanings of architectural spaces, especially interiors and their uses (Alan Hollinghurst’s work is important here).

If I have a reservation about Bleak Houses, however, it would be its Englishness, which although clearly felt, can be parochial and inward-looking. It felt, at times, like intruding on a sixth-form common room spat on the relative merits of, say, Morrissey and Motörhead. But if Bleak Houses represents the case for a Morrissey-ish canon of melancholic losers, doesn’t that just substitute one common room clique for another? Perhaps we should get right out of the common room.

This parochialism has a faintly masochistic quality, too. Bleak Houses returns, time and again, to sites of trauma, such as the Queen Anne-style master’s lodge at Pembroke College, Cambridge, where the author was “once refused admission to join (his) parents for lunch by the then master”. I think I would have returned with a petrol can and a box of matches. Had my nerve failed, the episode would certainly have instilled an irrevocable loathing of Queen Anne architecture. But Bleak Houses remains transfixed.

I sometimes wished it would break away: this book never quite transcends its geographical and social origins. The “disappointment and failure” of its title seem largely those of the author and perhaps a few others in the refined orbit of Cambridge’s department of architecture. If that’s not the case, it should say so more clearly. That said, there are few books I can think of that describe the emotional engagement with architecture with such acuity. And despite the subject, Bleak Houses is anything but a bleak read.

The author

Were a good fairy to offer him the gift of a talent he does not possess, says Timothy Brittain-Catlin, senior lecturer in the Kent School of Architecture, University of Kent, “it wouldn’t be to be a better designer of buildings. I quite like being that sort of loser myself.”

He was born and grew up in Hammersmith, and says, “I think I probably have a London mentality that living away from the city for 24 years has done little to shift”. He lives in the seaside town of Broadstairs, “in The Millennium Villa, a house designed by myself. What I would really like is for my own house to take on the character of the little Edwardian villas I love looking at in old architecture books: secluded, pretty, grand on a very small scale. It will get there eventually – especially once the garden has grown up.

“It’s in a suburb of a small town, and as it is, I already enjoy the lovely ornamental trees in the neighbours’ gardens. We have proper shops – excellent butchers and a fishmonger, a proper beach – lovely clean golden sand, and a picturesque harbour. And it’s only 25 minutes on the train from work in Canterbury.”  

As a child, says Brittain-Catlin, “I did start reading early, encouraged by my mother. She had read me The Pilgrim’s Progress, Brave New World and Gibbon’s Decline and Fall by the time I was 8. Before that it was E. Nesbit, whose stories certainly left a lasting influence. When I was at primary school I read every novel by Paul Gallico, to the horror of the headmaster, who thought they were ‘sentimental’.

“The answer to that, if I had thought of it, would have been ‘why do you put them in the library, then?’ As it is, a thorough grounding in sentimental stories of that kind has proved very useful. I also read all the Ray Bradbury I could find there. By the time I was at secondary school I was reading the Architectural Review, and, in time, books by and about architects.

“The son of the architectural historian Alistair Service was a friend of mine, and his father gave me a copy of his Edwardian Architecture, and I also remember acquiring its big brother, his wonderful, lush, Edwardian Architecture and its Origins. These had a huge effect on me.”

Asked what sort of undergraduate he was, Brittain-Catlin answers, “Terrible. I hated every moment. It was 1979 and I was also getting it in the neck because I was the nephew of Shirley Williams, the former education secretary, who according to my director of studies at Cambridge ‘had destroyed the Labour Party’.

“I also wasn’t very good, which didn’t help. And when I did my diploma at the Bartlett School of Architecture at University College London afterwards, I was pretty much the village idiot. I also encountered that poisonous mid-80s, anti-Thatcher snobbery/anti-snobbery thing in all its revoltingness: almost nothing is more disgusting than that, and it seems to be coming back again here and there.

 “I would have given it all up were it not for my passionate enthusiasm for A. W. N. Pugin – then considered a joke – and Edwardian architecture. The other experience which sustained me was a couple of conversations while still at Cambridge with Peter Blundell Jones just before I graduated: he was one of the few people there who expressed any interest in talking to me about my enthusiasms. In the meantime he has gone on to be one of our most distinguished architectural historians, and a wonderful writer, and I have never forgotten my debt to him. The other guiding light all along came in the form of books and articles by Mark Girouard, the greatest architectural writer of all time, in my opinion.

Brittain-Catlin adds: “The greatest privilege of my academic life has been the support and friendship of Andrew Saint, my PhD supervisor, an endlessly wise, generous and disciplined teacher as well as a fantastic architectural historian and a beautiful and profound writer.”

