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The Tyranny of Taste
September 22, 1995

Conventional accounts of architecture and design have approached the subject by examining personalities and buildings. In this book Jules Lubbock follows the progress of economic theories in parallel with politicians' efforts to implement them. He shows the many effects these had on the development of cities, and the complex inter-relationship between state sponsorship of design education and the theorists themselves.

The nature of Lubbock's task and the 400-year period covered here have inevitably forced him to concentrate on those critical periods when theories were in a state of flux. Thus the ideas of A. W. N. Pugin and John Ruskin are explored, whereas those of William Morris and the Arts and Crafts are barely mentioned because they followed in a direct lineage. It is easy to criticise the absence of any mention of, for example, the Adam brothers or Edwin Lutyens, architects whose work has influenced more finished buildings than many of the dry theories explained in this book. But Lubbock's copious notes allow these and all other topics to be pursued with ease back to primary sources.

Some conclusions are startling: in the 16th and 17th centuries Elizabeth I's Chancellor Lord Burghley and the Prime Minister Robert Walpole believed 100 years apart that the court had a responsibility to provide stable local employment and control consumption through the purchasing power of their wealth. Both ministers of state set examples to be followed by the court, by building at Stamford and Houghton Hall respectively, and, although their "Prodigy Houses" may have been paid from the proceeds of corruption, Lubbock maintains that public duty and private gain were not mutually exclusive as Mark Girouard and Lawrence Stone have written.

Increasing industrialisation and international trade created wealth within a new mercantile class who regarded such attitudes as a return to the Middle Ages. Nicholas Barbon and Bernard de Mandeville thought that the forces of greed and fashion should be released and commerce made free. Yet who should decide what constituted vices? The outward appearance of London's townscape became a national concern, when compared disfavourably with Paris. The Earl of Arundel ("one of the four evangelists of our art'', according to Rubens) felt that the state should set an example, believing that a nation's civility could be read from the monumentality of its public architecture. Hence, Inigo Jones was paid to accompany the earl on a grand European tour from 1612-14 to absorb the best cultural ideas available.

It is not surprising that when Jones returned and was appointed to the influential position of surveyor of the king's works he favoured true classical architecture to the mannerism of Michelangelo. His 1618 Act introducing regulations governing new buildings in London was maintained and refined continuously for more than 250 years and was the origin of Georgian London's appearance and form.

The 18th century saw a furious debate about vanity and fashion: Addison through The Spectator pursued Whig objectives where the importance lay not in the outward material objects people acquired so much as the attitude of mind in acquiring them. John Ruskin a century later also believed that the true test of a nation's worth lay in what it consumed, not produced.

All the theories of the economic and moral management of taste are shown to be made ultimately redundant by new inventions, changing fortunes and political agendas. For example, Christopher Dresser's creationist justification for designs based on natural objects, published in 1855, were disproved by Charles Darwin's publication of On the Origin of Species only four years later. Yet this invalidation of his theories did not make Dresser's work less original, influential or successful.

Each generation focuses on aspects that it regards as being of particular importance, but that the next regards as being quaint, such as Inigo Jones believing that Stonehenge was built by the Romans as a civilising influence, and Adolf Loos's worry about Austrian military inferiority. Educators have the difficult role of maintaining a balance between competing theories, often at the expense of seeming unfashionable. Maybe William Hogarth, head of the first school of design at the St Martin's Lane Academy, and Charles Dickens (Hard Times) were right to avoid prescriptive solutions and instead focus on fostering individual imagination. Despite the torrent of advice emanating from John Ruskin, ultimately he believed design could not be taught, only the skill of drawing.

The lack of any conclusions or remedies for our current problems brings the book to an abrupt and tantalising end after the revelation of the sumptuary laws brought in during the second world war. Maybe Lubbock was correct in not mixing analysis with polemic.

N. E. Bridges is a chartered architect practising in London.

The Tyranny of Taste: The Politics of Architecture and Design in Britain 1550 - 1960

Author - Jules Lubbock
ISBN - 0 300 05889 6
Publisher - Yale University Press
Price - £35.00
Pages - 412

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