At the opening of the Law Courts in 1882, the workmen in their address concluded: "Our one regret is that the great master whose designs we have carried out should not have lived to see this day." The great master was poor George Edmund Street who died, worn out, a year before the building that had been his life's work was completed. Sir Colin St John Wilson, a similar sufferer from the British state's perennial incompetence, perfidy and indecision in commissioning and managing another large and complex building, includes Street's story as a roman à clef in these essays, published, as he says, as markers of the period during which he was architect for the new British Library on London's Euston Road. The essays are in four groups: themes, case studies, polemic and history; the last tells Street's story, and offers an admiring analysis of Alfred Waterhouse's unsuccessful competition entry for the same project.
In the first group, Wilson provides a philosophical and ethical context to his practice as architect, attempts to extend his beliefs to synthesise a particular view of what architecture is and what it should be, and to establish a sketch of an "alternative" history of 20th-century architecture. So, we are invited to consider yet again the hoary question, "is architecture an art?". Sir Nikolaus Pevsner's aphorism that "a bicycle shed is a building; Lincoln Cathedral is a piece of architecture" is revived as an opposition between Hannes Meyer's "all things in this world are the product of the formula: function x economics" and Schiller's "architecture is frozen music". Wilson does not consider the possibility that architects might have to deal with a spectrum of activities, some artistic, some mundane, depending on their clients. (We do not, strangely, hear much about the role of clients or patrons.) In any case, ideas of what is art have been unstable in western culture at least since the Quattrocento. Wilson's 20th-century intellectual pantheon, which includes Wittgenstein, Joyce, Pound and Eliot, also houses the recently unfashionable Adrian Stokes, whose efforts to refresh Pater and Ruskin's ideas with Freud's psychoanalytical theory suggest inquiries in architectural criticism of the sort that have been developed in art history over the past 20 years.
The second group of essays, "Five case studies", is the most contentious. Wilson presents sketches of the careers of five 20th-century architects, Alvar Aalto, Hans Scharoun, Sigurd Lewerentz, Erik Gunnar Asplund and Gerrit Rietveld, whose work he takes as exemplifying the "alternative tradition" of 20th-century architecture that he wishes to establish and in which he wishes to place himself. First, he has to set up the Manicheistic terms of what he calls "the conspiracy theory of history": that in the first third of the 20th century, architectural practice enjoyed a period of excitable, sometimes revolutionary ferment, and classicism was finally and fatally challenged. This happy diversity was threatened by the establishment of the "dictatorship" of the Congr s Internationaux d'Architecture Moderne (CIAM), and came to an abrupt end in 1932 when the International Style was invented. The work of Aalto and the others remained eclipsed and undervalued until noted by Wilson. As a conspiracy, this is thin stuff, as history it is anglophone; it would not be recognised by any continental European, and will no longer do.
CIAM, a pressure group of architects drawn mainly from France, Germany and the Low Countries, was founded in 1928 to promote modern architecture. Its main achievement was the compilation in 1933 of the Charter of Athens, a windy but schematic prescription for modern town planning. The organisation collapsed in 1956 from its own sclerosis and mild criticism from a group of younger architects - Team X. It is not plausible that the unsteady CIAM would ever have been able to establish the sort of cultural hegemony that Wilson credits it with.
In 1932, the Museum of Modern Art, New York, held an exhibition, "Modern Architecture: International Exhibition". It presented progressive modern architecture from the previous ten years, the majority from Europe but including six buildings from the US, and the following year the expanded exhibition catalogue was published as The International Style . The name was a curatorial invention; it was not a "movement". Those gathered under its umbrella might have found themselves surprised by their companions (the first name is that of Aalto), but the curators, Henry-Russell Hitchcock, Philip Johnson, and Alfred Barr must have been gratified by the success of their invention, which is still widely used in the US although it never took root in Europe. Barr, writing 25 years after the exhibition, said: "It is still by no means necessary to conclude that the International Style... should be considered the only proper pattern or program for modern architecture", and we may guess that the restless Johnson had abandoned the whole idea much earlier.
The work of the architects of Wilson's "alternative tradition" is quite able to stand on its own without having to be set against an imaginary "dictatorship", and the main protagonists all have their own fat scholarly monographs. The histories of the heroes of European modern architecture continue to be rewritten. The picture that emerges is not the meta-narrative of good and bad guys, or of transnational conspiracies, but of the extraordinarily diverse range of tangled architectures and theories first explored by Reyner Banham in Theory and Design in the First Machine Age and then by Charles Jencks in his provocatively titled Modern Movements in Architecture .
Historians and practitioners of architecture would by now have done well to learn one of the 20th century's lessons presciently articulated by Brecht in his Galileo :
Andrea: Unhappy is the land that has no heroes.
Galileo : No, unhappy is the land that needs heroes.
Christopher Woodward was formerly senior lecturer in architecture, University College London.
Architectural Reflections: Studies in the Philosophy and Practice of Architecture
Author - Colin St John Wilson
ISBN - 0 7190 5704 3
Publisher - Manchester University Press
Price - £19.99
Pages - 240