On the British taste in architecture, he says: “The English are, I think, an aggressive people and most have not so much lowbrow taste as no taste at all, or no interest in taste; one still occasionally meets people who think that any enthusiasm for the applied arts, let alone the fine arts, is some kind of sign of sexual deviance.

“As a member of the Twentieth Century Society and the Victorian Society, which campaign for our built heritage, I also find that many politicians and writers people seem to revel in the cruel act of demolition and actively look for excuses for it. One of the disappointments that all architects and architectural writers encounter is that it turns out that most people simply aren’t bothered about architecture, and certainly many who ought to know better think that as a profession or an academic discipline it is simply an easy hobby that anyone can do if they put their mind to it.”

Discussions of British taste in architecture often focus on, as Brittain-Catlin puts it, the “Tudorbethan vs continental Modernism thing. Well, a lot of my book is about precisely that. It’s nonsense, of course: there is no inherent reason for any conflict. You should build what you want to build. You should surround yourself with things you find beautiful: it’s a perfectly reasonable human instinct, endlessly under attack from sanctimonious puritans of one kind or another.”

Bleak Houses, he says, “looks at the idea perpetrated by the Gothic Revivalists that the wrong style of architecture is some sort of enemy that must be destroyed. That view persisted so long that until recently whole areas of British 20th-century design were completely ignored as being somehow beneath criticism. The great mystery to me was how it came about the vast majority of interwar British architecture – certainly 99 per cent – was in Georgian or Tudor styles and yet featured nowhere in historical surveys of the period: these preferred the handful of Modernist buildings designed by and for eccentrics, by and large. Some of them – I would suggest in particular Erich Mendelsohn’s De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill-on-Sea – are wonderful and unforgettable. But they are a tiny, tiny minority of what went up, and what architectural history ought to be about.”

Brittain-Catlin adds: “One continuing sign of the death-grip of Modernist criticism, the spiritual descendant of the Gothic Revivalists, is that students today will design long, rectangular white buildings with horizontal windows because, so they say, these are ‘modern’. Modern? They were modern for their great-great-grandparents’ generation.”

Asked if he had considered writing Bleak Houses without a autobiographical element, he responds: “What I’m trying to do is to show that architecture can be written about in many different ways, and most effectively in ways that relate to personal experience – of which of course buildings are so important a part. It doesn’t take long to discover that most writing about architecture falls into a number of simplistic categories, largely detached from everyday experience. Newspaper writing will concentrate on facts, preferably related to other fields – the size of a building, its cost, its political controversy or whatever. Several decades after Nikolaus Pevsner’s death, a lot of textbook writing is still teleological – this happened, then this, then this, then this. Alan Powers and others are countering this, but it is still there. Some writing is more in the world of applied art criticism than it is in an architectural one; some is ‘theoretical’ and unintelligible; and some is trying to pretend that architecture is a branch of environmental sustainability or sociology, or all manner of things other than personal joy or personal satisfaction, which of course can be very real in a project.”

He adds: “One strong early influence was a book called Building Modern Sweden, a Penguin book of 1951 – it was full of pretty views of relatively new housing estates in Swedish towns and from a terraced house in rainy London it looked to me like a window into paradise. One tries to capture these joyful things somehow, and talking about buildings in ways that do it.

“As it happens, I hate biographies – I just can’t stand the intrusiveness of them, and I particularly don’t like the way in which a biography of an architect is supposed somehow to be an adequate substitute for an understanding of the significance of that person’s work to that of other architects. But it is possible to find a story about architecture within architects’ lives. One example I have gone into is that of John Seely and Paul Edward Paget – wildly successful architects before and after the Second World War, but completely ignored, or at best derided, by architectural historians. That’s because their buildings were so clumsy or downright ugly that it is hard to imagine anyone, including themselves, ever thinking they were any good. The story that explains the architecture of this pair is I think primarily a story about the two men themselves, and how they lived their life through what they did together. I may be deluding myself, but I think it would take an architectural historian, and not a biographer, to tell that story properly.”

Is Bleak Houses a distinctly strange book? Brittain-Catlin replies: “I hope so – that is, I hope it is strange. And yet there are so many ways in which architects can be losers, all ignored by triumphalists. I’ve emphasised those who design in the ‘wrong’ style, or whom critics ignore or dislike, or who don’t live up to their own hopes for themselves, and yet there are a million and one other ways in which architects can be losers, or to be more exact, disappointed people.

“There are those who serially almost-win competitions, but never actually do; those who do all the work for a big name all their working lives but never get recognition; those who work on unpopular projects, or who are commissioned to replace a beautiful or unusual building with an ugly one. There are those whose buildings are mutilated or demolished. There are plenty without the strength to fight back. There are some whose careers are blighted by their terrible moods, or impossible personality: Pugin’s son Edward was one of these. And everything pales into insignificance next to Mendelsohn, who was not only persecuted and exiled by the Nazis, and who saw many of his best buildings destroyed, and his position as the leading Modernist usurped by Bauhaus people who had a fraction of his talent, but who also had the most unpleasant character and stirred up new enmities everywhere he went.

“Nearly all architectural projects, and nearly all architectural practice, are failures or at least disappointments and compromises of one kind or another, and so it shouldn’t be strange to say so. One thing I am aiming at is that we should write about architecture as it is, and not only about the obvious successes.”
Asked to name a few buildings that he loves, Brittain-Catlin notes: “As with all architecture critics, the buildings I particularly like tend to be one-offs. The Bexhill Pavilion is certainly one of them; St Pancras station and hotel are another. And the Victorian or Victorianised churches and cathedrals of the 19th century can be fabulous: every time I see St Mary’s Cathedral in Edinburgh I am reminded of what a knock-out it is. What these have in common is that they elevate the experiences of daily life.

“But there are certain types of buildings that I do like in general. I earlier mentioned the simple and cheap Scandinavian architecture of the 1930s and 1940s and this still gives me a thrill. The Architectural Review’s articles about them at the time are, for me, my Sacred Texts. And Gunnar Asplund’s law courts extension at Gothenberg, the one that turned an unfriendly building type into a warm and welcoming one, is I think one of the great masterpieces of the world. In Britain I like Tudor houses – not necessarily the big ones, although also those – and I don’t understand why they are not appreciated or why critics have always denigrated them: another consequence of the hate offensive of the Gothic Revival, I think. I can’t see anything wrong with interwar Tudorbethan either – there are some very good ones in Broadstairs close to my villa.”

He has no time for hating particular buildings or styles. “Absolutely not. But I do spend some time showing students how and why they are designing ugly buildings. It isn’t usually a matter of lack of talent: it’s nearly always a matter of their being too cautious, or insufficiently interested in what we already have.”

Pugin’s name did, of course, return to popular discourse in the UK when it was reported in 1998 that the nation’s final Lord Chancellor, Lord Irvine, had spent £59,000 on handmade wallpaper bearing Pugin designs for his official residence at Westminster. Brittain-Catlin says: “Let’s address that wallpaper thing head on. Pugin was without doubt the most influential architect Britain has ever produced – the Arts and Crafts movement, and in time, the high-spec high-tech architecture of some of our best-known names today came directly from what he said and did. He was also the only English architectural theorist of any significance: what we call ‘realism’, that is, the idea that buildings should express their materiality and purpose from the smallest detail to the overall form – came from him.

“So the idea that there is something wrong with spending a few quid on buying some of his wallpaper to decorate properly his best-known building is just another example of that sanctimonious puritanism we talked about earlier. Think of all the money – many millions – that comes into British economy each year via our architectural practices working on a grand scale in China and then ask yourself whether the Lord High Chancellor of Great Britain was justified in buying a few rolls of wallpaper to celebrate the fantastic architecture of the Palace of Westminster.

“The main thing that intrigued me about Pugin – and I was already researching him and his work when I was at school in the late 1970s – was how someone so hugely influential, and so unreservedly admired by a whole generation of first Gothic Revival architects and then the Arts and Crafts ones, had been almost completely forgotten by the 1970s. Pevsner and his pupil Phoebe Stanton wrote about him, and Peter Davey at the Architectural Review was a fan. But that was about it.

Brittain-Catlin adds: “I think it is a good example of what Andrew Saint once described as the ‘profound irrationality’ of the English in architectural matters. It somehow didn’t matter that Pugin was an architect and designer on an epic scale – what mattered for most people was all the stuff around buildings, the politics, the sociology, the passing fashions of the design-world, all the unimportant things, or other people’s problems. There is something to be said for the idea that only architects, however bad at stringing words together, understand other architects, and that Pugin’s reputation was a victim of that.”

Karen Shook

Bleak Houses: Disappointment and Failure in Architecture

By Timothy Brittain-Catlin
MIT Press, 192pp, £17.95
ISBN 9780262026697
Published 1 April 2014

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